May 24, 2011
320 pages, Athenum
Agnes Wilkins is standing in front of an Egyptian mummy, about to make the first cut into the wrappings, about to unlock ancient (and not-so-ancient) history.
Maybe you think this girl is wearing a pith helmet with antique dust swirling around her.
Maybe you think she is a young Egyptologist who has arrived in Cairo on camelback.
Maybe she would like to think that too. Agnes Wilkins dreams of adventures that reach beyond the garden walls, but reality for a seventeen-year-old debutante in 1815 London does not allow for camels—or dust, even. No, Agnes can only see a mummy when she is wearing a new silk gown and standing on the verdant lawns of Lord Showalter’s estate, with chaperones fussing about and strolling sitar players straining to create an exotic “atmosphere” for the first party of the season.
This is the start of it all, Agnes’s debut season, the pretty girl parade that offers only ever-shrinking options: home, husband, and high society. It’s also the start of something else, because the mummy Agnes unwraps isn’t just a mummy. It’s a host for a secret that could unravel a new destiny—unleashing mystery, an international intrigue, and possibly a curse in the bargain.
This, right here, is the type of book I want to write when I grow up.
With a seamless mesh of humor, authentic historical facts and adventure, Bradbury weaves the story of Agnes Wilkins, a young girl living in the heart of the Regency Period (one of my loves that I could not help but squeal when I realized Ms. Bradbury loves it just as well), obsessed with Jane Austen novels - though at the time they were penned by "A Lady" - and, at the very moment in which the story begins, standing with a knife in preparation to cut into a mummy.
Not in the sweltering heat and dusty lands of Egypt, mind you. Right at home in jolly old England, at the party of a certain Lord Showalter who may or may not be interested in making Agnes his next acquisition, and under the eyes of a suspicious young man who might or might not be a spy.
And then, right after Agnes guiltily ferrets away a particular find in her foot of wrapping - a small amulet that doesn't seem that valuable - a murder is announced.
And British society will never be the same.
Agnes is an endearing and strong heroine with a habit of translating A Lady quotes into other languages when she gets agitated - an unusual find in the recent deluge of Bella Swan knock-offs and boy-obsessed Juliets, and something which made me even more enraptured with the tale.
And of course, there's Caedon Stowe, museum apprentice, daring sidekick and a scholar of all that is ancient and decrepit. Don't you just admire a smart boy?
Warnings: Two brief and forgettable instances of vulgar language, and, for the faint of heart, mentions of dried out cadavers and murdered corpses. Be sure to have your smelling salts on hand.
And let's tally up the rating points!
5 - Strong heroine
4.5 - Likeable love interest (although he does have his moments of typical exasperating male behavior)
5 - Authentic historical facts, without coming off as a presumptuous prig (and a fine British aura to boot)
5 - Brilliant supporting cast, from the romantic French ladies' maid to the annoying older brother with his own secrets to hide
5 - No sudden bouts of the paranormal. Always worth a point in my opinion.
-1 - Cliche criminal mastermind that I totally saw coming.
Conclusion = A pretty spot-on tale. Definitely worth the read.