From the BLURB:
What fortune awaited sweet, timid Percy Parker at Athens Academy? Considering how few of Queen Victoria’s Londoners knew of it, the great Romanesque fortress was dreadfully imposing, and little could Percy guess what lay inside. She had never met the powerful and mysterious Professor Alexi Rychman, knew nothing of the growing shadow, the Ripper and other supernatural terrors against which his coterie stood guard. She knew simply that she was different, haunted, with her snow-white hair, pearlescent skin and uncanny gifts. But this arched stone doorway offered a portal to a new life, an education far from the convent—and an invitation to an intimate yet dangerous dance at the threshold of life and death…
This is the first book in Leanna Renee Hieber’s ‘Strangely Beautiful’ series.
I read so many amazing reviews of this book., but I’m sorry to say I didn’t love it like I thought I would…
I’m not at all surprised to learn that Ms. Hieber has a background in theatre writing. She definitely has a flare for the dramatic and a talent for writing action. So many scenes in ‘Strangely Beautiful’ are set on a grand scale, with intricate detail and they read magnificently because of Hieber’s penchant for writing vividly and grandiose. Her theatre background also makes for wonderful dialogue – when combined with Hieber’s degree in ‘Victorian era’ studies it means her characters are each imbued with charismatic speeches that strictly adhere to Victorian speech patterns.
“Something terrible from another time,” Percy breathed, unable to focus. “Something’s after me, and none of it’s what we think…”
“What isn’t? Percy, stay – look at me.”
“Hell is not down. It’s sideways,” Percy murmured, and her eyelids closed.
“Percy?” There was no answer. Marianne felt for her friend’s pulse, terrified, and found it racing. “Dear God, Persephone Parker, what is happening to you?”
Hieber has also quite masterfully woven Greek Mythology throughout this 18th century story. It makes her book very unique, and the plot a twisty-turny, fanciful ride.
I was sort of torn about the character of Percy Parker. On the one hand I loved the fact that she is an utterly unique leading lady. Percy is an albino, and in 18th century England that causes quite a stir. What I didn’t like about Percy was how timid and self-effacing she was. She grew up in a convent, and her strange paleness has made her quite an outcast – I understand that she wouldn’t be ‘little miss outgoing’. But she is so anxious and shy and has such low self-esteem that at times I found her quite annoying – and I think Hieber was overdoing Percy’s innocence to the point of making her cloying. At one point Percy says her favorite fairytale is ‘Beauty & the Beast’, because she identifies with the Beast – I probably should have felt my heart bleed, instead I rolled my eyes.
I did appreciate that her leading man, Alexi Rychman, calls Percy out on her timidity – I applauded him every time he told her to stop apologizing/thanking him profusely.
I was also torn about Alexi Rychman. I didn’t think he was a very fleshed out character – I found him to be quite one-dimensional. True, this is the first book in a series and there has to be room for growth in subsequent books. But Alexi came across as such a typical, broody, gothic romance hero. What I did like about him though, was that his friends (‘The Guard’) have him completely pinned. His friends, Michael and Elijah, compare Alexi to the Bard’s infamously gloomy hero – Hamlet. There’s one scene in which Elijah swears he can hear Beethoven’s fifth symphony every time Alexi enters a room – and I cackled along with their bantering because it was so, so *true*.
I loved the secondary characters in this book. There’s a love triangle within The Guard, and the group also has a typical prankster (Elijah). I thought the secondary characters were individually strong with very distinct voices and their group banter was absolutely wonderful.
I didn’t like the ending. A whole lot happened in a short span of time and then it was all conveniently verbally summarized by one of the characters. It seemed a bit sloppy and slap-dash, to me. The last few pages also turned quite schmaltzy and overly romantic. Admittedly one of the features of traditional gothic literature is a certain level of romanticism – so perhaps Hieber just wanted to remain true to her overarching themes? But for me, it was quite a big love-fest dump right at the end, which I appreciated even less because there wasn’t enough of that romance peppered throughout the book. The only reason I even knew that Percy and Alexi had feelings for one another was because Percy kept *telling* me. I didn’t read it in their interactions, it was only because Percy kept prattling on about Alexi’s beautiful voice and imposing appearance – otherwise I don’t think I would have guessed that his stoic exterior was hiding burning passions and vice versa.
This is a very hard book to place, genre-wise. On the spine ‘Leisure Books’ labels the book as being ‘Historical Fantasy’ – but that discounts the heavy gothic themes and the fact that the storyline revolves a great deal around Greek mythology. I think that’s part of the reason why I struggled to get into this book – it took me so long to figure out exactly what it was I was reading. For a while I thought it might be a ‘steampunk’ – partly because it reminded me of Gail Carriger. Then I thought it might be strictly fantasy. Mention of Jack the Ripper early on had me guessing whether it was a murder mystery. Even when I finished the book I wasn’t sure exactly how I’d sum it up, except to say there’s a whole lot going on.
I stopped-and-started reading this book about 5 times before finally reading it all the way through. I just couldn’t get into it. Beautiful as the writing is (Hieber clearly knows her craft) and as grandiose as the plot was - I just struggled to get into this one and enjoy it like others have. It’s not necessarily a reflection of the writing; it might just be that I wasn’t in the mood for this mish-mash genre book.