Wednesday, March 14, 2018

DNF Explanation: Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley

Pages: 313
Released: January 2, 2018
Publisher: Berkley Books (Penguin Random House)
Received: E-ARC from publisher, via NetGalley
DNF: 31%

Jennifer Ashley is probably better known for her romance novels, but she does branch off occasionally and that's when she piques my interest. My one experience with her was her historical fiction take on Elizabeth I and I was pretty impressed with her storytelling, characterizations, and historical detail. So I had high hopes for Death Below Stairs.

The good? Just like in her Elizabeth book, Jennifer Ashley focuses on a historical craft and brings it wholly to life. In the Elizabeth book it was fashion and sewing, but in Death Below Stairs it's all about the food. The main character serves as the cook in a fancy British house ala Downton Abbey and the descriptions of the dishes she makes are detailed and divine. Honestly, I would have enjoyed the book if it was entirely about the cooking. The Downton Abbey feel of the upstairs, downstairs relationships and the big house was charming and thoroughly enjoyable.

So why the DNF? Mainly two reasons: I didn't like the main character and I didn't like her romance. The character of the main character didn't ring true to me and she was far too Strong Female Character for her own good. In an early scene she boldly sasses the master of the house while standing in defense of one of the servant girls who he occasionally likes to get handsy with. Now, don't get me wrong, she was in the right and the master of the house was very much portrayed as the Villain of the Piece, but it all felt so contrived. She also ran off half-cocked, which is behavior that would be more likely to get her fired than not. Which, a woman in her position would know and therefore not likely behave in such an eye-roll-inducing way. I know these traits are supposed to make us root for her, but it really just made me shake my head at her and find her off-putting and not realistic.

And then there's the romantic lead. He's a scoundrelly guy with Secrets who engages in work that isn't exactly above board. He has a network of spies and secret handshakes and disguises and he felt like such a contrived caricature and I just could not care less about him. He and the main character apparently have a history together, which is hinted at very strongly (which, really, the purpose was to hamfistedly direct the reader to the prequel novella) and yet he keeps so many secrets from her. I imagine this is supposed to make him seem dangerous and mysterious and therefore alluring, but I feel like I'm too old for that crap and I just want him to cut the childish games and be trustworthy, honest, and stable for her.

To be fair, much of this is simply a case of "wrong reader" as opposed to any real flaw in the book. The romantic lead is very much the adult version of the Dickensian street scamp, and that's a character I tend not to like very much.

Anyway, then, underneath all this, there is a murder mystery. I was interested in following this part of the story, but between the unappealing main characters and historically unrealistic vibe, I found it hard to stick with the story.

Bottom line

Readers who click with the main character and romantic lead should find enjoyment with Death Below Stairs. There are a lot of elements here I can get on board with and I want to love this series, but I think it's probably just not for me.

1 comment:

  1. These are the exact reasons why I abandoned her historical romance series. I could not get through the first book. Though she writes well, the characters' chemistry and the wandering plot got me bored and frustrated.


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