18-year-old Miss Percy (a nickname, her real name is a lot more feminine) Parker arrives at Athens Academy in London, having left the convent where she was left when her mother died in childbirth. She has nothing to remember her parents by, except a phoenix pendant she wears every day. Percy is an albino, with milky-white skin and hair, and pale, nearly luminescent eyes very sensitive to sunlight. All her life she has lived shrouded in veils and gloves, with tinted glasses to shade her eyes, and to keep people around her from being upset by her eerie appearance. She has a remarkable affinity for languages, being able to learn them almost as soon as she's heard them. She has been haunted by strange visions all her life, and can see, and speak to, the ghosts she so resembles.
At Athens Academy, not all the faculty are what they appear. Miss Rebecca Thompson, the headmistress, and Professor Alexi Rychman, a brooding and mysterious scientist, are both part of a small group known as the Guard, whose task it is to protect London against supernatural threat and something known as the Darkness. All six of the Guard were called to duty when they were only teens, and for nearly 20 years they have waited for their prophesied seventh member, whose coming will increase their powers and abilities, but also set in motion a possible war against the Darkness.
When Miss Parker arrives at the school, and shortly after, the stunningly beautiful and mysterious Miss Lucille Linden approaches their group seeking refuge from her cruel master, it seems as if the Prophecy will be fulfilled at last. But which of the remarkable women is the true seventh member, and which is the evil minion sent to lure them into further danger? Professor Rychman clearly wishes it to be Miss Parker, as the two are inexorably drawn to each other, despite the impropriety of a teacher-pupil relationship. But could the long years of waiting have dulled his instincts?
The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker is the first part in a series, a fact I only discovered after I started reading it. I would classify it as a historical fantasy with romantic elements, but while some might disagree, I did not think that the couple getting together was the main narrative driving the plot - the finding of the prophesied seventh member to help the fight against evil was more important. I saw one review that mentioned steampunk, I don't know why, as as far as I could tell, there are no unusual technical innovations, the setting appeared to be Victorian London, albeit a London haunted by ghosts and the occasional hellhound.
The supernatural threat that the Guard are battling, does not seem to involve vampires and werewolves and other such paranormal fantasy fare. Simply ghosts and the occasional demonic possession. As the arrival of the seventh member grows near, a demonic multi-headed beast haunts the street of London and brutally murders prostitutes (yes, in this book, Jack the Ripper is a hellhound). All the members of the Guard can see ghosts, but only the timid Miss Parker appears to be able to talk to them.
Miss Percy Parker is an unusual heroine. Named after a goddess of Greek myth, she is used to people being frightened and unnerved by her otherworldly looks. She is very self-conscious of her ghostlike appearance, and having grown up in a convent, is afraid that if people find out about her abilities to communicate with ghosts, her visions and portentous dreams, they will think her insane and have her committed. She is rather shy, studious and timid, and makes her first true friend at the Academy. She also falls head over heels for the tall, dark and brooding Prof. Rychman, and despairs that mathematics, his chosen subject, is the one that appears a complete impossibility for her to learn.
Alexi Rychman is a classic Gothic, romantic hero. He is gloomy and tortured, and his friends constantly make Hamlet jokes around him. Having convinced himself that he is fated to love the seventh member of their group, he has held himself distant from anything even vaguely resembling a romantic relationship for years, and he takes his duties as the leader of the Guard very seriously - thus leading to much anguish when he becomes unsure whether his feelings for Percy are caused by too many years of loneliness, or if she is really the answer to the prophecy.
The story is filled with allusions to Greek myth, which I liked. The book has some flaws as well, though. It is revealed to the reader quite early on who the evil minion is, and instead of this causing added tension, it just makes the members of the Guard seem rather gullible and stupid, despite all of them having good educations and preparing for this event for decades. Speaking of the other members of the Guard, with the exception of Miss Thompson (who frankly isn't given that much of a fully-formed character), most of the members are poorly sketched out, and the reader is given very little insight into who they are and what drives them beyond some rough character traits. However, since this is the first book in what appears to be a series, I'm hoping they will be more developed as the series goes on.