Originally posted on Tales to Tide You Over
No Rest for the Wicked begins Phoebe Darqueling’s new series Mistress of None by introducing a mixed cast led by Viola Thorne–cardsharp, con artist, and runaway scam bride. As you might guess from that description, Viola is far from the traditional hero. She sees nothing heroic about herself, though if you pay attention, she fails to live up to her negative self-image as a cynical, hard-bitten grifter on an hourly basis.
Not quite true.
She lives up to it in her sarcastic, biting tongue, especially with villains on the receiving end…at least when she’s not playing the “sweet little thing” card to trick them out of harming the true innocents.
The series starts with a shy but determined ghost interrupting Viola’s bath in an isolated hot spring on an isolated farm in the middle of nowhere. So much for her attempts to begin life anew without the shadow of her schemes or her unearthly ability to talk to ghosts to haunt her.
She tries everything from a surly attitude to shocking Tobias with her nudity, but ultimately gives in when he promises a large share of gold. You’d never guess she came from a well-off family (as we later learn) with the way she believes wealth, and more importantly more wealth, is endlessly valuable. She is the owner of a bar/gambling hall down in 1871’s Sacramento, California, as well as this farm, thanks to slipping out the door on her new groom with his deeds of property.
Seems awfully simple. She’s not a nice person. Everyone should hate her, right?
Viola is far from what she appears. Her snarky humor both amuses and offers a shield to hide her soft heart, but actions speak better than words. Not only does she risk life and limb to help the ghost protect his blushing bride, but then fails to mention the gold she was promised. The widow needs it more.
Then there’s her indulgent amusement where her newly wed employees are concerned, her casual adoption of George when his parents both died, and a side mention of how she is known to accept mirrors as partial payment on bills due. She’s much more complex than she believes, and that’s before we learn the mystery of who sent Tobias in the first place, the reason she turned to swindles, or what haunts her more than any ghost ever managed.
I’m a sucker for complicated characters, but ones who have a split between self-perception and reality are the best for the simple reason that they never try to be a good person, they just are. If her actions weren’t clue enough, there’s the way people turn to her, befriend her often against her will, and stick with her despite many attempts to shed them for their own protection. This is the mixed cast I was talking about.
George is a black kid in Post-Civil War America when slavery might be outlawed, but the generations of indoctrination that allowed for it in the first place are still firmly rooted. Bonnie, Tobias’ widow with no business in the Wild West, is a sweet, innocent, young woman with a good heart and unwavering loyalty along with a sharp tongue to keep people in line. Then you have the ghosts, some short-term visitors and others there to stay. We even get to meet Viola’s last remaining family and are present for a lovely bit of sarcastic bickering seeped in layers upon layers of history and misunderstandings. The characters are dynamic and the relationships far from conflict-free.
Clearly the people are a big draw for me, but the story, or should I say stories, is intriguing and enjoyable. It’s written as a series of ghostly encounters while we learn more about Viola and glimpse the villain behind the scenes. Each episode is resolved, and the final resolution is directly tied to the overall series plot, so you get not one but several conclusions. These “side quests” offer the chance for character growth and discovery. There is no shortage of action while the mysteries deepen instead of coming to light.
Oh, and speaking of the overall plot, neither the bandits nor the loan shark, who deserve the title but are part of the smaller tales, hold a candle to the true villain. He is a shadowy mastermind with goals hidden from view except for half-understood glimpses that prove he’s willing to use this world and the next in his schemes. This advances but does not resolve in the first book, offering questions to send us tumbling into the arms of the second book in Mistress of None as soon as it’s available.
The villain’s plan is not the only lingering question, either. Going back to how the characters and their snarky interactions amuse me, there are some not so lighthearted elements to the interactions as well. I want to understand Viola’s history with her former partner, Peter. That it’s complicated is obvious. What I’m looking forward to (though that’s not quite the right description) is learning the why behind how they ended up separated. Viola’s relationship with her ghostly powers is another source of growth and discovery both in re-evaluating her history with her aunt (who also has a gift) and how what she thought established is still changing.
There were several points where I laughed aloud while others provoked sorrow, showing just how engaged I was in the characters’ lives. It’s a wild ride that kept me reading whether wrangling the ghostly world or struggling with the complexity of the human one. This is only the beginning, but it offers a solid bridge into a world and a story I’m looking forward to seeing play out.
P.S. I received this ARC from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.