Daughters of Night, the second novel by Laura Sheperd-Robinson, starts with a murder and develops into a dynamic and thrilling story of deception and power. Things aren’t always as they seem after Caroline Corsham (Caro), a character pulled from Shepherd-Robinson's 2019 debut novel Blood & Sugar, discovers a woman called Lucia dying in the bowers of the Vauxhall Pleasure Garden. This dead woman, her true identity, and the secrets that she holds have the potential to crumble the upper crust of Georgian society. The novel takes its reader on a journey through the manors, public houses, and into the dirtied underbelly of eighteenth-century London. Caro, no stranger to secrets, hires Peregrine Child, a thief-taker, to find the truth behind the mysterious murder of the woman in the bowers. Together, they discover the truth behind their own affairs and the selfish and deceptive tendencies of those closest to them and those who are really in control. What they uncover has much deeper implications and is more powerful than they could have ever imagined.
Full disclosure, this is not a book I’d normally read. There’s something about novels set before the 20th century that I find hard to digest. My literary palette could be seen as not in tune or perhaps, to some standards, unrefined. Over the past few years, I’ve fallen into a habit of helpless consumption of pulpy crime novels. With time on my hands for a thick read and a hunger for a good mystery, this book, clocking in at nearly six-hundred pages, felt like a good choice. But before offering up some of my issues with the book, I do want to make it clear that I really enjoyed it. It was fun and engaging, which I think is a hard feat to accomplish with such a long book.
Daughters of Night is chock-full with characters. There’s a gut reaction I have to opening a book and immediately seeing a list of characters. Often I don’t end up reading the book because I decide it’s too hokey. For this book, however, it was absolutely necessary. If the list at the beginning weren’t included, I would’ve been lost and unable to find my way through the slew of characters without compiling a similar list of my own. To read this book, I recommend putting a permanent bookmark on that page for quick and easy reference. My main qualm with Daughters of Night is that there are just so many characters! Nearly forty characters are included in the list at the beginning. Sorting and remembering these characters was definitely a mental undertaking. And I wonder if some of them could’ve not been made into conglomerate characters, because they definitely ended up becoming so in my head regardless of my constant flipping back and forth. But, is that just me being a lazy reader? There’s a possibility.
If books are, in a sense, meant to reflect some sort of relatable reality or truth then of course it is logical to have a lot of people, as we do in real life. But, there’s a valid question of what is excusable maximalist behaviour. How many characters are too many? What can a writer reasonably expect from a reader? How hard should a reader have to work to remember who is who? But then again, in a book about confusion and deception and unknown identities, maybe that’s actually the point, and the book did what the writer intended.
Structurally, the book consists of two timelines that are split into three “books” and eighty-two chapters. The chapters aren’t very long, and I found that made the book much more digestible and easy to pick back up when I put it down. The fictive present spans from August 30, the night of the murder in the bowers, to September 12, 1782 through an alternating third-person perspective of mostly Caroline Corsham or Peregrine Child. The secondary flashback timeline takes place over the early winter and spring of the same year and is told in a similar point of view but from a young maid named Pamela. Due to this structure, there are times when the psychic distance can feel off-kilter. The shifting perspective means that in one chapter Caroline could be referred to as Mrs. Corsham only to become Caro in the next. Peregrine Child could be Mr. Child, or Perry depending on the perceived narrator. There are moments when this is jarring and confusing, especially considering a cast of over three dozen characters, all of whom have different relationships with one another and therefore refer to each other differently. But perhaps that just goes back to my previous point about the number of characters.
The descriptions and language used in this book are impressive, though at times, it can be a bit much, and I found myself doubling back to try and take in everything so I didn’t miss anything that might later be relevant. However, moments of feeling overwhelmed by the sprawling plot, which is bound to happen in a book like this, can evaporate when given vivid and grounding images like a woman selling mouse pelts as eyebrows, letting her dog lick vermin blood from her palms. Or the way in which Peregrine Child notices a woman struggle to undo the buttons of her gloves.
It’s clear the amount of research that went into writing this book is nothing short of extraordinary. The care and attention to detail that so clearly went into writing this book deserve to be recognized. Historical fiction is a hard genre to write well. A writer has to be aware of their allegiance to the research and the past while staying true to their creative spirit and the story that they’re trying to tell. It’s a game of balance. As the book progresses, eighteenth-century London becomes a character in its own right. The city’s personality and distinctive gritty and opulent nature are presented in such a way that as a reader you’re never seconding guessing the setting. The neighbourhoods and boroughs and their unique nuances hold significant meaning to the characters in very real and earnest ways, and so that meaning is then passed onto the reader.
I want to applaud Daughters of Night for its intention and ultimately its execution in giving voice to women who the likes of which throughout history would’ve been silenced. The wives, the maids, the orphans, the muses, and the whores. The book explores the believability of women, a theme that feels unfortunately forever relevant. Shepherd-Robinson offers a narrative where men aren’t the heroes they seem to be, where women aren’t swept off their feet by masculinity alone, and where women are more than just a pretty face or a hymen to break. In this story, women have power.
If you strip this novel down, it’s really about value. Throughout the chapters, the questions of value and worth are brought up time and time again. How much is a ring worth? A girl’s virginity? A painting? A cure? A man’s honour? A secret? A woman’s life? When reading this book, it’s hard not to think about our own society and the price that it places on people and on status. So while I recommend you read Daughters of Night because it’s entertaining and satisfying, I also think that you should read it because it gives us as readers the opportunity to think about how we are valued and how and who we value. And that, I think, is incredibly important, especially now.
Daughters of Night
By Laura Shepherd-Robinson
592 pages. January 2021.