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REVIEW: Voices of the Night by Lydia Joyce

Dear Ms. Joyce,

I've been reading your books since The Veil of Night came out. I thought it was a bit above average for a debut, but conventional. The two books that followed were somewhat stronger in my opinion. All three showed a talent for conjuring an atmosphere, and main characters of diverse personalities and backgrounds. But in the first half of your fourth book, Voices of the Night, you have for the first time succeeded in riveting me.

Fog pressed down upon the city, smothering it, pulling the smoke down from the chimney pots to swirl in the streets under the weight of the brown and breathless sky. It was a black fog, a killing fog, and Maggie and the other chavies had coughed up soot every morning that week when Johnny kicked them awake.

This bit of description on page one was the first clue I was reading something truly different. Here was a London not often seen in the romance genre, a tough, sooty metropolis in which the weak often perish and even the strong don’t easily survive.

When Johnny, the leader of her gang, orders Maggie of King Street to prove herself to him by killing his rival, she shoots and kills Johnny instead. Danny O’Sullivan agrees that he owes Maggie his life, but tells her he intends to even that debt.

Four years later, Charles Crossham, Lord Edgington, is trying to secretly bring about the successful debut of an illegitimate young woman named Lily Barrett. His plans are foiled when his sister Millicent publicly humiliates Miss Barrett. Afterward, Millie agrees to a bet with Charles: if he can find a young woman of an inappropriate background and pass her off as a lady, Millie will not only support Miss Barrett in public, but get their mother to sponsor her as well.

To that end, Charles, a patron of the opera, goes to watch the auditions there on the same day that Maggie, now nineteen, tries to land a part. Recently fired from her job as a singer in a dance hall, Maggie doesn’t have many options. Danny now controls the London crime world and if Maggie doesn’t find another position quickly, she will have no choice but to bow to his pressure and return to a life of crime.

Maggie’s future isn’t the only thing at stake; so is her ability to continue protecting the “family” she has cobbled around herself: several people her age and younger, known as her “chavies” or children, whom she liberated from their gang when she killed Johnny.

If I've read one book with an impoverished heroine who protects orphans I have read a dozen. But Maggie’s relationship with her “chavies” does not feel clicched, in large part because she can’t fully protect them from harsh realities. One of them is a prostitute, another a teenaged mother addicted to gin, and a third is a violent young man who desires Maggie. And Maggie herself is hardly a long-lost heiress or fallen-on-hard-times gentlewoman. She literally grew up on the streets, with an education from the school of hard knocks, and she views strangers with wariness.

Neither rakish nor altruistic, Charles begins the book burdened by the legacy of the previous profligate Barons Edgington even as he is used to a life of privilege. He loves but doesn’t actually like his peevish mother and spoiled sister, and his relationship with them is strained. The meaninglessness of high society life troubles him, but he’s not quite ready to upset his well-ordered world.

When Charles and Maggie meet at the opera, it’s a study in contrasts. Charles is struck by Maggie’s acting ability, her tenacity and her hollow thinness, Maggie by Charles’ glowing physical health, which seems almost luxurious to her. She thinks that nothing good can come of an association with him, but when Charles offers her the impersonation job, residence in a house he owns, and an income that could save her and the chavies from Danny, Maggie accepts the challenge of being transformed into a lady in a short period of time.

But this book is not a retread of My Fair Lady. Rather than focusing on a charming transformation, Voices of the Night gets its power from its attention to the gulf between Charles and Maggie, the perceptiveness with which they view one another, and the way each is fascinated by the glimpse the other presents of a world than is so different than their own. There is a wonderful scene in which Charles visits Maggie’s flat and seeing the poverty in which she and her friends live both embarrasses and fascinates him. His invasion of Maggie’s space is in some ways a more intimate kind of penetration than sex.

Charles and Maggie’s first sexual encounter feels both inevitable yet almost accidental, as Maggie assumes that sex is one of her duties and Charles doesn’t stop to consider that she might make such an assumption at first. Despite visiting that much-trod path wherein the hero discovers the heroine’s virginity as he takes it, the scene is a potent one, in which the differences in power and social class between Maggie and Charles become almost palpably erotic.

I did ask myself how and why Maggie remained a virgin after nineteen years in the London slums, but I let that go because she is far from wide-eyed and isn’t above trading sex for survival, or using it to bind Charles to her. Charles realizes that an involvement with Maggie could sabotage his bet with his sister and complicate his life, but he can’t get Maggie out of his mind. And Maggie, who tells herself that she won’t allow her relationship with Charles to cloud her pragmatism, finds that that’s easier said than done.

Your writing feels suppler and more relaxed in this book than it has in the past, as well as atmospheric and rich. The characterization is nuanced and layered. The first half, in which Maggie and Charles negotiate the terrain of their very different social classes, was difficult to stop reading. Most of the second half, in which the focus shifts to whether Maggie can evade what Danny O'Sullivan wants of her and pull off her masquerade in polite company, was quite good as well, the impersonation scenes wonderfully fraught with tension.

But as the book nears its end, it wobbles. The threat presented by Danny becomes the main obstacle to Charles and Maggie’s happiness, and this is not as compelling a conflict as the difference in their backgrounds. Some things come to light about Danny that raise more questions than they answer and make his character seem improbable to me. The scene in which Maggie agrees to marry Charles feels predictable and standard, in a book that is so unconventional otherwise. Finally, even after reading the epilogue a few times, I’m still confused about how Maggie and Charles decide to deal with her background when they marry.

I wish the last forty or so pages of Voices of the Night were stronger, but those things I liked about it I like so much that I give it an A-. I hope you continue developing your craft and taking your characterization deeper from book to book, because I know I will be reading more of your writing.

Sincerely,

Janine

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

18 Comments

  1. Robin
    Mar 06, 2007 @ 11:31:15

    Thanks for this review, Janine. I struggled mightily with Joyce’s prose in the second book in this series, which felt overwrought to me, but it sounds like in this book she’s hit her stride. And it sounds like I can read this one without having read the first and third book in the series.

  2. Lydia Joyce - Blog
    Mar 06, 2007 @ 12:54:22

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  3. Janine
    Mar 06, 2007 @ 13:00:10

    [quote comment="24238"]Thanks for this review, Janine. I struggled mightily with Joyce’s prose in the second book in this series, which felt overwrought to me, but it sounds like in this book she’s hit her stride. And it sounds like I can read this one without having read the first and third book in the series.[/quote]

    Based on having read all four of her books, I think her prose has been improving from book to book. In the first couple, it felt a bit too ornate for me and also strained, like it wasn’t coming naturally to her. With this book, it seemed more like she was finding her voice and is on her way to getting comfortable with it. I think there’s still room for her to get more limber with it, though.

    What impressed me most about this book was the characterization. I thought there was a big leap there in terms of depth and psychological acuity. When I was writing the review, I actually wrote a longer version first in which I quoted some of Charles’ and Maggie’s thoughts about one another, because I loved them so. I had to cut for space (my reviews have been getting longer recently), but here’s an example of one that I loved. This is Maggie’s thought during her first meeting with Charles:

    He was far too sleek to be trusted, she decided, sleek like a fish that sliced silver through the water for an instant before gulping a struggling beetle off the surface. And at that moment, she felt rather like a bug.

    I love that because it’s so unlike the way heroes are usually described in the heroine’s POV, yet it rings so true to Maggie’s character and her mindset. It’s the way someone like her would feel. I felt that Joyce had really given thought to what someone from Maggie’s background would think when meeting Charles. The line rang so true to the character. And there were a lot of others like that.

  4. Janine
    Mar 06, 2007 @ 13:08:26

    Sorry, I forgot to address the last part of your comment, Robin. Yes, you can read this without having read any of Joyce’s other books. In fact, it’s a prequel of sorts. Some of the same characters from the first and second books Joyce published appear in this one, but it takes place before those other books. So for a reader who wants to follow those characters, this is actually the best book to start with.

  5. Keishon
    Mar 06, 2007 @ 14:06:35

    [quote comment="24241"]Sorry, I forgot to address the last part of your comment, Robin. Yes, you can read this without having read any of Joyce’s other books. In fact, it’s a prequel of sorts. Some of the same characters from the first and second books Joyce published appear in this one, but it takes place before those other books. So for a reader who wants to follow those characters, this is actually the best book to start with.[/quote]

    Thanks Janine. I need to quit visiting this site. You all are giving me too many books to add to my TBR. Anyway, keep up the good work. Off to work so that I can pay for these books :-)

  6. Lydia
    Mar 06, 2007 @ 14:10:21

    As a quick note, you will NEVER have to read my books in any particular order, but the chronological order is actually this:

    WHISPERS
    VOICES
    VEIL
    SHADOWS (just turned in)
    JEWELS (? writing right now)
    Book #7 (in planning)
    Book #8 (in planning)
    MUSIC

    I wrote out of order because I was selecting my books very, very carefully to keep from being boxed in too badly as a writer. (Also because no one picked up the first version of VOICES–good thing, too, BTW.) The walls have now closed in, just as I expected that they would, but I’m pretty happy with the room size, overall.

    Writing this tone in this book was seven kinds of agony, but I’m glad you think it worked! Of all my books to think was relaxed, this was one I’d pick last–certain parts of it were the hardest writing I’ve ever done. (I know I’m supposed to say I love all my babies, but this one often felt lkie a C-section with no pain killers….)

    >I think there’s still room for her to get more limber with it, though.

    Hehe. No kidding. I think I’m maybe halfway there… I’m looking forward to the day where writing is rarely hell! People talk about “finding your voice.” I didn’t find mine. I made it up. That probably makes it harder.

    I think the difference now is that I now know exactly what I’m aiming for. Or rather, I knew what I was aiming for in VOICES but still struggled to get things there–now I know instantly where things need to go. I just finished writing a portion of a scene set in a dinner party–how more typically light romance can you GET? But, for once, the many familiar people worked beautifully to make the atmosphere instead of me having to fight tooth and nail against them. And it didn’t even affect it that I had a previous h/h there, either. If anything, they made it a bit more creepy. (Then again, Charles and Maggie can be pretty creepy, if they want to.)

    A big problem–for my kind of book–with romances in which previous characters appear is that those characters make things safe…make things better…and almost work as a deus ex machina instead of a complicating factor. And they’re always so perfectly happy that they’re flattened. I have to have my characters reappear because of the kinds of books I’m writing, but it’s glorious to find that they WORK as something other than being safety nets.

    I’m loving writing book #6, though, because I’ve finally got the atmosphere part so ingrained that I don’t have to think about it so much and can concentrate much more on the characters. (Though my editor might freak out when she reads it, ahem. This is my edgiest one yet, by quite a bit.)

    I also love that you liked the section with the fish. I’m not going to tell you what the metaphor originally was–too embarassing–but it was trite and stupid and SUCKED, and I scrawled CRAP! across it in the ms I’d printed out for editing. I think this one’s much better, but I worried about it being a bit melodramtic.

    Then again, my books are just a tad self-consciously melodramatic, so that’s okay. *g*

  7. Janine
    Mar 06, 2007 @ 14:49:52

    Thanks Janine. I need to quit visiting this site. You all are giving me too many books to add to my TBR. Anyway, keep up the good work. Off to work so that I can pay for these books :-)

    You’re welcome, Keishon. I know how you feel. With all the books I’ve been loving lately, I ended up placing an order for the Linnea Sinclair, J.R. Ward, Carla Kelly and Lydia Joyce books, even though I already had all of them but the Kelly in ARC form. I want these authors to keep writing. I’d love to hear your thoughts about Voices of the Night when you read it, either here or on your blog.

  8. Emma
    Mar 06, 2007 @ 15:04:44

    Janine,

    Hola chica, and thanks for the review. I took your earlier advice and bought the JR Ward yesterday. Around 3AM I realized it might have been a mistake to open the damn thing because there I was, turning the last page while taking a bleary, horrified look at the clock.

    Anyway, I read Joyce’s first novel when it came out, and thought that it had promise for two rather large reasons: she was paying attention to language, and attempting to inject a real strain of “realism” (gah I hate that word’s theoretical baggage) into the historical setting. As a fan of non-fiction history, that means a lot to me. Ultimately though it wasn’t wasn’t a gripping enough read to make me pick up her next few books. On the basis of your rec, though, I’ll be buying Voices next time I’m out. I’m hoping very much I agree with your take, because it would be awesome to see the tantalizing promises of that first book delivered upon.

  9. Janine
    Mar 06, 2007 @ 15:18:44

    Hi Lydia. I had the sense that Whispers took place before Voices, but I thought that it didn’t have any overlapping characters from the other books. I’m happy to have you post the correct information.

    I’m glad to hear that your strategy for avoiding being boxed in too much worked and you have some room to vary your books.

    I think reappearing characters can sometimes make books feel too alike and familiar, but I haven’t found that to be the case in your books. It helps that your series isn’t about several siblings or several best friends but just about people who move in the same circles. And I’m really excited to hear that the book you are writing is your edgiest. Edgy is good. :)

    I didn’t think the fish metaphor was melodramatic. Dramatic, yes, and a bit creepy (which I liked), but not melodramatic. It’s a fine line between drama and melodrama but I think of melodrama as something that strikes a false note, and this didn’t.

  10. Lydia
    Mar 06, 2007 @ 15:39:03

    >I had the sense that Whispers took place before Voices, but I thought that it didn’t have any overlapping characters from the other books.

    There was one line in WHISPERS that connected it to the Edgingtons–Charles would have been a small child then–but I honestly don’t remember if it survived. If it did, it actually wouldn’t make much sense because Lady Edgington was revised heavily for the new VOICES. So that’s the order, but it isn’t really connected. If I skip back in time in the future, it will be drawn in better, though–it’s the same world.

    >I think reappearing characters can sometimes make books feel too alike and familiar, but I haven’t found that to be the case in your books. It helps that your series isn’t about several siblings or several best friends but just about people who move in the same circles.

    Hehehe. My next three after SHADOWS will be about siblings, which will thrill the hearts of the marketing dept., but I’m doing that now because I’m finally confident that I CAN without making the series into everything I hate about such books. This has scared me for a LONG time, even as my editor and agent whisper “Series sell! Series sell!” in my ears. I swear that it won’t lose ANY edge because of the series-ish-ness of the next few, though! And it will continue to develop other plot points that don’t get fully explored in earlier books. *g*

  11. Janine
    Mar 06, 2007 @ 15:48:26

    Hey Emma! Great to see you posting here (You are Emma P., right?) Yeah that Ward book was like an epinephrine injection. I didn’t get much sleep the night I read it either. I’d love to hear how you think it compares to Ward’s others, if you don’t mind posting about it at the Lover Revealed review comment section.

    I agree with you about The Veil of Night. There were some things to admire about that book, but it didn’t work so well for me (Sorry Lydia). I might not have read the second book if the unusual setting hadn’t attracted me. I think you’ll like Voices much better. Keep me posted.

  12. Janine
    Mar 06, 2007 @ 16:12:33

    There was one line in WHISPERS that connected it to the Edgingtons-Charles would have been a small child then-but I honestly don’t remember if it survived. If it did, it actually wouldn’t make much sense because Lady Edgington was revised heavily for the new VOICES. So that’s the order, but it isn’t really connected. If I skip back in time in the future, it will be drawn in better, though-it’s the same world.

    It must be difficult to keep all those books consistent.

    Hehehe. My next three after SHADOWS will be about siblings, which will thrill the hearts of the marketing dept., but I’m doing that now because I’m finally confident that I CAN without making the series into everything I hate about such books. This has scared me for a LONG time, even as my editor and agent whisper “Series sell! Series sell!" in my ears. I swear that it won’t lose ANY edge because of the series-ish-ness of the next few, though! And it will continue to develop other plot points that don’t get fully explored in earlier books. *g*

    I’m not a fan of sibling series (partly because I’ve read so many at this point), but I’ll try to keep an open mind.

  13. Lydia
    Mar 06, 2007 @ 16:16:01

    >There were some things to admire about that book, but it didn’t work so well for me (Sorry Lydia).

    I’m just glad that not everyone thinks that I’m a one-shot wonder. ;-) I am kidding–most people don’t think that. But there is a hardcore, “Why can’t you write another VEIL?” group that I hear from regularly. And then the “Why can’t you write another MUSIC?” group. Fewer people, it seems, like WHISPERS as much as I do!

    Believe it or not, people disagreeing about which book is better (or even disliking a book that some people claim is my best to date) are very reassuring to me. *g* MUCH better than the alternative–“Book X, Y books back, was her best, and nothing since has come close.”

  14. Janine
    Mar 06, 2007 @ 16:22:56

    Well, for what it’s worth, I liked Whispers better than Veil or Music. But I like Voices best so far. Actually I have liked each book somewhat better than the previous one, which (speaking as a reader) is a good way to feel about an author.

  15. Janine
    Mar 06, 2007 @ 16:26:29

    MUCH better than the alternative-"Book X, Y books back, was her best, and nothing since has come close."

    I once read an interview with Stephen King where he said that his fans feel that way about The Stand. And actually I’m with them. The first half of that book, anyway, is my favorite thing he’s written. As I recall, he said it was pretty disconcerting to have so many people feel that his best book was something he’d written early in his career.

  16. Devon
    Mar 06, 2007 @ 21:13:50

    This looks good. That is all.

  17. Meriam
    Sep 29, 2007 @ 16:31:21

    I bought this book after reading Janine’s glowing review – and thoroughly enjoyed it. Joyce really nails the time period in both tone and diologue. What I particularly liked was Maggie’s pragmatism with regards to selling her body in return for material gain/ security – no typical romance heroine squeamishness here (although I agree her virginity was hard to believe).

    The other thing I enjoyed was how the class divide was explored; how Charles and Maggie’s world is percieved through the other’s eyes, if that makes sense.

    Moreover, Joyce’s prose was lovely (not as overblown as I feared after the reviews of her earlier books), and now I’m really looking forward to SHADOWS.

    I agree that the last forty pages were the weakest part of the book and the HEA left me scratching my head, too, because there were some unresolved issues re: how Maggie’s transition from the gutter to high society was managed.

    Overall, though, a great read. Thank you, Janine!

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