England 1650: Parliament has executed King Charles I, and the English Civil War is over. Meanwhile ordinary English men and women must get back to life, living with the consequences of loyalties and principles tested, stretched, strained, and sometimes broken. The winning side, as it often does, holds the only culturally acceptable moral high ground, and everyone else must bow to the pressure of the new political landscape or suffer the consequences. Memories are long, and grudges hold fast.
Royalist officer James Hart escapes the war with his body intact, settling into an uneasy life as an ostler (keeper of the stables) at a small inn in Warwick. But this facade is only his public mien. James refuses to accept the tyranny of the new government, and to raise funds for the restoration of the king’s son, he takes to the road as a highwayman.
The post-war reality for Elizabeth Seton is living as a traitor’s daughter. Seeking to escape life as nothing more than a slave to her sister’s husband, a Parliamentary man, she flees Cornwall to live with her mother’s sister. En route, her carriage is held up by a notorious highwayman, the dashing Captain James Hart, the man with whom she eventually falls in love.
The lovers’ loyalty is tested through war, defeat and separation. James must fight his way back to the woman he loves, while Elizabeth will do anything to save him, even if it means sacrificing herself.
What did I think of the book?
As an American descendent of several Mayflower passengers (John Alden, Priscilla Mullins, and Richard Warren to name a few), as well the first Churchills to settle in America in the 1640s, I never paid much attention to history on the other side of the Atlantic after these dates. My interests post 17th century are very American-centric (that whole American Revolution thing). And to be honest, I’ve never been terribly comfortable with or interested in history centered around religious conflict or wars.
So it goes without saying that I knew very little about the details of the English Civil War aside from what I learned in one college class which examined some of the arguments for that war at a philosophical level. As a result, I have since been fascinated by the struggle between royalists and parliament (a thread existing in some form all the way back to the Magna Carta in the 13th century). What can I say? I’m a sucker for political philosophy.
It usually takes more effort to read historical fiction set in a time period I’m not already familiar with, but because this book was so well regarded by reviewers of note, I decided to give it a try. And I’m glad I did!
The first half of the book riveted me. When I wasn’t reading it, I was looking forward to getting back to reading it. James and Elizabeth are fantastic in their imperfections as humans… just like most humans are. Flawed characters are the best characters, I always say. While I’m not necessarily a lover of, or reader of, romance novels, the relationship between James and Elizabeth was well done, and the story contained enough history to keep me intellectually engaged.
One event in their relationship bothered me significantly when I first read it, but I kept reading, and eventually I understood the reason Bazos allowed her characters to make the choices they did as a necessity to character and plot development. However, so as not to create a spoiler, I can’t say more about why.
I also admit in a somewhat shame-faced way that I sped through the historical aspects of James’ time fighting in Scotland in the second half of the book, eager to move on to the relational aspects of the book. This wasn’t due to poor writing. It was purely because of my impatience, and for that I don’t blame the author. It actually says more about the sweetness of the relationship between Elizabeth and James than it speaks poorly of anything else.
What did I love about the book?
I love to read historical fiction that goes beyond costume drama in a historical setting. I read historical fiction to learn history, but also to get a sense for what it was like to live in the times written about. For this reason, I prefer books which provide a deep sense of research, where the author clearly dedicated him or herself to being an historian first and foremost, while fleshing out the history in an engaging story form. This is exactly what Bazos does. I loved the little details setting the stage of each scene, making everything happening feel as if it was a snapshot from history.
I also loved the deeper underpinnings of the book, themes involving loyalty, betrayal, the complexities of family relationship during wartime and afterwards, what it means to stick to ones principles even when to do so costs you everything. As 21st century Americans, we really don’t understand what it means to be dedicated to a cause or principle to the point it might cost everything you own, even your very life.
Much about the book reminded me of the Poldark books by Winston Graham. There were also elements of Jane Eyre and Outlander. Adult readers of romance will enjoy this sweet tale. Historical fiction lovers will enjoy Bazos comfort with the period in which she writes, and anyone who enjoys a good story will find this book one that calls to you when you are away from it, leaving you hungry to read just one more page, then one more.
I will definitely buy anything else that Cryssa Bazos writes in the future!
What do you think? Does this sound like a book you would enjoy reading?