While waiting for the Leanna Renee Hieber's upcoming releases this year, I decided to have a re-read of her earlier work. I decided to start with Darker Still: A Novel of Magic Most Foul. Set in New York City in 1880, the novel follows the paranormal adventures of Natalie Stewart. One of the traits of Leanna's work that I adore is her unconventional heroines, and this novel is no exception. The heroine of Darker Still, Natalie Stewart is a mute. Deprived of the ability to speak while a toddler, Natalie records her adventures in her diary. Sheltered by her father, Natalie is searching for purpose and meaning is her life after leaving boarding school. Natalie discovers her purpose in life unexpectedly with the arrival of a hauntingly beautiful portrait of Jonathan Whitby, Lord Denbury, a British aristocrat who has "died" under mysterious circumstances. Fortunately for Natalie, her father is employed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is tasked with helping the museum acquire the piece. It soon becomes apparent that all is not right with the painting, and that Lord Denbury is not dead after all--but trapped within the confines of his painting and Natalie is the only person that can free him.
I simply adore this book. At turns romantic and terrifying, Leanna is gifted in her prose. What I love about Leanna's books is that the reader feels that they have been transported back in time. You feel as if you are walking the gas-lit cobblestone streets with the characters. The characters are smart, Natalie, despite her "disability" is a genuinely smart and feisty young woman--a trait that is sadly lacking in Young Adult novels. This book is also genuinely smart, the characters discuss and reflect on Spiritualism and morality on a level that is rarely seen. Having spent years studying 19th-century Spiritualism, I have never seen a better depiction of the beliefs of Spiritualist presented in a novel. When Spiritualism is used in modern historical novels, it is presented negatively as the belief of the easily duped or as the mode of the villain for some nefarious purpose. In reality, Spiritualism was more complex. Yes, the religion was used by charlatans to separate the gullible from their money. But, for countless grieving Americans, Spiritualism offered spiritual comfort on a level that was lacking for most traditional Protestant denominations. In Darker Still, Mrs. Northe, the guiding light for Natalie, is a Spiritualist and it is this character who champions Natalie in her quest to save Lord Denbury.
Verdict: Darker Still is one of the best offerings in the Victorian Gothic genre.