Chosen to kick off the 15th Anniversary celebration of Virgin Black Lace, this surprising sequel to A Gentleman's Wager (also 5 stars) is an emotionally wrenching, dark journey through the death of a relationship.
Phantasmagoria isn't a book that one could say they "liked" or "loved" because those words just would never apply to this haunting story. It's raw, cruel, complex, often crude, and Madelynne Ellis doesn't spare us by allowing us to flinch away from all the manifestations of the characters' pain.
Set in Georgian period London three years after Vaughan, Lucerne and Bella left North Yorkshire, we find the threesome stagnating under the constant rounds of socializing and debauchery in the city. Hoping to reinvigorate the relationship, Vaughan secretly makes plans to manipulate them all away from town and devises a gothic All Hallow's Eve celebration, a Phantasmagoria, at his family seat in Pennerly, near the Welsh borders (imagine creating a Haunted House when your house happens to be a castle). He then clandestinely flees London fully expecting the mystery of his disappearance to lure Lucerne and Bella to follow him.
Not only do Vaughan's house party plans go awry, but they are not the only phantasmagoria [noun: an illusion of perceiving something that does not really exist] in the book. Like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, each of the main characters perceives their relationship in a completely different, but incomplete and/or erroneous way. These and other phantasms haunt the characters throughout the book.
* As we already know from A Gentleman's Wager, Vaughan's usual method of dealing with his emotional pain is to lash out in cruelty towards others, particularly Bella. I wanted to shake him and tell him to stop debasing her, himself, and what they had together. He is haunted by the phantasms of what his life with Lucerne would have been like had Bella not appeared. In a country where homosexuality was an automatic death sentence, would they still have been together? What if he had never fled London? What if Lucerne had followed him? What if he had never let himself care at all?
* The phantasm of "What if" haunts Bella also. What if Vaughan had not been in the picture? Would she and Lucerne have been married, possibly with a child or two? What if they had never left North Yorkshire for a life in London? What if Vaughan had never left? What if she didn't now know what she found out before she fled London, and Lucerne, to find Vaughan?
Throughout most of this book, I wanted Bella to walk away from BOTH of the men. I felt she deserved better and was angry on her behalf. In fact, when she receives another offer, I found myself hoping she would take it and never look back. Then I finally realized that, though it's not the type of relationship I would want for myself, Bella didn't love Lucerne and Vaughan IN SPITE of the way they treated her, she loved them BECAUSE of their treatment. No matter how vile Vaughan was to her, she CRAVED more of it.
* And Lucerne? I spent most the book angry with him. How could he do that? Why was he ruining everything? But then he told us his view of the relationship and immediately garnered my sympathy. Oh, I still didn't approve of what he did, but the "why" of his actions broke my heart for him.
Saying that Phantasmagoria ends with an HEA would be misleading, but Ellis does gives us a bittersweet-tinged hope for the future; a possibility of something new rising out of the ashes of the relationship. She also introduces us to a whole new cast of engaging secondary characters, some of whom will be getting their own stories before Ellis returns to the original threesome to finish their story.
Phantasmagoria could certainly be read as a standalone, but the reader's emotional involvement will be impacted far more if A Gentleman's Wager is read first. And really, if you read my glowing homage to AGW, you'll note that it's one of my most beloved books and reading it would scarcely be a hardship.