I have been eagerly anticipating August 5 for about a month. Why, you ask? August 5 was the purported release date of the next installment in my favorite early 19th century spy series by Lauren Willig. So upon returning from vacation, the last little bit of my Barnes and Noble gift card ready to be spent, I was absolutely thrilled to find that it was actually in stores a day early and that I could pick it up that night!
The Mark of the Midnight Manzailla follows Sally Fitzhugh, sassy and spunky younger sister of our favorite good-humored and slightly befuddled Turnip Fitzhugh (who is now the proud father of his daughter, Parsnip), and Lucien, the Duke of Belliston. Lucien has finally returned to England after years away in New Orleans, ready to avenge his parents’ deaths and bring their murderer to justice. The only problem is that no one else believes that they were murdered…oh, and everything thinks that Lucien is a vampire. (This rumor is fueled by the runaway success of Miss Gwen’s recently published gothic and utterly ridiculous vampire romance, The Convent of Otranto by A Lady. Twilight was 200 years behind the times.) Sally, who puts no stock in ridiculous rumors, decides to help Lucien in his quest, especially once a beautiful girl, made up to look like Lucien’s mother, is found dead on the balcony at a ball, fang bites in her neck and drained of blood. The plot thickens when the threats become more frequent and Sally herself is threatened, leading to the possibility that the fearsome Moriarty-esque French spy The Black Tulip has returned. The supporting cast includes Turnip and his family; Miss Gwen (now Mrs. Reid), Lizzy Reid, and Agnes Wolliston, all returning from the previous novel; and Sally’s new pet stoat, Lady Florence. This time the flower in question is not another floral themed spy but an unassumingly deadly plant from Martinique that was the cause of Lucien’s parents’ deaths and continues to pop up in alarming ways.
As I mentioned before, Willig spins a mighty good yarn. Some of the language is a bit tired and repetitive in places, and I feel that at times well-developed characters tend to turn into caricatures of themselves when described from another’s perspective. Additionally, Eloise and Colin’s modern day exploits were rather uninteresting this time around and felt like an intrusion into the greater narrative. However, I found the plot itself to be more inventive than the last book, a return to form, if you will. I will also chalk some of the writing issues up to the fact that Willig wrote and edited this immediately after having her first child. She had a lot going on. Regardless of any flaws, though, Willig maintains her ability to send up the lurid adventure, romance, and spy novels of the late 18th and early 19th century with humor, zest, and affection.
No one will mistake this for Pulitzer Prize-winning material, but that is not what Willig is going for. While I thought that Eloise’s sections didn’t add much this time around, I also feel that this book is probably the most autobiographical. Essentially Willig tells her readers how she went from historian and law student to author of fiction via Eloise’s dissertation writing experience. What this does is drive home how much love Willig has for her characters, a love that spills over into her writing. Her work is witty, intelligent, humorous, meticulously researched, and just plain fun, both for her to write and us to read. The Pink Carnation series will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s definitely mine!