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  • Writer's pictureTina S Beier

Through a Darkening Glass - Book Review

R.S. Maxwell

Mystery / Period Piece


Lake Union Publishing

I received this ARC from NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

A slow-burn mystery that reads like a novel of the time, Through a Darkening Glass is an absolute delight for those of us who enjoy authentic-feeling period pieces with little to no drama but which is compelling nonetheless.

England, 1940. Literature student Ruth Gladstone evacuates Cambridge University for Martynsborough, a tiny English village with a shadowy history. For Ruth, retreating to a forgotten corner of the country is more than a safety maneuver; it’s an opportunity to end an undesirable engagement and begin writing her first novel.

But upon her arrival, Ruth learns of a ghostly wraith haunting the villagers after decades of silence. Although Ruth is enthralled by the legend, the locals are less charmed by the wraith’s return. They blame the evacuees—and among them, Ruth—for stirring up restless spirits.

Undeterred, Ruth joins forces with Malcolm, an injured soldier, to unravel the mystery of the wraith. As Ruth and Malcolm draw closer to the truth, they’ll unearth long-buried secrets that could threaten them both…even as they craft a forbidden love story of their own.

There are two things to note about this novel: 1) it takes a bit to get going (I was just coasting through it until about 50% and then I got hooked on it) and 2) it is a period piece instead of a historical fiction. As such, it reads not like the narrator is describing a time in the past, but feels like it was written back then. This is my preferred kind of historical fiction, so I was right on board.

I liked the characters. The main character-Ruth-is likeable and also feels like a woman of the time. She’s modest but not a prude, smart, stands up for herself and takes action. She questioned some things about her society but it didn’t feel anachronistic. And the things she questioned she related to the past - like how back in the late 1800s male and female friends would walk arm-in-arm versus how that was seen as scandalous in the 40s. She felt a product of the time rather than feeling a modern sentiment hiding in 1940s clothes.

Malcolm isn’t the most exciting of brooding male leads I will say, as he’s no Mr. Rochester, but we have Maude, the tall, lesbian-coded, pants-wearing geology professor who is full of snark and life, to balance him out.

When it comes to the romance angle, it’s very much not as thrilling as the blurb makes it sound. In fact, while it’s not subtle, it’s not exactly passionate. The characters react to their feelings in logical, pragmatic ways that, while that might be realistic, it doesn’t make for much of a bodice ripper or give you a huge payoff at the end emotionally. I wouldn’t call it a Romance, though there is a romantic angle that is prevalent. As much as I like an “I-will-die-without-you” or an “I loved you most ardently” scene, I liked their relationship - they seemed well-suited and what was keeping them apart made sense. The book is a mystery at the forefront, though, with their relationship tying in but not taking over. Honestly, I think this book would make a fantastic movie.

Speaking of the mystery, it’s a fun novel with several little twists that tie into one another. There is one twist I saw coming a mile away (which, if you know anything about LGBTQ+ relationships in the eras before gay rights, you’ll likely also pick up on it too), but it was still satisfactory, and the other turns were fun. Nothing made me sit up and say “oh my god, what!” but there were some red herrings to keep from guessing the story’s outcome.

I also liked how the novel skipped the melodrama. I was fully expecting a certain character to lose it and cause huge issues for the characters, but this didn't happen - it was settled off the page in a way that was actually refreshing.

The setting is fun too, in that it’s a WWII-era novel where the war doesn’t really come into it after the initial pages. It shows what life was like for people in the countryside, not the cities. The town seemed quaint and I liked the two roaming, escaped sheep that pop up here and there.

I also really enjoyed the brief, tantalizing look we get at the reason for the butterfly or moth on the cover of the novel. That scene felt like it fell right out of a Gothic mystery and I loved it. It was like a creepy butterfly conservatory.

At the end of the book, the author included some explanations for some very minor inaccuracies which I thought was quite interesting.

The book starts off a bit slow, and then by the end I really really enjoyed it. I highly recommend it if you like slow-burn, slightly creepy mysteries, moths, and the English countryside.

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