When my daughter and I traveled to the city last week I made a point to visit the Barnes & Noble there. It's one of the few huge, two-story book shops within driving distance, but it's also far enough away that I manage only one or two trips to it every year. I also don't trust myself to make the journey more often than that or I'd empty the checking account.
I do like this B&N for another reason: the massive bargain area in the front of the store. Okay, imagine your house, filled with ten-foot-wide shelves of discounted books, and you'll get an idea of just how enormous it is. These shelves are stacked with paperback, trade and hardcover books on practically every subject and in every genre, and blank books and sketch books and kits galore, and they're all very clean and beautifully discounted. Generally whenever I do go I can't get out the door without at least three bags, but for them I spend less than I would for one bag of regular-priced books, so I don't mind lugging them to the car.
For this visit I bought a list, as I had a lot of books to acquire for giveaways, birthday gifts and friend lender copies. I was also looking for something different for me and I thought I'd let chance steer my choice. I like to pick up books at random by authors I've never before read and simply give them a try. I also have great luck with this method, as it's how I discovered Rob Thurman, Mark Kurlansky, Patricia Briggs, Nathaniel Philbrick and Linda Howard.
It took about an hour of browsing -- such a hardship -- but I found almost everything on my list in the bargain section. The only book I couldn't find was the one for me. There was plenty of interesting-looking fiction, but nothing that shrieked Buy Me!. I've been so immersed in Her Ladyship and my research for the series that everything looked too new, too modern, too tattooed. I wanted something vintage and Victorian and magical, and there aren't a lot of writers doing that right now.
I was just about to head to the register when I spotted The Twelfth Enchantment by David Liss. The cover art looked elegant and magical, and definitely historical. It was also nicely discounted for a hardcover, so I opened the book to read the first couple paragraphs, and then my daughter came up and gave me the look that said I'd browsed enough and it was time to go.
I know what a pain I am at book stores, so I didn't read a word of the book. I had a feeling it was close to if not exactly what I wanted, though, and I took it up to the register and bought it. If I didn't like it, I'd be out a couple bucks and it would go to the Friends of the Library. When I got home that day I put it to the side and actually forgot about it for a day or two until I hit a work lull and went looking for something to read and remembered it.
How was it? Well, the Friends of the Library aren't getting this one, and I'm actually going to have to pick up some extra copies. The Twelfth Enchantment is a great read, beautifully written and completely unexpected. It's also exactly what I wanted to read, which is a little spooky, but there you go. You can shop all you want online, but I think there is something magical about browsing in a real book store, and this book is proof.
The story, which is written in a voice and style that immediately invokes Jane Austen, starts off with the dismal situation of Lucy Derrick, a genteel young lady who is orphaned, penniless and forced to live with her very unpleasant uncle. She's also been roped into marrying the equally disagreeable owner of a local mill, thanks to a youthful, reckless indiscretion that ended better than most but still taints her. Just as you're ready for some insanely handsome, filthy rich rake to swoop in and save her from her unhappy fate, Lord Byron (yes, that Lord Byron) shows up. He's a mess, probably drunk, and tells Lucy not to marry Mr. Disagreeable -- just before he starts throwing up silver pins. Lord Byron, you see, has been cursed, and the only person who can save his life is Lucy. She just doesn't know it yet.
From that point on all bets are off on what happens next, and believe me, you won't be able to guess what that is. I couldn't. This story builds and expands and brings into its world so many unexpected elements, characters and plot twists you simply have to go along for the ride. There are echoes of Austen's stories throughout the novel, particularly in some of the characterizations and certain lines in the dialogue, but this is no mash up. The weakest aspect of the story was the actual magic, which was archetypal and not especially plausible, and one major element may have been derived from a Johnny Depp film. I didn't mind that so much because the rest of the writing made up for it. I've never read anything quite like this book, and it was just what I wanted -- unpredictable, magical historical adventure that kept me guessing until the final pages.
Once I do get my hands on more copies of The Twelfth Enchantment I promise they'll find their way into Her Ladyship's Hat Box as well as the hands of friends. As books go, this one's magic was definitely meant to be shared.