Despite the fact that I'm a huge fan of Deanna Raybourn's novels, I was a little skeptical about picking this one up. In today's world of vampiric over-saturation, I wasn't quite sure that I was going to like it. I'm getting really sick of anything that can turn into a bat and suck your blood and the idea that Raybourn had fallen prey to that sort of novel was, frankly, disturbing. I'm so glad that I was wrong. This novel was nothing like I expected it to be--it was far, far better.
Synopsis: A husband, a family, a comfortable life: Theodora Lestrange lives in terror of it all. With a modest inheritance and the three gowns that comprise her entire wardrobe, Theodora leaves Edinburgh--and a disappointed suitor--far behind. She is bound for Rumania, where tales of vampires are still whispered, to visit an old friend and write the book that will bring her true independence.
She arrives at a magnificent, decaying castle in the Carpathians, replete with eccentric inhabitants: the ailing dowager; the troubled steward; her own fearful friend, Cosmina. But all are outstripped in dark glamour by the castle's master, Count Andrei Dragulescu.
Bewildering and bewitching in equal measure, the brooding nobleman ignites Theodora's imagination and awakens passions in her that she can neither deny nor conceal. His allure is superlative, his dominion over the superstitious town, absolute--Theodora may simply be one more person under his sway.
Before her sojourn is ended--or her novel completed--Theodora will have encountered things as strange and terrible as they are seductive. For obsession can prove fatal...and she is in danger of falling prey to more than desire.
Review: Okay, so don't let the synopsis fool you. This book isn't some steamy romance novel with wooden characters that follows the same tired tropes. This is also not a vampire novel. I don't want to give anything away so I won't explain that sentence, just know that this is far from being a vampire novel. It is, in fact, a modern-day Gothic novel with just a hint of satire if you look hard enough for it. The Dead Travel Fast by Deanna Raybourn is her first novel to feature a heroine besides Lady Julia Gray. While I can't say I think much of Theodora's name, I came to really like her--and the Romania that Raybourn has created.
It's 1858. Theodora Lestrange is a writer, publishing her mystery stories under a male pen name but dreaming of the day when she can just write as herself. She has no desire for a husband or a family. In fact, she chafes at the very idea that her sister and brother-in-law would try to help set her up just because they think it will make her happy. To make matters worse, her publisher, Charles, is rather smitten with her and asks her to marry him. What's a girl to do? What any self-respecting heroine would do--she gets the hell out of Dodge.
Her friend, Cosmina, invites her to stay with her in Romania in preparation for her marriage to Count Andrei Dragulescu. When Theodora arrives at the castle, however, she finds that Andrei has scorned her friend, who tells Theodora that she is relieved because she didn't really want to marry him in the first place. Cosmina may not be attracted to him, but Theodora sure is. This guy exudes sexy. He's dark and mysterious and a Count. I mean, let's be honest here, who could say no to that? But Theodora does. She can tell that he's interested in her, but she doesn't want anything to do with him...at first.
Over time, she and Andrei strike up a friendship. He is an amateur astronomer, taking after his late grandfather, and he and Theodora spend quite a bit of time together talking about the stars and putting his grandfather's workroom back to rights. Where Theodora is from, this behavior is the height of impropriety; in Romania, it's perfectly okay for a man and a woman to talk together without a chaperon. Theodora finds Andrei, the castle, and the country intoxicating and freeing. She starts to plan on publishing the novel she begins working on in Romania under her own name and standing on her own two feet.
But things take a turn for the sinister when a maid in the castle turns up dead. The local doctor, a man by the name of Frankopan, tells Theodora the legends of vampires (strigoi) and werewolves. Being a logical woman, Theodora scoffs at the idea that the maid was killed by a vampire, but she soon finds herself believing quite a lot of things after a series of strange events in the castle. As the book progresses, Theodora goes from being a rational woman from Scotland to being a believer in the stories that she keeps hearing from the people around her. When Charles, her wannabe suitor shows up to collect her, he's shocked to find out that she's not the woman he knew only a short while ago. What's even more shocking, however, is what happens next.
I don't want to give anything else away (and, to be honest, I'm leaving a whole bunch of stuff out) so go and pick up a copy of this novel. While Theodora is no Lady Julia, she is a wonderful heroine in her own right. She's independent and stubborn and she knows that she doesn't need the love of a man to be someone. She wants to succeed because of what she does, not because of who she's married to. An almost unheard of notion at this time in history, Theodora is almost anachronistic and yet she's entirely believable. Because this is Transylvania, things are less strict and she's able to be more of who she wants to be. She changes throughout the course of the novel into the kind of woman that I could be attracted to if she were real--sensual, strong, brave.
Andrei Dragulescu is another matter entirely. I liked him and then again I didn't like him. He was a very well-created character, deep and with plenty of personality and history to keep my interest, but there were parts of him that I found to be rather obnoxious. I don't want to get into them too much because it would ruin some of the better parts of the book but I will say that I'm not quite sure that I found his change in attitude at the end of the novel to be entirely realistic. He is, of course, a swoon-worthy character and I'm sure that many females reading this book will find themselves drooling over him (I won't judge you for that). He's also quite fascinating but that cocky playboy attitude did get sort of taxing at times.
Also of note character-wise are Dr. Frankopan, the Countess (Andrei's mother), and Florian, the musically-gifted steward whose life circumstances made it impossible for him to follow his dreams. I could have used a bit more Florian to be honest, but the other characters in the book are just as great. Raybourn has a particular talent for creating unique characters that have not only their own voice but their own presence. She's also gifted at dialogue, description, plot, first person narration, and pretty much anything that a writer could possibly be good at.
I will admit that at times the book moved a little slowly, but for the most part it was well-paced. Some of the descriptions were so beautiful and detailed that I found myself rereading them, so maybe that accounted for part of the reason why it took me a few days to get through this book. I was utterly transported to Transylvania through Raybourn's words. I saw the castle, the surrounding countryside, the people, the village. Everything was clear in my head and I know that if I were to read this book fifteen years down the road, I'd still revisit those same images because they were so vivid and memorable.
As always, Raybourn's romance is subtle, restrained, and entirely romantic. There's no long detailed sex scenes, no ridiculous over-usage of words like "bosom," "heaving," "member," or any number of other words associated with books of a certain nature. That's because Raybourn's novels are never like those books. It's part of the reason why I shudder to even talk about these in terms of their romantic undertones. Raybourn is respectful of her audience and writes them so that even those of us (guys especially) who hate romance can enjoy them. They're smart and they're fun to read and they in no way deserve such ridiculous covers. If Silent in the Grave had originally had a cover like this book, I never would have picked it up and I would have missed out on a delightful author.
I'd say if you've never read one of her books before, start with her Lady Julia novels. I like the heroine a lot more and Nicholas Brisbane is, in my mind, ten times the man that Andrei Dragulescu will ever be. But if you get though those books and you're looking for a Raybourn fix, this is a good book to pick up while you wait for the next one to come out (The Dark Enquiry comes out in June for anyone who's curious).
I'm giving The Dead Travel Fast 4 out of 5 stars. It was a good book, but not one of her best, and parts of the end felt a little rushed. I was, however, very surprised by the "whodunit" reveal. Raybourn is one of the only mystery novelists who tends to keep me guessing until the end.