Nicola Cornick’s House of Shadows blends a supernaturally tinged historical drama à la Outlander with a cozy village mystery to addictive, mesmerizing effect.
After the disappearance of her brother, Ben, present-day artist Holly Ansell discovers that Ben had become obsessed with Elizabeth Stuart, a 17th-century Bohemian queen whose reign was so short she became known as the Winter Queen. Elizabeth eventually returned to her homeland of England amid rumors that she had secretly married her devoted protector William Craven and was in possession of a treasure with occult powers.
Holly also discovers a Regency courtesan’s diary in her brother’s possessions. Lavinia Flyte’s journal, which Cornick cleverly models on real 19th-century sex worker tell-alls, leads Holly to believe that Elizabeth’s treasure is located somewhere in the ruins of Ashdown House.
In a dreamy, elegiac tone that blurs the lines between past and present, the natural and the supernatural, Cornick stitches together connections between the three women. Even given their enormous differences in class, Elizabeth and Lavinia are both dependent on the good will of men for any semblance of power and must present themselves as objects of desire—even the (initially) happily married Elizabeth. And when both Holly’s and Lavinia’s hunts for the treasure are waylaid by unexpected romance, Cornick explores how powerful yet fragile the bonds of love can be, especially in the first rush of attraction. Their plots seem stuck in time, existing within the season of a relationship when minutes last for hours, the swirl of emotions slowing time to a crawl.
Conversely, Elizabeth’s storyline spans decades, enough time for the instant spark between her and William to accumulate years of regrets and resentments. Theirs is a tragic romance in slow motion, with both parties moving inexorably apart due to sins committed against each other, but with memories of their shared happiness still painfully vivid.
Atmospheric and elegant, House of Shadows casts a hypnotic spell.