The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker is the first book in The Strangely Beautiful series by Leanna Renee Hieber, whose novella Dark Nest won the 2009 Prism Award. The series will be four books long, but if it does well, there may be a fifth book focusing on the character Lord Elijah Withersby. This particular novel is a Gothic Victorian fantasy romance involving dark powers and mythology.
In the year 1867, spirits sweep through the city of London seeking a specific group of young men and women. Once the six are found and gathered together, they are surprised to learn that they can now see ghosts. They follow a raven to a chapel, where a woman appears to them and rather vaguely informs them of what has happened. The six of them are forming the Guard, which is intended to protect the living from the dead. Each member of the Guard has a special gift and together they are to enforce the balance between this world and the other side. Eventually, a seventh will join them but the woman cannot tell them when, only that the sign they should seek is a door. The coming of the seventh will mark the beginning of a time of conflict but the six are warned to beware since there will be a false prophet that would deceive them – and if she succeeds, the world will end.
Twenty-one years later, the Guard remain at six members. One of them, Rebecca, is now the headmistress of Athens Academy, where she encounters a rather unusual student, eighteen-year-old Percy Parker. Percy, whose mother died when she was very young, was raised in a convent. She is not only unique due to her ghastly white skin and hair, but she is also very gifted at languages and has known several for as long as she can remember. Although she will not admit to it for fear of what will happen, Percy can speak with ghosts and has visions. Upon confessing the nuns did not think it necessary to teach a lady math and science, Rebecca enrolls Percy in a math class and informs her that she must get decent grades in all her courses to continue at the academy. Percy’s failure to understand math leads to private tutelage with Professor Alexi Rychman, the leader of the Guard, whom she has been infatuated with since the moment she laid eyes on him. Yet she continues to humiliate herself in his presence, especially as her visions seem to be happening more and more frequently.
As can be gleaned from the title, this is Percy’s story even though we are given the perspective of some other characters on occasion, including Alexi and Rebecca. At a time when confident, brazen heroines are popular, Percy is very different – timid, softspoken and not at all confident. For her entire life, she has felt like an outcast due to her appearance as well as the fact that she knows it’s not normal to just innately understand a foreign language, converse with ghosts, or see visions. She hides herself as much as possible with scarves and glasses and tries not to stand out in any way. Sometimes I find this type of protagonist a bit dull to read about, but I did not have this problem with Percy at all. She was very sympathetic and well-drawn, making her seem very real to me. Also, she was not a stagnant character and she did grow throughout the course of the novel.
In spite of the fact that she believes no man will ever look at her, Percy is a romantic and a large part of the story focuses on her relationship with Alexi. I really liked the two of them together and the scenes involving both of them reminded me of a lot of the old romantic books I adored as a teen such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights with all their drama (although Percy does not begin nearly as self-assured as either Jane or Catherine). Percy is immediately obsessed with the handsome, secretive Alexi, who is also a melodramatic romantic. Ever since the day he became a member of the Guard, he has believed it’s his destiny to fall in love with the prophesied seventh. Because of this, he’s forsaken all relationships with women (much to Rebecca’s dismay) and lives a rather solitary life buried in his books.
The other Guard members were intriguing characters as well and I’m looking forward to learning more about them in future installments. Other than Rebecca and Alexi, there were only a few glimpses of the others but I’m particularly curious about Josephine and Elijah, who each had a scene with Percy involving their gifts (art and visions of the past) that made me want to read more about them.
What I liked best about this novel were the characters. I also liked the alternate world of London in 1888 (complete with a paranormal explanation for Jack the Ripper), the magic and gifts of the six, and the friendships Percy struck up with ghosts.
Although I did like the fight against Darkness by preventing it from merging the two worlds, I thought the villains seemed a bit overdone – they were the single-mindedly obsessed with being evil types. I like my villains to have some sort of reasoning for their evil instead of just being dastardly. From the end of the book, the motivations of the main villain seem clearer so perhaps this will be fleshed out a bit more in future novels. Also, even though I had fun with the angsty drama for most of the book, toward the end it did get to be a bit too much for me.
Overall, I enjoyed The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker for its characters and the mythical English setting. The end didn’t hold up as well for me as the beginning and middle, but I am looking forward to reading the next book.