An Unexpected Peril is the sixth “Veronica Speedwell” Victorian-Era-set mystery Raybourn has penned and as solid an addition to one of my favourite series as any. While the mystery component didn’t engage as well as the previous two volumes, the marvelous A Dangerous Collaboration and A Murderous Relation, Veronica and lover-and-fellow-sleuth, Stoker, were as charming, sharp, and funny as ever, with, on Veronica’s part, a tenderness and vulnerability that made me like her even more. As for Stoker: his candy-eating, Keats-quoting, animal-obsessed nerdiness, broad shoulders, and good looks, are easy to love. His love for Veronica and one heart-stopping avowal in this volume would make him irresistible to any romance reader. But first, to the mystery, best recounted by the novel’s descriptor:
January 1889. As the newest member of the Curiosity Club–an elite society of brilliant, intrepid women–Veronica Speedwell is excited to put her many skills to good use. As she assembles a memorial exhibition for pioneering mountain climber Alice Baker-Greene, Veronica discovers evidence that the recent death was not a tragic climbing accident but murder. Veronica and her natural historian beau, Stoker, tell the patron of the exhibit, Princess Gisela of Alpenwald, of their findings. With Europe on the verge of war, Gisela’s chancellor, Count von Rechstein, does not want to make waves–and before Veronica and Stoker can figure out their next move, the princess disappears. Having noted Veronica’s resemblance to the princess, von Rechstein begs her to pose as Gisela for the sake of the peace treaty that brought the princess to England. Veronica reluctantly agrees to the scheme. She and Stoker must work together to keep the treaty intact while navigating unwelcome advances, assassination attempts, and Veronica’s own family–the royalty who has never claimed her.
That final element, the family “who has never claimed her” and her love for Stoker make for a new facet to Veronica: the young woman who never belonged suddenly belongs to someone, the child who yearned for family has it in her grasp. But the years of solitude, solitary adventure, and a certain steeling of the heart have rendered Veronica uncomfortable with attachment, and Stoker, loving, funny, astute, gorgeous Stoker, drives a stake through the heart of Veronica’s strikes-out-on-her-own existence and scares her more than any villain. And this is the best part of An Unexpected Peril.
I was, at first, quite engrossed by the mystery: Stoker and Veronica’s involvement with the exhibition, the murdered mountaineering adventuress, and the kingdom’s aloof, but attractive princess, the sycophants and hangers-on who surround her drew me in. Yet the mystery, after the initial excitement, lumbered along; by the second-half, I didn’t much care how it would be resolved, and when it was, the resolution proved abrupt and anticlimactic.
What pleased and delighted were Veronica and Stoker: vulnerably new at love without losing, on Veronica’s part, her acerbic wit; and, on Stoker’s, his charming grumpiness. Over the course of the series, however, Raybourn has slowly and surely and finely imprinted onto their characters, depth of maturity and feeling. Having consummated their attraction and admitted mutual affection, Veronica and Stoker navigate not its heady newness, but the realization this is no fleeting love affair but the makings of a life-long commitment. Needless to say Stoker takes to love like an otter to water; Veronica, on the other hand, flounders, not in her love for Stoker, but in realizing he, and others, friends she’s come to love, are necessary to her; early on, Veronica admits: “Between her departure and that of Tiberius, I felt abandoned by my friends, a state of affairs I would not have credited only a year before. I was accustomed to living my life unfettered as one of my beloved butterflies, and these new bonds of attachment brought with them not only connection and warmth but a dreadful sensation of loss when my companions were not present.” Veronica’s love for Stoker is no less strange to her: “For now that I had joined myself in affection to Stoker, I could no longer run from myself as I had once so blithely done. I must, instead, sit and face my demons.”
Veronica only possesses one fear: that of the solitary who is no longer alone, counting a great love and friends and realizing she is frightened of losing what she didn’t know she needed. Nothing is farther from Stoker’s mind and yet, Veronica experiences uncertainty, doubt, and her vulnerability has Raybourn pen one of the great love avowals in romance fiction: “A sudden dart of fear lanced my heart. It thudded awkwardly in my chest. “I would hope that I am counted among the good that has happened to you,” I said, summoning a smile. He did not return it. He leant forward a little and cupped my chin in the breadth of his palm. “You are not.” The thud in my chest became a hammering, slow and painful on the ribs. “Oh.” He went on. “You are not among the good that has happened to me. You are the best of all that I have known … ” What follows, dear reader, must be read to be savored and enjoyed because there is much, much more of what Stoker has to say to Veronica.
It didn’t matter, in the end, this wasn’t Raybourn’s most compelling mystery. The call of “Excelsior” to those who love the series as much as I do is still strong. And to those who haven’t yet, you have the pleasure of starting with Veronica and Stoker’s meeting and first adventure in A Curious Beginning and plunging into a glorious glom. For this reader, with her companion in reading adventures, Miss Austen, An Unexpected Peril offers “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Deanna Raybourn’s An Unexpected Peril is published by Berkley. It was released on March 2nd and may be found, along with the series’ first five novels, at your preferred vendor. I received an e-galley, from Berkley, via Netgalley.