I read Julia Golding’s previous novel The Tigers In TheTower last year, and loved its period setting and strong-minded heroine. (Read my review here). Golding's latest book has the same hallmarks but is set in the Regency rather than Victorian period. It is an enjoyable tale aimed at middle grade readers, but there’s nothing stopping mums and dads with a penchant for Austen and light mysteries from reading this. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies it ain’t, but if you like your adventures wholesome and your twists gentle, this is for you.
It follows a teenage Jane Austen and her trusty dog Grandison as they are sent to spend a few days at the Southmoor Abbey estate to help Lord and Lady Cromwell prepare for their son’s coming of age celebrations. But something is not quite right, and Jane is determined to find out what is happening.
As someone who feasted on a diet of Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew mysteries while growing up, I was pleased to find that this book has all the classic mystery elements, from stolen horses to burnt inheritance papers, to the ghost of a Mad Monk haunting the ruins of an ancient abbey.
The no-nonsense young heroine is endowed with bags of wit, courage and energy, and would much rather be out exploring the ruins and looking for the ghost than stuck indoors sewing or winding up Lady Cromwell’s silk threads. She writes interesting letters to her family at home, and makes acute observations about the people around her. The letters written by Jane to her family are actually very clever and fun to read - and were probably great fun to write. In fact they could easily be used as a starting-point to encourage children to experiment with the dying art of letter-writing (a nice lockdown project, maybe?).
I can't not mention the unique side characters, among them a stable-boy who’s also a budding engineer, and the sword-wielding, bareback-riding daughter of an Indian warrior. The allusions to upper class interests in the East India Company, and their exploitation of Indians who were brought to Britain as servants, are sensitively handled. I loved that Jane’s friendships transcended any barriers of class or race, and I hope there will be opportunities in future stories to see the friendship between Deepti and Jane develop further.
The Easter eggs scattered throughout are a nice touch, suggesting inspiration for Jane's future novels - a device that reminds me of the Brontë mysteries by Bella Ellis. However, I feel these details might sail over the heads of younger readers, and be more for the benefit of parents or teachers who are reading the books to children. That said, this doesn’t detract from the story at all.
Although the language is mostly accessible I’m not sure how it would be received by readers of 9 and upwards, as the cover suggests. I think the historical and social aspects of the story would appeal more to slightly older readers so I would say it was better suited to readers aged 11 and over.
As an adult reader who already loves all things Regency, I found this a hugely entertaining read. I loved spotting the Easter eggs and the glimpses of the quirky and intelligent Austen family. It could be a great introduction to Jane Austen for more confident readers, while I’m sure younger readers will enjoy cheering on the bold heroine, booing the villains, and trying to unravel the mystery along with Jane.
Oh and can I also say how much I love the beautiful cover?
Clever, engaging and well-paced. I hope this will become a series as I would love to read more.
Brown Bronte rating: 4 stars
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