Kate’s Review: “The London Séance Society”

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Book: “The London Séance Society” by Sarah Penner

Publishing Info: Park Row, March 2023

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: 1873. At an abandoned château on the outskirts of Paris, a dark séance is about to take place, led by acclaimed spiritualist Vaudeline D’Allaire. Known worldwide for her talent in conjuring the spirits of murder victims to ascertain the identities of the people who killed them, she is highly sought after by widows and investigators alike.

Lenna Wickes has come to Paris to find answers about her sister’s death, but to do so, she must embrace the unknown and overcome her own logic-driven bias against the occult. When Vaudeline is beckoned to England to solve a high-profile murder, Lenna accompanies her as an understudy. But as the women team up with the powerful men of London’s exclusive Séance Society to solve the mystery, they begin to suspect that they are not merely out to solve a crime, but perhaps entangled in one themselves

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this novel!

I was very enamored with Sarah Penner’s previous novel “The Lost Apothecary”, as it told the story of women who had to take their lives and sense of justice into their own hands during a time when there were so few options granted to them should they be abused by powerful men. Talk about cathartic! So I knew that when she came out with a new historical thriller/mystery I would definitely want to check it out. You can probably guess that when I saw that her new book was called “The London Séance Society”, I was VERY excited. Not only was Penner doing another woman centric historical thriller with a feminist bent, but she was also maybe bringing in GHOSTS! Or at the very least the ideas of ghosts, mediums, and séances from the Victorian Spiritualism movement!

The thriller and dark fantasy elements of this book worked really well together, branching out from her previous genre that’s steeped in non-supernatural themes and doing so with success. I really loved the mystery as renowned medium Vaudeline and her apprentice Lenna are pulled into the mysterious death of Vaudeline’s friend Mr. Volckman, who was the head of the men’s only spiritualist group The London Séance Society, and how both women have their reasons for wanting to find the truth about him and his group. For Vaudeline, she is trying to keep the reputation of spiritualism untainted, and the LSS is rumored to be a bit suspect. For Lenna, it’s that her sister Evie (a former student of Vaudeline and aspiring medium) was murdered, and Lenna is trying to figure out what happened to her, while realizing that she, too, may have gifts that she doesn’t really believe in.

We had a couple perspectives, the first being a third person perspective of Lenna as she tries to solve her sister’s murder. Lenna is skeptical and grief stricken, but is also finding herself growing more attracted to Vaudeline as they prepare to conduct a séance with the LSS. The other perspective is that of Mr. Morley, one of the high ranking members of the LSS, and his is in the first person and generally in the past. With both these perspectives we get the pieces of the two puzzles, and we start to wonder who can be trusted and what is real and what is not. I did find myself questioning the motives and perspectives of a few of the characters, and I was surprised by a few of the reveals. It’s a well done mystery with some moments of true suspense, as well as some solid supernatural bits and elements that worked well. I liked Lenna enough, I REALLY liked Vaudeline, and most of the characters had interesting moments and felt pretty grounded in reality given the time, the place, and their motives. I also liked that from the jump we know that while Lenna is skeptical, Vaudeline has a very real gift and talent, and that the ghost aspects of this book were leaned into and made for an interesting fantasy angle.

I really do have to gush about the setting of this story, as the Victorian Era has something of a special place in my heart due to the fact I used to work as an interpreter in a Victorian mansion in St. Paul. Penner hits the nail on the head with the historical tidbits when it comes to spiritualism, séances, gender and class divisions, and superstitions of the time period, and uses it all to create a well conceived mystery with it’s fair share of timeless themes. I loved that our protagonists Vaudeline and Lenna are two women mediums who are trying to solve the murders of Volckman and Evie, but are coming up against a men’s only group that has taken the skills of women mediums, twisted them for monetary gains, and has banned women from the group altogether while creating fraudulent practices that endanger the reputations of real spiritualists like Vaudeline. I mean, how freaking typical (and also true! The LSS is based on the actual Ghost Club from that time period, and no, women were NOT allowed even thought it was women who were the pioneers of the spiritualism movement, fraudulent as it was). There is also a very handy historical note at the back of the book that puts a lot of this into context AND has recipes for a couple refreshments of the time period AND has a candle making guide! This is my total jam and it was a fun surprise at the end of the book.

I enjoyed “The London Séance Society”, and Sarah Penner has started a streak of engaging historical thrillers. I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next!

Rating 8: A compelling mystery that puts women mediums at the forefront and explores spiritualism, misogyny, and an obsession with the dead during the Victorian Era.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The London Séance Society” is included on the Goodreads lists “Bone Book Club” and “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2023”.

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