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Sunita’s Best of 2010 Reviews: The Winter Sea, by Susanna Kearsley

Dear Ms. Kearsley,

For the last two or three years readers have been recommending your novels, but they've haven't been easily available in the US. So when I saw that one of them was being published here, I jumped at the chance to read it. The Winter Sea is difficult to slot into a romance sub-genre. It has a contemporary storyline which alternates by chapters with a romance plot set in Scotland in the early 18th century. The present-day story is written from first person POV, the characters discuss the historical story, and the narrator of the contemporary is strongly affected by the history. But the historical story stands completely on its own as a separate narrative, and the 18th-century characters have no awareness of what is going on in the present day. It is a long novel, and readers who feel shortchanged by today’s shorter word counts will be in heaven; we really get two novels for the price of one. Both stories are well worth reading on their own, but the way they are woven together sets this book apart and elevates it to something really special.

The Winter Sea, by Susanna KearsleyCarolyn McLelland is a Canadian author of historical novels who has four best-selling books to her credit. Her success has allowed her to go wherever she needs for research, and she spends her concentrated writing time in places that bear on her story. Her latest WIP is about the failed Jacobite uprising of 1708, and she has spent five frustrating months in France, writing about one of the participants and locating the narrative at the palace where James (the Old Pretender) spent his exile and plotted his return to Scotland. But the novel is not working, and when Carrie goes to northern Scotland to stand godmother to her agent and friend’s newborn son, she impulsively stops by Slains, a ruined castle on the North Sea coast which figured prominently in the unsuccessful rebellion. She is strongly drawn to the castle and the area around it, and she decides to take a cottage in the adjacent town, Cruden Bay, and shift the setting there. Since it is winter, she is able to find a small cottage, whose owner, Jimmy Keith, is a knowledgeable native of the area and who has two handsome sons who visit him regularly.

The contemporary story traces Carrie’s experiences in writing the novel and her developing romance with Jimmy’s elder son Graeme. For the first time, Carrie discovers that her inspiration comes from more than her own imagination and her considerable research talents. She finds her dreams are filled with characters, scenes, and plot developments. And when she follows up on these leads, she finds that her research confirms them to be factually correct. Sophia, the new character Carrie believed she invented, is her ancestor. Carrie comes up with the correct names of characters and ships even though she has no memory of reading about them.

This approach is a neat inversion of the usual process of writing a historical novel, where the author begins with factual material and then uses it to build a fictional account. Here, what Carrie thinks she is inventing turns out to be historically accurate. The way in which you explain this phenomenon draws cleverly on both scientific and speculative accounts. I really enjoyed your depiction of Carrie’s research process; you show how much careful empirical research can go into a work of fiction, and Carrie’s struggle at the end of the novel between being true to the characters and writing a more conventional happy ending was insightful. There is quite a bit of historical detail in the book, but I think it will give immense satisfaction to those who prefer their novels historically rich without overwhelming less historically inclined readers.

The romance between Carrie and Graeme is subtle and relatively understated. There is no big conflict keeping them apart; the only real obstacle is Graeme’s even handsomer and more flirtatious brother’s Stuart’s belief that Carrie will fall for him. But the reader knows he’s wrong for Carrie from the beginning, when she is physically attracted to Graeme immediately and fails to connect with Stewart despite his best effort. The nail in the coffin comes in Chapter 11, when Graeme drily tells Carrie,

"You'll excuse my brother. His appreciation of our country's past begins and ends with Braveheart.'

Graeme, a lecturer in history at Aberdeen University, is clearly a much better match. But even without any sturm und drang, the relationship is satisfying. Carrie is attracted to Graeme from the first time she sees, him, and at 31, we can believe she knows her own mind.

Indeed, the relatively peaceful arc of Carrie and Graeme’s relationship comes as something of a relief when compared to the historical plot and romance. In this second narrative, Sophia Paterson, journeys from southwestern Scotland to Slains castle after the death of her stern and unloving uncle. She is accepted and welcomed into a warm and loving household, but Slains is also a place in which intrigues abound. The Countess, who was a kinswoman of Sophia’s uncle, and her son the Earl are Jacobites who are slowly revealed to be involved in the planning for the rebellion. Slains continually hosts visitors who are part of the intrigues, as well as visitors who may be spies for the English, and its position on the coast and the configuration of Cruden Bay make it an ideal landing place for Jacobites traveling to and from France.

One of these visitors is John Moray, a young officer who is with the King’s forces in France. Sophia and John are instantly drawn to each other, just as Carrie and Graeme are, and the two relationships parallel each other, with and without Carrie’s authorial interventions. (The relationships are revealed to be even more closely related in the end of the book.)

The modern-day romance faces few obstacles, but the historical relationship is fraught with uncertainty and danger, even though the hero and heroine are sure of their feelings. John’s role in the rebellion and the English bounty on his head make his security precarious, as the rebellion takes shape Sophia is also put at risk. As I was reading, I was genuinely uncertain that their romance would end happily, even though I knew the book was marketed as a romance. And the way you brought it about was ingenious; cleverer readers will guess the outcome more quickly, but I didn't see the resolution coming until you revealed it.

And make no mistake, this *is* a romance novel. Although there are not one but two plots which are distinct from the romantic story arcs, the romantic relationships share the spotlight with their respective plots, and the romances are propelled forward and shaped by what the characters are going through. I loved the way the two romances were intertwined, as well. Although each of the storylines can stand on its own, the reading experience is enhanced by the way they play off each other. Sometimes the relationship is a bit eerie, such as the times Carrie knows names and events because they have come to her as part of the story. And sometimes it is humorous, such as when she was angry at Graeme and wanted John Moray to stop resembling him.

I cannot close a review of this novel without talking about the writing style and the language. This is a beautifully written book. The tone of the modern-day romance reminds me of Mary Stewart at her best. Carrie is a smart, self-aware, self-deprecating narrator whose voice beautifully conveys what it is like to be an author who loves what she does. She doesn't underrate herself, but she has little arrogance, and when she falls in love with Graeme and discovers that he returns her feelings, her surprised pleasure at finding a fulfilling relationship when she least expected it rang so true to me. You effectively switch styles between the modern and the historical narrative; the latter is written in a slightly more formal language which suits the period, but it doesn't clash with the informality of the former. There is quite a bit of Scots dialect, including Doric, but I didn't throw the book down when I encountered it (which is my normal practice when reading historical romances set in Ochlassieland). I don't have the expertise to vouch for the authenticity of the language, but it sounded as if it belonged.

This is a book to be read carefully and savored. The contemporary and historical contexts are carefully delineated and rich with texture and detail without overwhelming the reader. The Winter Sea spans the boundary of historical fiction and historical romance, readers who enjoy both subgenres will find it richly rewarding.

Grade : A


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Sunita has been reading romances almost as long as she has been reading. Her favorite genres these days are contemporary, category, and novels with romantic elements. She also reads SFF, mysteries, historical fiction, literary fiction, and the backs of cereal boxes. As of January 2015, all the books she reviews at Dear Author are from: (1) her massive TBR, (2) borrowed from the library, (3) received as gifts from friends/family, or (4) purchased with her own funds.


  1. Marg
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 04:02:01

    I loved this book so much when I read it a couple of years ago. I still push this book onto just about anyone who asks for recs! I have since gone onto read other books from her and have become something of a fangirl!

    Can’t wait for her next book!

  2. Julie Cohen
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 04:11:20

    This is a wonderful book, which was published in the UK as Sophia’s Secret and which was shortlisted for the Romantic Novel of the Year award. I agree, Sunita-‘it’s definitely one to be savoured.

  3. Tweets that mention Sunita’s Best of 2010 Reviews: The Winter Sea, by Susanna Kearsley | Dear Author --
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 04:46:42

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Julie Cohen and Marg Bates, dearauthor. dearauthor said: NewPost: Sunita's Best of 2010 Reviews: The Winter Sea, by Susanna Kearsley […]

  4. Maggie Robinson/Margaret Rowe
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 05:12:22

    I read this book at the beginning of the month, and absolutely loved it. It reminded me of books that got me hooked on reading historical fiction/romance decades ago, yet it was entirely fresh. Loved the alternating time periods, and felt smarter once I was finished (always a bonus, LOL). Highly, highly recommend it.

  5. molly O'Keefe
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 07:34:44

    It’s as beautiful as the cover – she’s a great treasure here in Cananda!!!

  6. DS
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 07:43:07

    I am so glad that this book was published in the US. I had to jump through hoops to get my copy. Now let’s have the rest of her works made available, please.

  7. miss_thing
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 08:18:25

    I love her books and wish that her backlist was more readily available in the US either in paper or e-book. There are a few of her books I’d love to get my hands on! I just picked up The Winter Sea and am looking forward to sinking into it this weekend.

  8. Sunita
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 09:29:20

    It took me a while to write this review, and I still don’t think I do the book proper justice. It’s just so engrossing and satisfying. I envy those of you who have read her other books. The ways of worldwide publishing decisions are ever mysterious to me.

    I almost didn’t make the comparison to Mary Stewart, because I don’t want to suggest that the novel (or Ms. Kearsley’s writing style) is old-fashioned. It’s entirely contemporary, but it follows in that tradition in the best possible way.

  9. Jacqui C
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 10:20:16

    Does anyone know if this book is available in electronic form? I’ve checked and kobo books without any luck. I might have to give in and actually buy a physical book, based on this review!

  10. miss_thing
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 10:43:34

    @Jacqui – It appears to be available for the Kindle in the US: The Winter Sea.

  11. Wendy
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 10:52:57

    I’m in. I miss Scotland tremendously, and I will enjoy visiting via book.

  12. Jacqui C
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 10:57:14

    @miss-thing: unfortunately (or fortunately depending on the perspective), I’m in Canada and I get a message saying the title is not available electronically in Canada. Thanks anyway!

  13. Lynn S.
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 11:26:14

    @Jacqui C: I purchased it from Books on Board and it appears to be available at Kobo as well.

  14. Rosemary
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 12:08:53

    I adored this book, and have been working my way through Kearsley’s backlist as well. For me, it’s the comparison to Mary Stewart that actually seals the deal.

    Winter Sea was hands down the most satisying comfort read I’ve had in years.

  15. Caridad Pineiro
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 12:44:43

    It sounds like a fascinating read and I will definitely track it down for my TBR pile. Thanks for the thoughtful and informative review.

  16. Julie L.
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 14:32:25

    This is a great review! I recently finished this book and I read it on my kindle while working out and I don’t think I really did it justice by reading it that way. It took me a long time to finish it, but I agree it’s a book to be savored, a real gem. I will have to re-read it some day.

  17. Susanna Kearsley
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 22:10:00

    Sunita, (and everyone here) thank you so much for making my day, in a big way.

    As I said in our Twitter exchange, I'm always hesitant to hop into the comment thread on reviews of my own books, because it feels like I'm intruding, but since you assured me you like it when authors drop in, here I am…

    I just wanted to tell Jacqui C. that, as a fellow Canadian, I'm sorry the book's not available yet as an ebook in Canada, but my UK publishers (who hold the Canadian rights) should have an ebook version available soon – they're a small publisher but are working very hard to digitize their list, and I know this book is not far down the queue.

    If it's any compensation, the Canadian print version is out in mass market, so it’s a little less expensive, and you can get it at Chapters/Indigo or There's also an audiobook version, under the UK title of Sophia's Secret: And you can read the first chapter on my web site, if you want:

    But I didn't come to make a sales pitch, honestly. I came just to thank you for this, and for not throwing the book at the wall the first time Jimmy Keith turned up and started with the Doric :-) (My own landlord in Cruden Bay spoke the Doric, and he and his brother, a schoolteacher, kindly proofread and corrected my dialogue while I was writing the book).

    I believe it was Samuel Johnson who once said “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.” I've always loved that quote, because I think it's very true. Thanks for letting me see what my story looks like from your side of the page – that's a very rare privilege, and one that I truly appreciate.

  18. Sunita
    Jan 28, 2011 @ 10:31:54

    Thanks, Susanna! Books like this one remind me how much I love the sense of discovery as a reader.

    Could there be a better example of the irrationality of worldwide publishing/author rights in today’s environment than this one? A Canadian author writes a book about a Canadian in Scotland, it’s only picked up by a UK publisher, and then even when it finally makes it to North America, Canadians can’t buy the ebook. Sheesh.

  19. Laura
    Jan 28, 2011 @ 16:28:30

    I recently discovered Susanna Kearsley’s novels as well, and have been reading as many as I can get my hands on. Beautiful writing and very engrossing. I’m a history post-grad and a romance novel addict, so her books are pretty much pleasure-reading perfection for me! :) I think my favourite so far was “The Shadowy Horses”.

  20. Susan/DC
    Jan 28, 2011 @ 20:24:14

    And don’t overlook the book she wrote as Emma Cole: “Every Secret Thing”. It’s a mystery, not a romance, but it has a wonderful hero and a sharp as a tack heroine. I couldn’t get it in the US so ordered from, and it was worth every penny. If you are a Susanna Kearsley fan, please do yourself a favor and read this book.

  21. Jeff Baker
    Jan 29, 2011 @ 05:35:02

    I am a hardcore reader and cant go a single day without reading. In simple words I am crazy about books. Whenever I feel an urge to read/buy a book, I simple call Justdial at 1800-500-0000. They help me find bookstores in my area as well as reading libraries. This service has been very helpful and effective.

  22. loreen
    Jan 29, 2011 @ 06:43:06

    Thanks so much for this review! I had seen the lovely cover for this book, but I didn’t buy it because I am usually disappointed by books that switch back and forth between past and present. The past is always so much more compelling. But I bought this book this morning and it is completely absorbing. I love the voice of the 21st century character, perhaps because she is an intelligent woman in her 30s. I am slowly getting into the 18th century story too, though I find the heroine a little less interesting.
    I was so absorbed with this book on my kindle that I missed my metro stop!

  23. Sunita
    Jan 29, 2011 @ 07:44:57

    @loreen: Hang in there, I think you’ll find that you’ll get seriously immersed in to historical story as it progresses. Sophia is young and inexperienced at the start, but she learns and grows a great deal. By the end, she’s something of a force to be reckoned with!

    SusanDC, thanks so much for that recommendation, I didn’t know about that book, and mystery is my second-favorite genre, so I will definitely look for it.

  24. Susan/DC
    Jan 29, 2011 @ 20:17:50


    After you read “Every Secret Thing”, please let us know what you think of it. I would very much enjoy reading your review and would like to know if you too fall a little in love with the hero. (As I said, it’s not a romance, but it definitely has a hero.)

  25. Maria
    Jan 29, 2011 @ 21:32:12

    My TBR is growing exponentially.

    I lol’ed at “Ochlassieland”, good thing the student lounge is empty on Saturdays.

  26. Name (required)
    Jan 30, 2011 @ 04:53:59

    I am usually longing for sensible data on this subject. It are often laborious to seek out generally. Thanks!. i’ll check back on your web site from time to time for additional data.

  27. Roob
    Jan 31, 2011 @ 00:11:57

    So after the excellent review, I went off to (try) buy the book. And what do you know, I couldn’t buy the ebook online anywhere (I’m from Singapore, btw). So surprised! I did manage to buy one of the author’s earlier books – Mariana from a used book store. I loved it! Couldn’t put the book down. I gotta say, her writing is really beautiful.

    Now i’m off to see if I can borrow the book atleast. Sigh

  28. Shannon Byers
    Feb 02, 2011 @ 18:16:15

    I just finished this book, my library finally got a copy in, and from the moment I started, I didn’t want to put it down, so much so I read it in one day. I have not enjoyed a book this much since I spent surgery recovery a few years ago reading all of Lynn Kurland’s books. I love a book that takes me on a journey, and with The Winter Sea you get 2 for the price of one. One thing I really liked was the part in the back where she explained the characters!!

    I will definitely be trying to locate more books (my library doesnt seem to have any of her other ones) as the writing style and story telling is fantabulous!!

  29. Sarah MacAndrew
    Jul 18, 2011 @ 20:39:42

    Indeed! One of my all time favorites as well.

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  31. Laura P
    Aug 11, 2011 @ 22:46:29

    One of my favorites!

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  33. Jan
    Oct 10, 2011 @ 14:29:58

    I just finished this book and am so excited to have discovered this author. Love love loved it! Six stars out of five.

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