Book Review: A Perilous Undertaking

Photo courtesy Penguin Random House

— by Marie Taylor

After waiting in anticipation since 2015, I have finally read the book A Perilous Undertaking by Deanna Raybourn, published by Penguin Random House in 2017.

I can’t express how excited I was to journey back into the world of Victorian lepidopterist Veronica Speedwell and her partner-in-crime Stoker as they solve high profile mysteries of a curious nature. To preface this, if you follow my reviews you’ll note that I love mysteries, particularly if they contain a strong female lead. I am completely comfortable with admitting my obsession for these types of books and will continue to sneak them into my normal book reviews as much as possible. Having said that, I believe that this book series will appeal to readers that love a good historical fiction novel with a steampunk edge.

Note: I recommend reading the first book in the series, A Curious Beginning, before reading this latest installment. To understand the characters and references made in this second novel, the reader needs to know the background history and relationships of those mentioned in the first book.

The main protagonist of the book, Veronica Speedwell, is not your typical Victorian lady. She refuses to wear a corset, financially supports herself through her lepidoptery (butterfly hunting), travels the globe in search of adventure, AND scandalizes polite society by thinking and acting outside of what a lady should. Because of her atypical behavior, Veronica doesn’t have many friends or allies in the world, except for her associate, Stoker. Stoker is a professional taxidermist with a questionable background and a variety of tattoos (cue the steampunk details).

Deanna Raybourn photo courtesy Penguin Random House

In A Perilous Undertaking, the duo is summoned by British royalty to investigate a recent murder of a pregnant artist, a murder that is being blamed upon one man with ties to a certain princess. Despite overwhelming evidence, Veronica and Stoker soon realize that this man did not commit the crime, and in fact the real murderer is still in the open and willing to strike again. The pair go undercover into a bohemian enclave of artists (many of whom have connections to the Crown) to flesh out the true perpetrator. As they get closer to the truth (and the murderer), hijinks ensue, bringing hilarity and danger to these two lead characters.

If you enjoyed the modern cinematic take on Sherlock Holmes (I’m referring to the Guy Ritchie movies from 2009 and 2011, respectively), then you will love this unique book series from Deanna Raybourn. The characters are interestingly complex, the dialogue is witty, and the taboo subjects discussed by historically-based characters provide a hilarious counterpoint to the darker side of these books.

The storyline in this book was slower to move along than the last one, but I enjoyed seeing the story play out all the same. There is a chemistry between Veronica and Stoker that was evident in the first book, and I’m happy to say that their relationship was still explored in this book, particularly near the end when additional depth was added to their partnership.

It is also refreshing to see that although she may experience vulnerable moments from time to time, the character of Veronica Speedwell is never dumbed down, and she’s never made into less than the warrior that she is. If there is one critique that I have of the murder mystery genre, it’s that too many authors try and write their female characters to be accidental heroines. What I mean is that too many strong female protagonists are written to stumble upon clues and answers instead of actively seeking them in an intelligent and strategic way. Veronica Speedwell is given her due as a Sherlock Holmes-esque character, and I thank authors like Raybourn for writing a character that owns her intelligence and power.

In summary, this was another great book from Deanna Raybourn. I encourage anyone who loves historical fiction, murder mysteries, and the steampunk genre to check out this gem of a series! As for me, I’ll be waiting until 2030 for the next one to come out (kidding, but I AM very excited), so hopefully by then a few of you will have joined me in reading these great books.


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