Here's the blurb for the novel:
After her brother is killed in the Crimean War, innocent young Oriel Pembroke finds herself alone in the world. Disowned by the cruel father who has always despised her, she has nowhere to turn until she is taken under the wing of a glamorous relative she never knew: the former Duchess of Ellsworth, who has scandalized society by remarrying soon after her first husband’s death. At the opulent seaside estate of Ellsmere, Oriel thinks she has found a safe haven—but the darkly handsome young duke, Herron, believes otherwise. Haunted by the death of his father, he suspects that Ellsmere is sheltering a murderer. Even as Oriel falls in love with the duke, she begins to fear that his grief and suspicion are turning to madness. When dangerous accidents start to befall both Herron and Oriel, however, she realizes that someone may be trying to stop them from discovering the truth about the past. And when her father comes back into her life, she learns that he may hold the answer to the most horrifying secret of all...
Plot/Setting: 4/5--This element has to come first simply because the novel is the tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, re-imagined and improved in some ways--at least from certain perspectives. I don't want to give too much away, but it is as good as it sounds. Echoes of Shakespeare's great play abound. From Yorick to a Victorian Hamlet to possible murder, it's all there. The skill of blending these tales makes the novel a good read on one level, but even readers who are basically ignorant of the plot points, characters, and philosophical questions of Hamlet will enjoy the story. Oriel Pembroke finds herself in a terrible situation when she is disowned by her father after her brother's death. Family secrets begin to unravel from that moment on, and she finds herself at Ellsmere with her long dead mother's family.
I have taken off one nitpicky star for a particular plotting aspect of the novel. I find the instances of Herron in Oriel's bedroom sleeping and talking night after night unbelievable or a step too far for the time period and social conventions. I understand why DeWees chose to do this (echoes of Ophelia and all that... the heroine doesn't use the best judgment), but it takes away from the story. This detail stands out to me, perhaps, because I've been edited for my own historical gothic romances in terms of propriety and standard behavior between the sexes. It is my opinion that most young women of this era would have thought more about the seriousness of having a man in one's bedchamber in the 1850s.
As for setting, Ellsmere is spooky and dangerous, but it's the shadowy corners of the human mind that are most frightening. The big questions of life and death are asked, and the answers can be unsettling. Imagery of death abounds with skulls, skeletons, murder and more, and Herron's moodiness is a palpable influence throughout the novel. It lends a dark cast to the whole of it. He's a bit bipolar and 100% Byronic.
The truly great aspect of the novel is that I was still guessing about what Oriel would do, whom she would love nearly until the end. There are several twists, and just knowing the story of Hamlet isn't enough to figure out what's really going to happen, whodunnit, and so on.
Characterization: 4.5/5-- The characters are quite well drawn. Oriel Pembroke is the heroine--a sort of artless Ophelia who still wears her hair in a braid. She is a heroine who grows and changes throughout the novel. Herron, the dark and enigmatic duke, is tortured and oh so handsome of course. Charles, Herron's cousin, plays a nice foil to Herron. I won't give more than that away. The minor characters are well drawn, too.
Literary Elements: 5/5-- From Herron pacing the floors at night to a variation on the "To sleep..." speech from Hamlet, this novel is satisfying on all levels.
Romantic Elements: 4/5-- I find the novel quite romantic. We are sucked into Herron's struggle, fear, and doubt as he questions whether his father was murdered by his uncle Lord Claude and what knowledge his mother, Gwendolyn, Duchess of Ellsworth, had in it. Oriel's doubt and affection is torn between Herron and Charles in a way that reminds me of Mary Stewart's novel, The Ivy Tree. Let me share one passage where Herron is described so you can get a feel for the lush prose in the novel:
Herron stood in the doorway, lounging against the jamb, making no move to come further into the room. Now that he no longer had a shadow over him I could get a true idea of his appearance, and I could not keep myself from staring. He was almost inhumanly beautiful. His face tapered sharply from wide cheekbones, lending his features a faunlike appearance. The fierce angularity of his bones was balanced by his mouth, sweetly curved and generous. Black hair swept in unruly waves, slightly longer than fashion, from a high, clear brow, and eyes whose color shifted brown and gold like sunlight off the drowned leaves in a forest pool were fringed with long, soft lashes; his eyebrows were uncompromising slashes of black. He was surveying the company, those remarkable eyes moving restlessly. The combination of softness and strength in his face was arresting, and I knew I was not the only woman at the table to stare.
Amanda DeWees. Sea of Secrets (1191-1195 and 1188-1191).
Sounds like a hero we'd all like to meet in a dark hallway, doesn't it?
Rating: 4+ stars ****+
Do yourself a favor and run to pick this novel up. It's one of the best historical gothic romances I've read in a long time. I'm looking forward to more from Dr. DeWees.
Sea of Secrets on Amazon. The novel will be just .99 May 19th and 20th (That's tomorrow!). That's a steal for hours of enjoyment and a great gothic romance.
Amanda DeWees' website
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