Oriel’s life seems like a fairy tale when she finally escapes her emotionally abusive father to go live with some loving—and wealthy!—long-lost relatives. But when she meets Herron, the dark and brooding young duke, she learns that this paradise may not be as perfect as it seems. Could someone in her new family really be a murderer, as the duke suspects? Find out when you read Sea of Secrets by Amanda DeWees! Last year, I picked up a couple of works by this spectacular self-published author of Victorian Gothic fiction, including her short Christmas tale Upon a Ghostly Yule. As a bit of a spin-off from Sea of Secrets, this short story introduced me to the Reginald family and hinted at their myriad scandals. It was about time, then, that I finally picked up Sea of Secrets itself.
Sea of Secrets begins after Oriel’s beloved brother and only protector is killed in the Crimean War. After the funeral, her father—who has hated Oriel since her mother’s death—throws her out of his house to make her own way in the world. Luckily, Oriel learns that she is related to a glamorous yet somewhat unconventional duchess who invites her to come live at the seaside estate of Ellsmere. Though she knows that Ellsmere was the site of her mother’s suicide, and that the duchess’s family is steeped in scandal after she married her late husband’s brother almost immediately after the duke’s death, Oriel can’t help but feel that she has finally found a home. But her feelings of peace and security are soon shattered by Herron, who paces the rooftops hoping to catch a glimpse of his father’s ghost. Herron is the son of the duchess and her first husband, and he is convinced that his uncle murdered his father in order to marry his mother. Though Oriel can’t believe that any of the family could be capable of murder, she is unable to convince Herron to give up his suspicions. And even as Herron’s behavior becomes more frightening and erratic, it soon becomes clear that someone may be trying to kill him, too.
The first thing I noticed about this book was that it is quite an obvious, though not overt, retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The premises of the two stories are the same: the king of Denmark—or in this case the Duke of Ellsmere—dies suddenly, and his wife immediately marries his brother. The son, motivated by the ghost of his father, is the only one who suspects murder and tries to reveal his uncle’s treachery. The names of the characters make this parallel more obvious: Oriel is Ophelia, Herron is Hamlet, his uncle (and now step-father) Claude is Claudius, and Gwendolyn, the duchess, is Gertrude. While some of the plot points match the source material closely, the story deviates from the Bard’s tale in significant ways. I don’t think it spoils too much to say that our heroine fares far better than her Shakespearean counterpart. Though Oriel has a fascination with the sea that borders on morbid and Herron’s treatment of her is enough to drive anyone mad, Sea of Secrets is ultimately a romance, and Oriel is eventually awarded her requisite happy ending. Like in the original story, the ending of Sea of Secrets includes a bit of poisoned wine and a duel. But again, the outcome is quite different, so knowing the plot of Hamlet will not spoil the book.
Apart from Hamlet, Sea of Secrets alludes to a number of other literary works in fun little Easter eggs for lovers of Gothic literature to find. Throughout the story, Oriel is reading a copy of the nineteenth-century penny dreadful Varney the Vampire that was given to her by her brother. There’s a scene with a sudden, mysterious bedroom fire that reminds one of Jane Eyre. And I even got a bit of a sense of The Castle of Otranto, when a large stone falls from above, almost killing one of the characters.
While much of the Gothic aspect of the novel follows along a more traditional vein, the Romance elements of Sea of Secrets serve to subvert some well-worn and rather problematic tropes. I can’t say much more without spoiling everything, but suffice it to say that I was pleasantly surprised by some of the unexpected twists. Though I found the gender dynamics in the story to be vastly improved from the source material, I did find myself chafing at the actions and attitudes of the female characters in one particular area—both Oriel and the duchess continually make excuses for and downplay the wrongdoings of the men they care for, even at their own expense. They accept bad men back into their arms far too quickly, and forgive them for things that should not be easily forgiven. While I appreciate Amanda DeWees’s preference for unequivocally happy endings, I was left a little uneasy by the way that a couple of the men were able to forgo taking responsibility for their actions. For me, that was the most frightening part of this Gothic tale….
Despite these moral misgivings, I found Sea of Secrets to be absolutely a delight to read. As with Ms. DeWees’s other works, it is a perfect example of traditional Gothic written from a modern perspective, and I can’t recommend it enough. You can find a copy of Sea of Secrets online in a number of formats, or at many independent bookstores. Check it out, and let me know your thoughts in the comments!