In 1861 London, Violet Morgan is struggling to establish a good reputation for the undertaking business that her husband has largely abandoned. She provides comfort for the grieving, advises them on funeral fashion and etiquette, and arranges funerals.
Unbeknownst to his wife, Graham, who has nursed a hatred of America since his grandfather soldiered for Great Britain in the War of 1812, becomes involved in a scheme to sell arms to the South. Meanwhile, Violet receives the commission of a lifetime: undertaking the funeral for a friend of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. But her position remains precarious, especially when Graham disappears and she begins investigating a series of deaths among the poor. And the closer she gets to the truth, the greater the danger for them both…
I actually have Christine Trent's first novel, The Queen's Dollmaker, languishing somewhere in Mt. TBR, and I've added her others to my list over the years, and now I wish I hadn't waited so long to read her because I was very impressed with Lady of Ashes. It's a really well-written tale that combines a lot of my favorite historical fiction elements into a gripping read. I'm not going to say too much about the plot because I don't want to risk giving anything away, and it has a lot going on with plenty of intrigue and drama in the Morgans' personal and professional lives, set against the backdrop of an England in a bit of turmoil as the American Civil War rages on and begins to affect them and as the nation faces its greatest period of mourning.
The writing style is very descriptive, which makes for a denser read, and it took me awhile to get used to all the point of view switches, but it soon became apparent that a tight plot was falling into place, and the use of several historical figures' points of view really helped to bring the political and historical climate into focus. I haven't read much about what was going on elsewhere in the world during the American Civil War, and I thought it was fascinating to read about it from across the pond, from the outside looking in, getting a sense of how the English viewed the conflict and how careful England's leaders had to be as they walked a tightrope between the Union and the Confederacy. I really loved the way the story weaved a lot of different aspects of this period in history with both real and fictional characters. It was also a wonderful portrait of Victorian society at the time, especially their obsession with the dead and the myriad rules and customs for mourning.
I was really invested in Violet's character; she's a heroine who is strong and driven but is still realistically defined by the times she lives in. Though she is a pioneering woman, thriving as a female in a man's profession, she is doing so in a time when society frowns on working women, and she struggles to balance her career with maintaining a semblance of "wifely characteristics." I really felt for her, watching her marriage crumble while her business as an undertaker flourished, and then watching her attempt to survive the fallout from her husband's messes with graceful stoicism, all the while caring for the dead with compassion and reverence and professional integrity. And then, as if she didn't already have enough to deal with, she picks up on a pattern of suspicious deaths in the city and unwittingly places herself and those she loves in danger.
This was one of those novels that grabbed me and got under my skin, and I had to keep fighting myself from turning to the last page to see who was still around at the end! It's also one of those novels that takes a little time to set the stage and builds up to a slow burn until you suddenly realize you've gotten to a point where you can't put it down. My only real complaint is that the last hundred pages or so were a real roller coaster ride and I felt a bit yanked around, but all's well that ends well, and the ending, though brief, was very satisfying. I believe this book is the first in a planned series, and if so I'll be in line to read the next one. Lady of Ashes is a Victorian mystery that's a bit heavier on the history than others I've read, and that combination of historical events and people impacting the story, intrigue, danger, emotional drama, and of course, some romance, makes for a sharp, compelling, and exciting read.
My Rating: 4 Stars out of 5
Lady of Ashes is on a blog tour! Christine Trent will be here on Friday with an interview and an international giveaway! Click here to view the full tour schedule. Click here to visit Christine's website.