The Dark Unwinding and its sequel A Spark Unseen are set in Victorian England and France, respectively, and have a vaguely steampunk theme that doesn’t go full-tilt but still includes a lot of clever era-appropriate tinkering and inventing. I review them together because while they, technically, stand alone, they are incredibly similar in tone and structure and I had similar problems with both of them.
The Dark Unwinding begins when Katharine Tulman is sent from London, where she resides with her aunt and young cousin, to the English country to get a handle on a wealthy estate that is currently being overseen — or not so much — by her uncle. As the oldest male Tulman, her uncle is in charge of the family fortune, but her aunt, who is related by marriage, believes that he may be squandering the money and leaving nothing for his nephew, Katharine’s cousin, to inherit. Rumors suggest the uncle may be “eccentric,” so Katharine is sent to have him declared officially insane so the inheritance can be transferred.
What Katharine finds at the estate is a man who, by the standards at the time, would clearly be called insane, but his tics belie a technological genius. In fact, the estate is not just a simple homestead centered around Uncle “Tully” with a few servants; it’s two productive villages that are supported by a complex steamworks, and a “workshop” full of some of the most fantastic working machines Katharine has ever seen. As all of this is revealed, and as Katharine becomes closer with several of the residents, she has to decide if she will go through with having her uncle committed, which would make her aunt happy and allow her enough personal allowance from the inheritance to be reasonably independent, or lie, which would leave her dependent on her aunt’s whims and charity.
VAGUE SPOILERS FOR A DARK UNWINDING IN THIS PARAGRAPH.A Spark Unseen takes place a few months after the events of the first book, where the villages are rebuilding after flood damage. In the meantime, Uncle Tully has continued to invent, but one particular invention has caught the attention of both the English and French governments because of its ability to be used as a weapon against “unsinkable” iron ships. When a British agent comes to the home and forces Katharine to prepare her Uncle to go work for the government, she instead stows him away to go with her to Paris. Why Paris? Well, she thinks that is where her love interest, Lane Moreau, went. Once she gets to Paris, her investigation into Lane’s whereabouts seems somehow connected to the same people who want to find her uncle and appropriate his inventions, so she has to be super duper extra careful.
The mysteries in both books do not slowly reveal so much as they plod along until all of the plot happens in the last quarter of the book. From my perspective, the first book was slightly more interesting because there was a major psychological component to the mystery: unusual events at the house cause Katharine to wonder if she may be mad like her uncle. The second book is just a manhunt with a half-hearted whodunit thrown into the mix. A major issue that I personally had, that was amplified by reading the books back-to-back, was that Katharine starts The Dark Unwinding as a self-proclaimed practical person who knows how to survive. That seems to fall apart as soon as she arrives at her uncle’s house, where she is bullied, in turn, by the head cook/housekeeper and servant/apprentice to her uncle. Their behavior is explained by them knowing why she is there and not being happy about it, but her attempts to assert herself, be direct, and problem-solve are incredibly feeble. In just the first book, I chalked this up to insecurity at coming into a new place and an uncertainty about what the “right” thing to do was, but this type of behavior continues well into the second book, where she straight-up admits that she doesn’t know what to do when she doesn’t have either her (male) solicitor or her (male) love interest around and that she wishes one of them would just appear to make her decisions for her. The gender thing is almost definitely unintentional on the part of the author, but her inconsistent characterization — she does, in fact, display moments of competence and leadership in scattered moments throughout both books where she lays out a plan that she seemingly formulated in ten seconds while people blink expectantly at her — makes her motivation throughout difficult to understand. Why was she so eager for independence in the first place if she just wants someone to take care of her and make decisions for her?
I give both books a three star average because they weren’t terrible, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them either.