The year is 1838, and seventeen-year-old Julia Elliston’s position has never been more fragile. Orphaned and unmarried in a time when women are legal property of their fathers, husbands, and guardians, she finds herself at the mercy of an anonymous guardian who plans to establish her as a servant in far-off Scotland.
With two months to devise a better plan, Julia’s first choice to marry her childhood sweetheart is denied. But when a titled dowager offers to introduce Julia into society, a realm of possibilities opens. However, treachery and deception are as much a part of Victorian society as titles and decorum, and Julia quickly discovers her present is deeply entangled with her mother’s mysterious past. Before she knows what’s happening, Julia finds herself a pawn in a deadly game between two of the country’s most powerful men. With no laws to protect her, she must unravel the secrets on her own. But sometimes truth is elusive and knowledge is deadly.
This may be Jessica Dotta’s formal debut in the world of publishing but make no mistake, she is not a novice at the art of storytelling. Comparisons are bound to arise with elements resembling Austen humour and the Bronte penchant for Gothic mood and intrigue, but the similarities are flattering and by no means facsimiles of the great authors. The hilarity of the mercurial Mrs Windham is distinctly calling on the essence of the nervous Mrs Bennet of Pride and Prejudice. Similarly, Lady Foxmore mimics the antagonistic Lady Catherine de Burgh but takes her cruelty to an extreme that makes the Austen matriarch resemble a mewling kitten. Readers who are familiar with period dramas will appreciate that Jessica’s story finds footing in the familiar but is grounded in her own imagination and style.
Clearly Jessica has researched the Victorian era to the finite detail to produce a rich context and execute the contemporary dialogue and wit with such mastery. Beneath the beautiful and entertaining period facade are whispered betrothals, secret alliances and hidden identities that pull readers in to a dangerous undertow where nothing is as it seems. The complex characters beseech readers to enter their world and become invested in the story. Julia is a not an inherently likeable character but she is a captivating study. Steeped in grief and confined by the rigorous rules of station and decorum she is vulnerable to those so willing to manipulate and bend her to their will and for their benefit. Edward may appear to fit the archetype for brooding Victorian hero but the sheer depth of his devotion and love for Julia is anything but contrived–his reactions are visceral and hit readers square in the gut. The enigmatic Mr Macy plays with readers perceptions with skill that hints to a dark side that is barely contained.
The suspense builds at a continual place and plot leaves off on a cliff hanger that hints that Jessica has just scratched the surface of this tale. I for one am desperate to read Mark of Distinction to continue the saga and see what lies in wait for Julia, Edward and Mr Macy.