book reviews by Althea

The Smile of the Stranger – Joan Aiken ***

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The Smile of the Stranger
The Smile of the Stranger by Joan Aiken

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like many other people, I was a big fan of Aiken’s when I was younger, but I was never particularly (if at all) aware that she’d also published books “for adults.” Well, “for adults” is a bit subjective. If this book had first been published recently, rather than in 1978, it would definitely have been marketed as “YA.” The cover, here, also makes the book look soooooper Harlequin-romance-y. I am pleased to report that it is not. As a matter of fact, in nearly all ways, this book is very much in line with Aiken’s other work. It’s a Victorian-esque British historical with plenty of adventure, a bit of creepiness, and a good dollop of humor.

At the outset of the French Revolution, young Juliana Paget has been living with her father in Italy. But one day she relates a bit of a peculiar tale to her father: she was shopping at the milliner’s when she overheard a strange woman asking after her father, a noted writer, and enquiring as to his whereabouts. Her father’s reaction to this news is unexpected, even though Juliana always knew he was a bit of a recluse: he insists on fleeing the country immediately. Even though the elder Paget is in extremely poor health, and the deteriorating political situation makes international travel nearly impossible, he will not be denied, and next thing you know, there’s an escape from a lynch mob and a daring balloon ride. Juliana’s dad tells her that although he has always kept all information about his estranged family from her, she has wealthy relatives in England, and he’s sure that they will be accepted – if only they can get there.

But getting there, as it turns out, will only be half the battle. Will Juliana be able to avoid being married off to a man old enough to be her grandfather, who’s rumored to have done away with his earlier wives, and to be diseased into the bargain? As Juliana tries to make her own way in the world, she realizes that more than one person’s agenda is set in opposition to her well-being – and that there are yet more family secrets that she does not yet know.

My only real quibble with the book is that Juliana’s a bit of a goody-goody, and the villain is a bit too one-dimensional and unsympathetic (especially considering the situation), but the book was still great fun. Although it’s a straight historical, without any fantastic or supernatural elements, I think this would appeal to a lot of steampunk fans.

Many thanks to SourceBooks (who’ve brought this back into print) and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.
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