Veil of Night by Lydia Joyce
(Signet Eclipse, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-451-21483-8
I found this book very uneven. The first half, with its relentlessly ominous atmosphere and stridently immature heroine, had all the subtlety of a low-budget horror movie. Just as I was about to give up hope, however, the author stopped telling me what I was supposed to think and feel and started showing me what happened when the hero and heroine were allowed to make a real connection with each other.

Lady Victoria Wakefield is a spinster of thirty-two going on seventy-five. The self-appointed custodian of her feckless brother, Gifford, she has come to gloomy, decrepit Raeburn Court to ask Byron Stratford, Duke of Raeburn, to forgive Gifford’s gambling debt.

Byron is unsympathetic. He wants Gifford publicly humiliated because years ago Gifford callously ruined the girl Byron wanted to marry.

Even more galling, “Gifford had everything in the world that Raeburn had ever wanted; instead of skulking about the fringes of the aristocracy in a black cloak, Gifford could bask in society’s light, smiling in the assurance of being accepted, even adored, while Raeburn’s eccentricities were tolerated only for the sake of his title.”

There are many such heavy hints at a “hidden debility” that afflicts Byron, one that, if known, would fill other people with “horror and revulsion.”

In addition to this mysterious condition, apparently Byron also has x-ray vision. It’s the only way to explain how he instantly sees through Victoria’s hideous clothes and caustic manner to the passionate hoyden hiding beneath. As a result, he agrees to postpone payment of Gifford’s debt until Victoria’s brother inherits the estate that goes with the family earldom. In return, her body is Byron’s for one week.

The over-heated cover copy claims that Victoria is motivated by the need to save her family from “ruin” but this isn’t the case at all. The family fortunes are intact, waiting for Gifford to inherit them. Victoria’s insistence on sacrificing herself for the brother who despises her is actually her self-imposed punishment for a disastrous youthful indiscretion. Frankly, after a while, all the self-martyred high drama made her look a little ridiculous.

The situation is such that Byron and Victoria must fall into bed almost immediately, but he’s so defensive and she’s so prickly and self-righteous that it’s like watching a hedgehog mate with a wire brush. How on earth could this be romantic? Or sexy?

Fortunately, although it takes almost the entire book for both of these characters to quit wallowing in self-pity, at about the halfway mark the story takes a remarkable and extremely welcome turn for the better.

Self-awareness begins to creep into both these personalities, transforming them from brittle stereotypes into rounded, convincing characters who engaged my attention and sympathies. Equally important, they toned down the endless sparring and started talking to each other, so I started to believe their personal connection was real and growing.

The descriptions of the surroundings also changed, becoming much more natural and honestly articulate in a way that evoked vivid, realistic images. I started seeing actual locations and scenery that reflected the personalities of the people and the mood of the story, instead of resisting the contrived murk of the early pages. I love Gothic novels, but in the best Gothics the atmosphere is built in subtle, ambiguous layers, not shoveled on with a trowel.

The author also gives up the heavy-handed and repetitive hints about Byron’s affliction and deals with it more openly, so we can stop obsessing about what the heck his problem is and get on with the story.

By the dramatic ending, I was convinced that these two wounded characters could save each other and find happiness together, and it was hugely satisfying to finish on such a positive – and romantic – note.

I am firmly and vocally in favor of character development. I am not, however, one of the readers who is willing to wade through pages of obtuse behavior by characters I don’t like in the hope that they will redeem themselves eventually. I was delighted with the ending - but if I hadn’t been reviewing this book I would have put it aside in frustration well before I got to the good part.

-- Judi McKee

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