Samuel Etherstone, a penniless artist, is adrift in London. His disturbing art is shunned by patrons and critics alike, his friend Oscar Wilde is now an exile living in Paris, and a personal tragedy has taken its toll. So when he is contacted by a mysterious heiress, Mrs Chesterfield, and asked to work on a commission for the house she is building on the desolate Smugglers' Coast of North Yorkshire, he accepts the offer.
Staying overnight in the local village pub, Samuel is warned not to spend too much time there. He is told of the fate of the house's original architect, Francisco Varano, chilling tales of folk driven mad by the house, of it being built on haunted land where young girls have vanished, their ghosts now calling others to their deaths...
It is only on arrival at the Chesterfield house that he learns the sinister details of Varano's disappearance. And yet its owner keeps adding wing upon wing, and no one will tell him the reason behind her chilling obsession . . . But as Samuel delves deeper into the mysteries that swirl about the house, the nature of the project becomes terrifyingly clear."
Palace of Shadows follows out of work artist Samuel Etherstone as he accepts a job to work for the elusive, believed-to-be-mad heiress known as Mrs. Chesterfield at an isolated mansion in the grim, unforgiving Yorkshire moors. Mrs. Chesterfield has been building what is essentially a never-ending house, which many believe is due to her family relations to the Chesterfield gun company, which supplies weapons for wars. It is rumored that Mrs. Chesterfield is constructing this house filled with doors and staircases to nowhere and a maze-like interior in order to confuse any spirits of the dead who might be after her because they have been killed by her family's guns in the recent and ongoing wars.
If you know anything about the real life Winchester house and Winchester gun company, then you'll know this premise surrounding Mrs. Chesterfield is pretty much the same. Nowhere in descriptions or the author's note is there a mention of the Winchester House located in San Jose, California (which is a really neat place to visit, and you definitely should if you ever have the chance!), but Palace of Shadows is very much a Winchester House-inspired story. Once I realized this was the premise we were working with, I was excited to dive deeper into this story, as I don't think I've ever read a book that has used the Winchester House as inspiration. Samuel is hired on to construct a mausoleum for Mrs. Chesterfield due to his background as an artist known for creating optical illusions in his paintings, such as in the styles of M.C. Escher, and I think I was about as eager as Mrs. Chesterfield to see what Samuel would come up with for this task.
I really enjoyed that this book had a somewhat substantial cast of characters to meet, as I initially expected this to be a more isolating Gothic novel. However, the construction and running of a house of this magnitude–as well as maintaining all the finances associated with the Chesterfield company and house–actually requires a lot of people to be involved, so there always seemed to be someone around the house for Samuel to interact with.
This story is initially told from Samuel's POV, but there are two substantial sections within this book that deviate from this perspective and follow in epistolary formats. I was surprised at the length of these additional sections and how long it took to get back to Samuel's POV, but fortunately the interruptions were still compelling and provided some much needed insight into some characters and background. I also appreciated Samuel's narrative voice and found him to be a rather likable protagonist whose experiences made for a compelling reading experience.
There are so many secrets and mysteries at play in this book for readers to uncover alongside Samuel, and these are also what helped make this book so compelling. Personally, I love a weird house, especially when the architecture of said house is a part of that, so any of the additional odd happenings related to the house only served to enhance my interest in what was happening. One of my favorite things was simply exploring this house alongside Samuel and observing the oddities and eccentricities, as well as some rather intense statues that the previous architect constructed seemingly with no pre-made plans–a feat that most other workers, as well as Samuel himself, found perplexing due to their complexity.
Celestin captures the atmosphere of this Gothic setting and storyline perfectly. I felt as uneasy as Samuel at every turn, and found myself looking for both sanity and answers amidst the strange occurrences and behavior of some of the people living there, including Mrs. Chesterfield herself. I think this book really excelled in feeling initially dark and foreboding, but then sort of lures you into thinking you were just being silly and there's nothing that odd about it... only for you to slowly realize along with Samuel that things are far more complicated than they seem. This journey was a supremely fun one to be along the ride for.
I don't have any real complaints about this book other than that it can be a bit on the slow side at times, especially in the secondary POV segments, but there's a worthwhile conclusion that brought everything together in a way that I really appreciated. There isn't anything exceptionally shocking or crazy that happens in this book, so I can see where it might come across a bit mellow as well, but I think this is countered by the strong atmosphere, so readers' enjoyment may vary according to preferences. Also, although it didn't affect my reading experience, I'll admit that I was mildly annoyed that it isn't acknowledged anywhere within the book that this is actually based on a real person. Maybe it's to be obvious and not needing to be said, but I think some acknowledgement would be appropriate.
Overall, I've given Palace of Shadows four stars! This is a very solid Gothic mystery that is very easy to sink into and stay hooked for every page.
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