You know how sometimes you read the opening line or two of a book, and not only does it hook you immediately, but you can just tell it’s going to be a great read? Well, Night of a Thousand Stars is one of those books.
It opens with Penelope Hammond, step-daughter of a rich American industrialist running out on her wedding to a stodgy viscount’s heir with the help of a rather attractive and delightfully unflappable curate. He introduces himself as Sebastian Cantrip, and agrees to drive her to her father’s house in Devon. On the way, Penelope explains that she prefers to be called by her nickname “Poppy”, and that her last name isn’t actually Hammond, because her stepfather has never legally adopted her. Her actual last name is March.
Which is where I might have squealed, just a little bit.
Because – as anyone who has read any of the books in Ms Raybourn’s series of Victorian mysteries will know – March is the maiden name of the eponymous Lady Julia; and as Poppy’s father turns out to be none other than Eglamour, or “Plum” March, it makes Lady Julia Poppy’s aunt.
Having safely deposited Poppy with her father, the obliging curate leaves the following morning, which, for some reason she can’t fathom, leaves her feeling a little flat.
Poppy’s parents are divorced and while her step-father treats her as one of the family, she has never really felt as though she belonged. She was the same at school, her quick wit and adventurous nature getting her into trouble more often than not. She tries to live up to her mother’s expectations of what a young lady should be and gets engaged to a worthy – if dull – young man, but no matter what she does, she just doesn’t do “conventional”. Reading her aunt’s journals (the first of which is entitled Silent in the Grave), something finally clicks for Poppy, and she determines it’s time to be herself rather than try to fit in with other people’s expectations. She wants to have a “little adventure”, and decides to start by going to London – where she will have to put on a brazen front to brave the gossip – in order to find Mr Cantrip so that she can thank him properly for his assistance.
Returning to the church from which she ran away, she is disturbed to discover that the curate is in fact a Mr. Hobbs, who tells her that the name Cantrip is actually an archaic Scottish word meaning “trick”. Something is obviously not right, which makes Poppy – who has started to believe that perhaps Sebastian is in some sort of trouble - even more determined to track him down.
Her investigations eventually lead her to discover that Sebastian – whose real last name is Fox – has travelled to the Holy Land and Poppy must find a way to follow him there.
Night of a Thousand Stars is a companion story to Ms Raybourn’s previous book, City of Jasmine although it’s not necessary to have read that first in order to understand this one. To say too much about the plot will spoil it, so I’ll just say that it’s an eventful, fast moving adventure in which the author expertly balances danger and treachery with humour and deadpan wit. It is a little frustrating that the central characters spend a large portion of the first half of the book apart, but there is much to enjoy in Ms Raybourn’s attention to detail, which is very impressive, and in the writing, which just sparkles with wit and has a real “twenties feel” about it – by which I mean that it’s infused with that zest for life and desire to push boundaries that seems to have been commonly felt by so many young people after the horrors of the First World War.
The descriptions of Damascus –the sights, sounds, and smells of the souks and streets - bring the city vividly to life, and the author also includes relevant details concerning the precarious political situation of the time, which are both relevant to the story and interesting in their own right.
There is, of course, a nice dash of romance running through the story. The reunion between Poppy and Sebastian is splendidly tongue-in-cheek, with Sebastian turning up looking like a desert prince, all billowing black robes and tall boots (swoon!) … The guy is Errol Flynn, James Bond and Indiana Jones rolled into one and is, for my money, the sexiest Vicar ever written! The dialogue is full of humour and the couple bickers in the manner of the best screwball comedies. But it’s also clear that they trust each other implicitly and will do whatever is necessary to keep each other safe. Ms. Raybourn doesn’t write explicit sex scenes, but the sexual tension between the pair is tremendous and done without repetitious mental lusting over exposed muscular body parts. (Not to say there isn’t any… it’s just not overdone.)
The only reason this isn’t a straight “A” book is that the denouement seemed a little too “pat”. Many loose ends are tied up, and co-incidences explained, but it didn’t quite work for me - perhaps because it’s just too perfect. I suspect I may well be in the minority in that one, and I certainly enjoyed the way Poppy turned the tables on Sebastian at the end.
Night of a Thousand Stars is a thoroughly enjoyable read, and the characterisation is excellent all round. Poppy is probably the most strongly drawn character, but then it’s her story and hers is the greatest emotional journey as she gradually learns to believe in herself and takes charge of own life. I loved the book, and have no hesitation in recommending it very highly indeed.
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