Review: The Governess of Greenmere by Paul Leone
The Governess of Greenmere is a distinctly English-feeling fantasy novella featuring a good dog, fallen angels, and Merlin. This standalone book combines Gothic fiction, Arthurian legend, and Christian myth in a tight story set in Paul Leone’s Immortal Champions world.
Here at the Periapsis Press blog, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed The Governess of Greenmere. I encourage you to check it out!
Disclaimer: We received a copy of this book from the author for the purpose of review. This in no way influences our opinions. (You can request a review here.)
This review contains minor spoilers.
The Governess of Greenmere Publisher Description:
Young orphan Elise Cooper applies for a job as governess. Leaving the bustling city to work for a rural aristocrat should have been peaceful, and yet… Hardly has Elise settled in at the remote Barsetshire estate of Greenmere House before she finds evidence that her employers are at the center of an ancient mystery. She quickly realizes that her understanding of history and the world around her are about to be fundamentally challenged.
Armed only with her good common sense and strange abilities she didn’t know she had, Elise finds herself pulled into a shadowy otherworld, the scene of a great battle between good and evil. Can she prove her worth and rise above the challenges, and in the process save Britain from the evil powers that lurk in the darkness?
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The story begins with a pensive and foreboding tone reminiscent of Gothic romance novels. The main character Elise Cooper is hired as a governess for a mysterious family who live in a vaguely spooky castle—the Gothic mood heightens with these familiar elements. Paul Leone takes his time to craft the atmosphere, resulting in a brisk pace driven by the suspense and the unknown.
From this setting, the reader begins to look for the “semi-supernatural” phenomena, long before anything truly fantastic occurs. The female lead suggests the romance subgenre, but as more answers emerge, it becomes apparent that this story will share more with Gothic horror.
Supplementing the Gothic tone is a distinctly English flavor. The plot incorporates the legend of King Arthur, and Merlin is a central character. But the attitude goes beyond even these. While the Gothic atmosphere provides gloom and suspense, there is an approach to descriptions—particularly of food and of domestic and wild country—that suggest the familiar fantasy genre giants Tolkien and Lewis.
The suggestion is strengthened by the blend of history and fantasy, fantastic creatures that can be either dark or quaint, and the trope of the noble feminine.
The English attitude is especially poignant in the hero Elise Cooper. Her behavior is defined by the performative nature of her nationality and her faith. She acts with a characteristic restraint and poise, demanding a measure of civility and respect from the men around her, and quickly endearing her to me.
Elise often chooses to act out of a sense of obligation built into her identity. This obligation is not oppressive, but ennobling; it spurs her to reach for those values of God and country that she cherishes. Even when tempted—which is very well done as the temptation suits her personality—she acts with conviction and does not waffle in doubt.
Elise, once her abilities awaken, has a great deal of firepower at her disposal. As long as she has a chance to catalyze her magic, there isn’t much that is able to stand in her way. So much so, in fact, that she stomps the bad guy twice.
However, I hesitate to label her a Mary Sue—certainly not in the prevalent sense. Elise may be overpowered, but she is not all-powerful. There are problems and situations where her abilities are either locked down or inapplicable, and she must rely on her allies. Furthermore, she doesn’t know everything and, again, must rely on those around her.
This treatment of Elise as a hero alongside worthy companions is perhaps the most important to her not-Mary-Sue-ness. Elise’s power and understanding are never held up in contrast to her allies’. She does not demand their acknowledgement or put them down in some imitation of banter.
Leone plays with mapping some aspects of the otherworld to real-world concepts in the second half of the book. While I felt this undercut some of the pleasure of wondering, these are very interesting—Dante’s Limbo, repentant fallen angels, the souls of deceased infants—and I was slightly behind Elise in figuring it out. This is mainly due to the fact that it is not assumed that there is an allegorical correlation from the beginning. That being said, perhaps if I had read some of Leone’s other works in his Immortal Champions setting first, my experience would be different.
Gothic Horror and Heroism
The thematic impact of The Governess of Greenmere is what puts it clearly into Gothic horror. While this may not be intended to produce a feeling of horror, per se, a battle between humanity and unnatural forces of evil combined with the rumination on morality, philosophy, and religion take place in the disquieting setting.
However, the ending is not fatalistic or unhappy.
Elise desires to be an active part of a return to the heroism she admires in the legends of King Arthur: someone who can defend and promote good. Throughout the story, she is enabled to do so, and when she follows through on turning that desire into real action, she is granted true responsibility.
Thus, the conclusion of the story is anything but dark, certainly not nihilistic. A return to heroic ideals is possible, and diligence in behaving heroically is not vain.
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The Governess of Greenmere is a well-balanced tale of suspense and action in a Gothic setting that produces both a pensive tone and an unlooked-for certainty in heroism. I look forward to trying some of Paul Leone’s other Immortal Champions stories!
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