Lady Helen Wrexhall is 18 and nervous about her imminent presentation to the Queen. As her parents died when Helen was young, and there is scandal attached to her mother (she is believed to have been a traitor), Helen and her brother have been raised by their aunt and uncle. She desperately hopes that no one is going to mention the scandal connected to her mother, but can't resist the urge to take her mother's miniature with her to the presentation either, wanting something to remind her of her parents on her big day. Before she has a chance to see the Queen, the infamous Earl of Carlston (rumoured to have murdered his wife), a distant relative of her family, deftly steals the miniature from her, but promises to return it the next day. Helen is also shocked when the Queen not only mentions her mother, but seems to imply that the rumours about her may not all have been true.
When Lord Carlston comes to call the next day, accompanied by Beau Brummel (making Helen's aunt slightly less mortified by the whole thing), he actually flings her mother's miniature at her when no one is watching. Reacting with lighting reflexes she didn't suspect she had, Helen snatches it out of the air before it hits her face and is deeply puzzled by the whole encounter. In the last year, she's noticed herself going through changes. Her hearing is more acute, her eyesight is sharper. Lord Carlston clearly knows something about her mother, and suspects things about Helen too, since he is willing to test her in such odd ways. What connection does a man with such a black reputation have with the deceased Lady Catherine, and what could he possibly want from Helen?
Helen's aunt and uncle wants her to have nothing to do with Lord Carlston, and her uncle would prefer it if she denounce her mother entirely and claim publically that Helen is glad that she died when she did. Both of them want Helen to behave demurely and make a good match. That her brother's best friend, the Duke of Selburn, seems taken with her is certainly a good sign. Yet Lord Carlston reveals to Helen that she has rare and unusual gifts, and that she needs to be trained in the use of her powers to help save the country from horrible soul-sucking beings. He shows her a side of London that she never suspected existed and clearly has support in the highest places. Helen begins to sneak out to be trained by the scandalous earl, but just as she is beginning to trust him, a letter from her dead mother is delivered into her hands, making her unsure of whom to trust. Her mother offers her a choice from beyond the grave, Helen could give up her dangerous monster-hunting destiny, but the cost could be higher than she's willing to pay.
In an unusual twist on a chosen one story, Helen discovers that she is what is known as a Reclaimer, only one of eight in all of Britain, and the only woman of the bunch. Because her mother was also one, she is a direct descendant, something very unusual, and there are those that believe her existence is a portent for darker things to come. The Reclaimers fight the Deceivers, horrible soul-sucking monsters, that can move from host to host, and look just like ordinary humans when they're not sucking the life force out of their unsuspecting victims. The Reclaimers can see them using special lenses, and Helen is able to see them when holding her mother's miniature portrait against her bare skin.
The Reclaimers are part of what is known as The Dark Days Club, a secret branch of the Home Office, and the reason Helen's mother was considered a traitor is because she wanted to stop her work with them and leave the country. Lord Carlston, who was still young when Lady Catherine and her husband, the Earl of Hayden, died, wants to mentor Lady Helen and teach her how to use her special gifts. When Helen discovers from her mother's letter that the Reclaimers get slowly more and more corrupted by the evil they fight and that they frequently succumb to madness and lose any ability for love or affection, she worries about her future and considers using her mother's amulet to remove her powers once and for all. She is torn between her wish for a normal Regency life, with balls, dress fittings, flirting and a possible future with the Duke of Selburn and a life fighting dark forces, saving lives, making a real difference and spending more time with the enigmatic Earl of Carlston (who she doesn't believe actually murdered his wife, although he's not telling what really happened).
There is a lot of things I liked about this book, but it is longer and the story is WAY slower than it needs to be. It is both a positive and a negative that Alison Goodman is clearly a huge Regency nerd and has done meticulous detail into all aspects of the society. Sadly, in what I like to call Diana Gabaldon syndrome, she cannot help but reveal all of said research in often painful and tedious detail. I really did like that there is a lot more attention to the time period than is common, and certainly a lot more than I was expecting from a young adult novel. Yet when it bogs down the plot because I keep having to read about all the mundanities of Helen's existence, I get frustrated. The pacing of the story is especially slow in the first half of the book, and if Narfna hadn't so highly recommended the book, I might have considered giving up on it.
Goodman does a good job with Helen as our heroine, she's intelligent and strong-willed, and despite her uncle's disapproval, opposes him in quiet and small ways. Despite being the daughter, and sister, of an earl, Helen treats her personal maid Darby with kindness and Darby, in return, is fiercely loyal and protective of her mistress. One of the subplots of the book involve the two of them investigating the disappearance of one of the maids of the household. While Helen's uncle is pretty much completely horrible (someone in a review I saw, probably on Goodreads, compared him to Uncle Vernon in Harry Potter, and that's pretty much spot on as descriptions go), her aunt is kind and well-meaning, if worried about public opinion and the family's reputation. Helen's brother Andrew, the current Earl of Hayden is really quite dull and also very worried about Helen and the family's reputation. He cannot understand why she keeps behaving in such a hoydenish fashion and why she seems to end up in Lord Carlston's company, especially when his BFF, the Duke of Selburn seems interested in making her his wife.
I find the main conflict in this book intriguing, and wish that it had gotten to the action-packed and supernatural evil fighting parts sooner. I really do appreciate the attention to historical detail, but not when it makes the book at least a third longer than it needs to be. I hope to God that Goodman doesn't continue with the vague love triangle that she has introduced in this book (because I find them tedious in the extreme) and look forward to reading about the continuing adventures of Lady Helen, Darby and the hopefully unfairly maligned Lord Carlston (I refuse to believe that there isn't a good explanation for his wife's disappearance) in future books, in which Lady Helen herself hopefully fights more evil instead of just learning about it.
To anyone interested in the trope of young noblewoman in Regency England fighting evil monsters and trying to juggle suitors, balls and dress fittings, I also highly recommend Colleen Gleason's five books about Victoria Gardella, in the Gardella Vampire Hunters series. I read them all back in 2008-2009 and they are now all available in e-book format.
Judging a book by its cover: I like the understated elegance of this cover. The squiggly font implies history and possibly adventure, and the dark colours add to the atmosphere. The girl in the distance, beautifully attired with her lace parasol, the light through the trees, the lace edging suggesting you are viewing the scene from behind a curtain, it all works for me. The other cover for this book (I think it's the UK edition) is a lot more garish and I really don't like the cover model they have portraying either of the main characters of the book. I much prefer this one.