Book Review

Pandora by Susan Stokes-Chapman

A pure pleasure of a novel set in Georgian London, where the discovery of a mysterious ancient Greek vase sets in motion conspiracies, revelations and romance.

London, 1799. Dora Blake is an aspiring jewellery artist who lives with her uncle in what used to be her parents’ famed shop of antiquities. When a mysterious Greek vase is delivered, Dora is intrigued by her uncle’s suspicious behaviour and enlists the help of Edward Lawrence, a young antiquarian scholar. Edward sees the ancient vase as key to unlocking his academic future. Dora sees it as a chance to restore the shop to its former glory, and to escape her nefarious uncle.

But what Edward discovers about the vase has Dora questioning everything she has believed about her life, her family, and the world as she knows it. As Dora uncovers the truth she starts to realise that some mysteries are buried, and some doors are locked, for a reason.

Pandora is the debut novel from Susan Stokes-Chapman, and what a debut it is.  I absolutely adored it and feel sure that it will appear on my books of the year list come December.  Set in the late 18th century, it’s a mix of historical mystery and Greek mythology that engages the reader from the very first page.  The inclusion of the Pandora myth works to set this apart from other novels set during this time, and while you don’t need to be familiar with the tale of Pandora and her jar (no, not a box), it does add a little something extra to the narrative.

The main protagonist is Pandora (Dora) Blake.  She’s a fantastic character and one that I took to immediately.  Orphaned as a child, she now lives with her uncle in what was her parent’s shop and craves nothing so much as her independence and to undo all the harm her uncle has done to the Blake family name.  Set when it is, wanting and achieving independence are very different matters and the reader understands the battle facing Dora.  That said, she is stubborn and persistent, and from the beginning I felt that if anyone could achieve such an ambition, it would be Dora.  And she does have one ace up her sleeve.  Skilled at jewellery design, she knows that if she can just a few pieces out to the right individuals that her fortunes may well change as a result. 

Her uncle is a nefarious individual and while his intentions towards Dora aren’t immediately clear, it’s obvious that he does not have her best interests at heart despite being her guardian.  A man with no redeeming features, I wished him ill from the beginning.  Following the death of Dora’s parents, he took over their shop, quickly selling on the antiquities that they were famed for and stocking the shop with poor imitations, turning the once respected shop into a place of ill-repute that has been allowed to fall into disarray.  While it may just be a way to make a fast buck – Hezekiah does like his baubles and trinkets – there’s a sense that there’s something more to his behaviour and I read on desperate to find out what it would mean for Dora.

While he longer sells antiquities in the shop, he is still involved in the trade and acquires (undoubtedly through underhand means) a singularly rare item – a perfectly preserved pithos depicting the myth of Pandora.  He tries to keep it hidden away, but Dora proves to be a wily individual and soon gains access, thinking to study it and to use it as inspiration in her jewellery designs.  She also asks scholar and recent acquaintance, Edward, to find out more about it as her uncle’s behaviour has piqued her curiosity and she can’t help but feel that there’s more to it than he’s letting on.

This study of the pithos proves to be the catalyst for some long-kept secrets to resurface as Dora seeks answers to the many questions that she has.  It’s not an action-packed novel, but nor is it slow-paced.  Everything serves to move the plot along, adding to the mystery of the pithos as well as the myriad of questions that both Dora and the reader want answers to.  There’s a lot to unravel and I enjoyed every page even as I worried about Dora’s fate.  It’s a wonderful tale of secrets, lies, and betrayal but – like the myth at its heart – there is also an element of hope maintained throughout that Dora may yet achieve her ambition and emerge victorious.  A beautiful novel and one that I highly recommend.


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