Series note: Bessie Bell and the Goblin King is the third Aylfenhame novel, but although the stories are intertwined, and it was nice to see that some well established characters have a role to play here, these are books that work equally well out of sequence.
Horses loomed abruptly out of the mist: a matched pair, black as night. Bess tensed, her heart pounding wildly as the equipage barrelled down upon her. The horses snorted and neighed in surprise at finding an obstacle in their path, and one of them shied. Bess heard a male voice cursing. She waited until the last possible instant before leaping aside, heart palpitating with terror — and hope, that her foolish gambit had been enough.
For a moment it looked as though the carriage would not stop, and Bess’s spirits sank. It bowled on, sweeping past her in a flurry of wind and the scent of sweating horse, and was swallowed up by the
mist once more.
But the sound of hoofbeats slowed, and then stopped abruptly. It was not the gradual fading of the horses disappearing into the fog, and Bess’s hopes rose again. She clutched a shaking Derritharn to herself and stepped back into the road, hurrying after the coach.
When she grew nearer to the vehicle, she was able to see at once that it was not a mail-coach after all, nor anything nearly so large — or so promising. It was a gentleman’s carriage, the kind that seated but one or two, and the driver was the sole occupant. Oddly, there was no sign of the lanterns she had seen in the distance.
Bessie is a servant in a grand Lincolnshire manor house; the days are long and hard, but though her life is difficult, it isn’t intolerable… until the day she fends off a sexual assault from the master of the house and finds herself dismissed and evicted for her trouble. Thrown out in the middle of the night, without money or references, Bess has nothing to rely on except her wits and strength of character.
When she fails to find a farm or an inn, Bess flags down the first passing carriage, hoping for a lift back to civilisation. What she gets instead is the strange and infuriating Mr Green, and finds herself flung into the middle of a quest to hunt down and capture the nightmarish, flame-eyed steed known as Tatterfoal. Bess is friends with a brownie, so she knows something of Aylfenhame and its inhabitants, but though Tatterfoal is used as a cautionary tale for children, he hasn’t been seen in Lincolnshire for decades. And Mr Green approaches this legendary horror without hesitation, and talks to it with no small degree of familiarity.
I loved Bess from the first page. She’s smart beyond her years and has a dry, cutting sense of humour that kept me laughing throughout the book. When Mr Green attempts to correct her grammar at their first meeting, she takes it easily in her stride and turns his words back on him with a brief sociological analysis of her own:
“That’s the way,” agreed Bess. “Find fault wi’ my speech, and you set yourself nice and high over the likes of me.” She smiled as she spoke, but her words were born of frustration. It was of no use to her for him to quibble, either about local geography or about her grammar.
The gentleman looked at her through narrowed eyes. “Some would call it unwise, to give sauce to your betters. Especially when that better is a stranger, and you are alone, and it is late at night.”
Bessie smiled, and patted the nose of the nearest of his horses. “No sauce, sir,” she said blithely. “I’m admirin’ your strategy. Tis a sound one, and I’m thinkin’ you’ve had some practice.”
The relationship between Bess and Mr Green, better known as Grunewald, is a fiery one from the start, though they quickly find a mutual respect despite their bickering. And when it emerges that Tatterfoal’s presence is linked to an apparent doppelganger of Grunewald’s, Bess is determined to do whatever she can to assist him in solving the mystery.