First Night by Jane Aiken Hodge

I enjoyed the three Jane Aiken Hodge books I’ve read previously – Marry in Haste, Strangers in Company and Watch the Wall, My Darling – so I thought I would try another one. First Night was originally published in 1989, but has been recently reissued by Agora Books.

The story begins in 1802 in the fictional Central European principality of Lissenberg. Lady Cristabel Sallis, the teenage daughter of a British duke and politician, and Prince Maximilian, heir to the principality, are performing in a children’s performance of Orpheus and Eurydice to mark the opening of the new Lissenberg Royal Opera House. Cristabel persuades Max to switch parts with her so that she can sing the male lead, revealing her identity at the end to rapturous applause from the audience. Not everyone is so impressed, though – her father is outraged and sends Cristabel home in disgrace.

Twenty-one-year-old American heiress Martha Ann Peabody hears about Cristabel’s escapades and is intrigued. She has been longing for adventure and the chance to make an independent life for herself, so she seeks out Cristabel in England and offers to help her launch a career in opera despite her father’s opposition. With Martha’s money and Cristabel’s talent they are the perfect team and, chaperoned by Cristabel’s Aunt Helen, they make their way to Paris, then Venice, before eventually ending up back in Lissenberg again.

Opera continues to play a big part in the plot of First Night as Cristabel pursues her passion for singing and the three women meet an assortment of composers, musicians and performers, but as the novel progresses the political situation in Lissenberg becomes more and more important. I wish the author had included an author’s note at the end of the book because I would have liked to have known more about her portrayal of Lissenberg and whether she had a real place in mind. It certainly sounds like an oppressive and dangerous place to live: an absolute monarchy under the control of the tyrant Prince Gustav who stops at nothing, including murder, to get what he wants. On the outside, there’s Napoleon Bonaparte, rapidly increasing in power – and Prince Gustav must decide whether to yield to him or try to defy him.

The setting was fascinating, but I can’t really say the same for the characters. I did love Martha Peabody, who is both courageous and kind-hearted and tries to help the people of Lissenberg in any small way she can, but Cristabel was a complete enigma to me. I felt that I never understood how she was really thinking or feeling and this made her come across as a strangely shallow character considering that at the beginning of the book it seemed as though she was going to be the heroine. Based on the first chapter I had also expected a romance between Cristabel and Prince Maximilian, especially when they meet again on Cristabel’s return to Lissenberg, but because Cristabel’s emotions are kept at such a distance from the reader, I wasn’t sure how she truly felt about him or what the nature of their relationship really was.

Unlike the other three books I’ve read by Jane Aiken Hodge, which could be neatly labelled as historical romance, romantic suspense and gothic novel respectively, this one is much more difficult to classify. I certainly wouldn’t describe it as a romance, although the cover might suggest otherwise. I found it difficult to get into and confusing at times, but I enjoyed the last few chapters which were packed with surprises, political intrigue and the revelation of secrets.

This book appears to be the first in a trilogy, followed by Leading Lady and Last Act; I don’t have any plans to look for the other two books at the moment, but I would still like to read Red Sky at Night, one of her earlier novels which I already have on my shelf.

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