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Book Review: The Vespertine, by Saundra Mitchell

My review of The Vespertine, the first book in the "Elementals" trilogy, by Saundra Mitchell

The Vespertine has a lot going for it: evocative prose, well-drawn characters, and abundant historical detail that feels accurate and grounds the reader firmly in late 19th-century Baltimore. Unfortunately, the plotting is weak. Several times during the first half of the book, I stopped to ask myself, "Why am I reading this?" There is simply not enough narrative drive.

Perhaps the author (or her editor) noticed this, too, and added the teaser chapter at the beginning, hoping that the questions of how Amelia had been "ruined" and why her brother had her locked up would be enough to pull readers through the story. I suppose it was enough (after all, I did keep reading) but just barely. The opening chapter, about Amelia's being held captive by her brother, reads as if it was tacked on to the beginning in a vain attempt to add much-needed narrative tension. It made me curious to know more, but pages and pages of Amelia and Zora talking about dresses and parties and stealing glimpses of Zora's paramour gradually dulled that curiosity.

Amelia should start the book with one important goal that she will spend her time in Baltimore trying to achieve, a goal she cares about desperately. Yes, her brother sent her to attract a suitable husband. But for much of the book, Amelia seems less interested in meeting an eligible guy and more interested in having a good time with her cousin, now that she has broken away from her sleepy little town in Maine and is here in the big city. Her brother's goal is one she accepts as necessary, but it never feels like Amelia's goal; it's not one that she seems to care about enough to make us care.

Then two things happen: Amelia meets Nathaniel and is intrigued, despite his status as a lowly artist and therefore unsuitable husband material. And she has a vision and realizes she has the paranormal ability to see the future. Both of those things happen fairly early in the story, but it is some time before we get the sense that either is going to drive the action. If we'd felt more strongly her pull toward Nathaniel and some real anguish about the impossibility of being allowed to marry him, then we'd have something to pull us through the story. Or if we feel Amelia struggling with the idea of being a seer and deciding the power terrifies her so much that she tries to push it away — or thrills her so much that she's compelled to learn all she can about her ability in an attempt to control it -- then we might have something to pull us through the story, a motivation that drives the plot.

Instead, it feels like Amelia spends a lot of the book waiting around for her own story to begin.

If the action couldn't start earlier in the story, then the story should have started later into the action, beginning after Amelia is settled in Baltimore, perhaps with the moment of her first vision or the moment she meets Nathaniel and is drawn to him like a magnet, with more emphasis on her goals and motivations.

Once the story finally gets going, it becomes quite compelling, but it took 100 or so pages to get there. By the end, I couldn't put it down.

I read the second book in the trilogy, The Springsweet, before I read this one. The Springsweet is a much better book, in terms of plot structure. And it contains enough hints about the previous events — the events in The Vespertine, to make me want to read the first book to learn more. But at times, that was all that kept me reading this one. If I had read the books in order, starting with The Vespertine, I'm not sure I would have finished it and wanted to read the rest. And that would have been a shame, because ultimately, both books are good reads.