Admittedly, she also fell short of her uncle’s ideal of female virtue— it was so hard to be that irreprochable mix of innocence, modesty, and unquestioning obedience— but such a failure did not make her an instrument of Hell.
—The Dark Days Club, Alison Goodman
Was this what growing up, becoming a woman, meant? To show only certain, acceptable sides of yourself to others, even to those you love?
—Serpentine, Cindy Pon
On the surface, The Dark Days Club and Serpentine—the first, a slow-build story about a young woman drawn into a secret society of British demon-hunters in the Regency era; the second, a fast-paced adventure set in a fantasy version of ancient China about a girl who discovers that she’s part-serpent—don’t appear to have a whole lot in common. But they do.
They’re both classic Chosen One stories, in that each heroine discovers that she is one-of-one, someone with power that has never been seen before, fated to either fight great evil or become great evil. They’re also both set in hugely immersive worlds, in that it’s easy to fall into them and hard to let go; in both books, the sensory details—the smells and sounds and tastes and textures—will make you hungry, nauseous, comfortable, itchy, claustrophobic.
The parallels go much deeper than that.
Both books feature a strong female friendship and partnership that is complicated by class lines and uneven power dynamics. In The Dark Days Club, Lady Helen’s maid, Darby, is her only entirely trusted confidant, and is ready and willing to help in whatever way she can. Helen is aware of and discomfited by their uneven power footing, and makes a point of telling Darby more than once that she CAN SAY NO, that these paranormal shenanigans are very much not part of her job. In Serpentine, our heroine is the one without the power, but because her mistress is far less aware of her own privilege, Skybright has to stay constantly alert:
Her mistress was the better player, yet Skybright still had to keep an eye on the game, to be sure she never won by chance or from carelessness on Zhen Ni’s part. The last time she had won, Zhen Ni had pounded the bed so hard with her fists, the black and white stones scattered and bounced to the floor. Skybright never did find all of the pieces.
In both books, our heroines are forced to step outside the confines of what is deemed “appropriate behavior” by larger society. In Serpentine, Zhen Li’s role as an upperclass woman requires that she be married off, regardless of whom she actually loves; meanwhile, Skybright’s newfound serpent heritage results in her having to defend her very right to exist. In The Dark Days Club, Helen’s new abilities would allow her to help people in need, but the social rules surrounding class and gender don’t allow her to use them:
In her mind, she saw each separate action needed to contain the beast, like a magic lantern show clicking through its pictures. Click: three strides to the fence. Click: a vault to clear it. Click: intersect the animal’s path. Click: a lunge to catch the bridle and bring the horse’s head down. She could feel the whole sequence imprinted in her muscles: a future certainty building into the necessity of action. It was hot in her veins, searing through the voice in her head shouting that a lady did not run, did not leap, did not lunge for a horse. Did not. Did not.
Goodman clearly did a boatload of research in order to write The Dark Days Club—she includes historical events (the Luddite rebellion! the assassination of Spencer Perceval!) and personages (Lord Byron! Beau Brummell! Prinny!) and objects (the bourdaloue! the turnspit dog!)—while Pon weaves in imagery and belief and characters from Chinese folklore, and in both cases, they succeed seamlessly. Both books read like historicals, but the issues that they explore are entirely relevant to now.
And finally, both books have sequels coming, and I want them in my eyeballs now, now, now.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.