Ever hear a song, and then hear the remix, and the remix is SO MUCH BETTER you wonder why folks didn’t do that with the song the first time around? That’s pretty much a clunky parallel to how I feel about gothic romance. Old Skool gothic romance? Terror-laden women in floaty nightgowns running from unknown or known villains, and usually trapped or ensconced in a castle that’s drippy, damp, and altogether creepy. Mix in subtle explorations of the social position and limitations of women and mysteries, curses, and much angsty hand-wringing and you had a very frustrated Smart Bitch Sarah in 18th Century Literature seminars. There’s a limited amount of patience I can manage with heroines who are all, “Oh, I’m scared, run run run! In my bare feet! In my nightgown! Oh my innocence so easily symbolized by a garment! OH OH OH!”
But the new crop of New Skool gothic, which seems to be a saffron of a genre – not much of it, but when it’s good it’s damn pungent and heady – retains the classic elements of fear, castles, mysteries, and curses, but mixes in other familiar and more modern historical archetypes: wounded heroes blended nicely with the mysterious potentially monstrous gothic heroes, as well as heroines who can be both scared out of their wits and somewhat intelligent and intrepid at the same time. There might be a diaphanous nightgown or two, but I as a reader have an easier time respecting the petrified yet kickass woman beneath.
Castle of the Wolf is a wonderful new-skool Gothic romance that not only passed the “Take it out of my bag and read it when I’m NOT on the bus” test, but the “Read the whole damn book while Freebird is napping on a Saturday” test, which means it was some addictive prose indeed.
Celia Fussell loses her father, and suffers through a gaudy, rainy funeral and through the venomous behavior of her sister-in-law, who is all too eager to see the spinster sister as marginalized in their household as possible. But when her father’s will is read, it is revealed that Celia has inherited a castle in the Black Forest of Germany – AND that her brother’s estate is double-entailed so meanie sister in law can’t enjoy herself much. Nanner-nanner, you selfish wench. Of course, Cissy has a catch to deal with as well: she has to marry the son of her father’s friend, the man from whom her father bought the castle.
So off Cissy goes, all the way to Germany to go live in her castle. Because even being alone in a country by herself in a castle facing marriage to a stranger is better than being the spinster sister under the same roof as the new Baroness. When she meets her father’s friend and his wife, they’re lovely people, so there’s some safety and shelter, but the son in question, Fenris…. He’s a tortured gothic hero who wants nothing to do with her and is horrified to learn his family hasn’t owned the castle for years, despite the fact that Fenris has been living there in solitude, nursing a healthy and damn near heaping dose of misanthropy and a horrific war injury that left him without one of his legs. He lost his leg when he ran off to fight Napoleon before the German government thought that was a good idea, and as a result of his “treason,” his family had been stripped of their titles and status. Fenris blames himself for his family’s downfall and is crushed to learn that his father had to sell the castle secretly, and that they no longer own the home he’s been living in for years.
Fenris decides that he needs to get rid of Cissy so she’ll run home to England, and that’s where the best parts of New Skool Remixed Gothic Romance as interpreted by Schwab are shown off. Schwab has a great prose style, and a deft hand at blending humor and horror, mystery and mayhem. There’s a good number of layers to this story as well, which I can’t celebrate enough because nothing makes me happier than seeing an author creatively and innovatively turn an established subgenre upside down, then right side up, after inserting a few new concepts. I never appreciated Old Skool Gothic romance, but I appreciate this book and the new ways it looks at gothic romance.
I loved Cissy, because she was innocent and idealistic, but not at all stupid. Her father, a student of mythology, was her closest friend and mentor, and even in her grief she finds soothing peace in the stories and myths they’d read together. In some novels, the heroine is a student of something, or a devoted follower of a particular philosophy or intellectual movement – but over the course of the story the reader receives nothing in the way of instruction or information about that alleged interest of the heroine’s. It’s all lip service performed solely to make the heroine seem deeper than she is. (The modern corollary, of course, is the heroine who is supposedly excellent at her job yet during the course of the story reveals herself to be a complete and utter idiot at her profession).
Cissy is a student of mythology, myth, and folklore, and that fact is woven throughout her character, and throughout the story itself. Her knowledge of fairy tales is a consistent subtext to the plotline, and Cissy’s knowledge of languages both dead and living reveal that she’s no ninny. She’s freaking brilliant. And yet, because her passion is fairy tales and myths of love and happily-ever-after, Cissy is very innocent, and exceptionally fanciful. That unending optimism and pursuit of happiness for herself fits brilliantly into the darkness of the setting and of the mystery and horror of the plot, and it’s no mystery at all why Fenris is ultimately drawn to her.
Moreover, the book takes place in an entirely new setting for me – in a forest in Germany, which is both fanciful, creepy, and a refreshing change from merry old England.
Schwab’s storytelling also has tight turns that drop the reader like a rollercoaster from merry heights of whimsical happiness for Cissy into plunges of holy shit terror and uncertain fear – which make it bloody hard to put the damn book down. The mix of nefarious characters, mystery, intrigue, and deep, churning sexual attraction don’t help either when you might be trying to get something else done.
My disappointment was slim – but to my mind there was not enough retribution for all evil betrayals, though the revenge taken on the primary villain is freaking creepy. Moreover, the plunges from prose to melodrama, particularly in the interludes between the chapters at times left me feeling as if the paranormal element to the story were being wedged in, almost as if it were an afterthought to the story.
However, when I picked this book up to flip through it again for this review, I found myself putting it BACK in my bag to read portions again, something that rarely, if ever, happens. Schwab’s use of multiple legends and fairy tales to parallel the protagonists’ story is particularly brilliant, and this is a book that I will certainly revisit again, as the innocence of the heroine and the dark brooding woundedness of the hero are enticing and inviting. Well played, Ms. Schwab, well played.