Genre: Historical Age Range: Adult Star Rating: 3 stars Series: yes - first of companion books
England 1648. A dangerous time for a woman to be different . . .
Midsummer’s Eve, 1648, and England is in the grip of civil war between renegade King and rebellious Parliament. The struggle reaches every corner of the kingdom, even to the remote Tidelands – the marshy landscape of the south coast.
Alinor, a descendant of wise women, crushed by poverty and superstition, waits in the graveyard under the full moon for a ghost who will declare her free from her abusive husband. Instead she meets James, a young man on the run, and shows him the secret ways across the treacherous marsh, not knowing that she is leading disaster into the heart of her life.
Suspected of possessing dark secrets in superstitious times, Alinor’s ambition and determination mark her out from her neighbours. This is the time of witch-mania, and Alinor, a woman without a husband, skilled with herbs, suddenly enriched, arouses envy in her rivals and fear among the villagers, who are ready to take lethal action into their own hands.
Synopsis taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.
It’s been a long time since I read a book that was adult historical fiction. A few YA and MG historical, plus adult historical fantasy and mythological retellings set in Ancient Greece (which I don’t count as historical) yes, but they’re very different to this genre. But I was interested in a tale about poor women in the Civil War, away from London and the battlefields.
The pacing of this book is very different to what I’m used to with SFF – it’s a very slowly unfolding book, with long sections spent on following daily life. It reminded me of those sections in films where, in a washed out colour palate, the camera follows someone around intercut with shots of waving grass and sun on the lens. No music or dialogue, just sounds of activity. Quiet, pastoral. It was interesting, and showed the research into daily life in the Sussex Marshes.
The plot was a little predictable (poor woman following the family tradition of women being midwives meets strange hansom man who happens to be a Catholic priest secretly trying to free the King. They fall in love. Etc.) Pretty much every beat and hurdle was guessable well in advance, except for the ending. I like that it didn’t pan out in a way that would be more traditional for a romance, as it fit the tone of the book to be more depressingly realistic.
James, the priest, goes through a crisis of faith upon falling in love with Alinor. That was probably the bit of the execution that bothered me the most – how quick and easy he went from being a fired-up priest full of zeal to someone without faith and turning everything over for a woman he’s just met. Putting aside the fact that I struggle with quick romances anyway, the thing that felt off to me was how easily the faith was dismissed.
I get it, some people have crises of faith and maybe weren’t the hadn’t heard their vocation properly, and I think I could have got onboard with that if the other people sharing his faith had been portrayed with more depth. They barely tried to talk him out of it, and the protests from his parents were all about Alinor’s birth. The seminary leader was all kindly but lacking any real conviction or desire to press James to follow his vows. It was simply “think on it for a week. Ah, OK, no change of mind as we haven’t actually really talked about it.” It lacked the rigour that he would have got in reality, and so his crisis of faith wasn’t actually a crisis at all, but rather his faith and vows passed off as a fancy.
It does take a while to read – and the lack of chapters didn’t help their either. It’s an interesting feature of Philippa Greggory’s book – as far as I’m aware of the ones I’ve read, there are never chapters. There are scenes and time breaks, but no chapters. Even the breaks for “it’s now the next month” don’t start on another page. I didn’t realise how much I rely on chapters to be “pause places” until reading this, places to stop and digest. Without them, it does feel like it runs on endlessly, which does help evoke the sense of time continually passing, I suppose, though it does make it a bit tricky to read if you’re used to chapters!
The prose was a little awkward feeling in places. There were a few very long paragraphs where every sentence started the same way. A stylistic choice, I’m sure, but I stumbled over reading those bit as it felt very repetitive but without the punch of emphasis. The majority of the book is told from Alinor’s perspective, with events away told from James’ perspective. However, sometimes the chapter would switch perspective (from Alinor to James, or to Ned) midway through a scene, which was a little jarring to suddenly be in someone else’s head.
If the second book turns up in my local big supermarket, I might pick it up, as it’s interesting to see historical fiction from a non-noble perspective.