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REVIEW: The Preacher’s Promise by Piper Huguley

Dear Piper Huguley:

I first learned about your new historical romances when several readers in my Twitter feed raved about your lovely covers. When you posted in DA’s author open thread I decided I wanted to read and review the full length novel. Jayne had independently decided to read and review the novella, so we thought reviews of both stories would be fun to do. I hadn’t read anything about the novella when I read the novel, so I think readers can pick up either installment without difficulty.

The Preachers PromiseI didn’t know that these books were in the Inspirational genre when I bought The Preacher’s Promise, but I didn’t think it would be a big deal for me unless they were heavily tilted toward proselytizing, and since they aren’t, it wasn’t. I hadn’t read an Inspie before this, so I’m sure there are things I missed (and there were a couple of phrases that were unfamiliar to me), but I didn’t notice anything that made me feel as if I wasn’t part of the potential target readership.

The story opens in 1866 with Amanda Stewart mourning the recent death of her father, a lawyer dedicated to the abolitionist cause. She has just graduated from Oberlin College, but she has no job and very little money, and when her father’s white partner makes her feel as if he has designs on her, she decides to take the teaching position in a small Georgia town that was recently offered to her father. When she arrives in Milford, the mayor and town blacksmith, Virgil Smithson, is surprised and dismayed to meet a young, attractive lady rather than the older gentleman he was expecting. Virgil is determined to put her back on the next day’s train north, but Mrs. Milford, whose family owns the large plantation which gave the town its name, basically orders Virgil to keep Amanda on as teacher and marry her for the sake of convenience and respectability. Although each finds the other physically attractive, southern, small-town Virgil and northern, college-educated Amanda don’t see themselves as a match at all, but Mrs. Milford’s word is still law to Virgil in many ways, and Amanda has nowhere to go if she leaves Milford.

The rest of the novel tells the story of Amanda’s adjustment to life as a wife and schoolteacher in the south, Virgil’s growing acceptance and respect for his “Mandy,” white resistance to a school for blacks, and the revelations of Virgil’s (and his daughter March’s) personal histories, which wind up being enmeshed with Amanda’s. This is both an opposites-attract romance and a cross-class romance, since Amanda is free and highly educated for a woman (especially a black woman), and Virgil, although a respected preacher and blacksmith who appears bound for politics, is a former slave with little formal education.

I enjoyed many things about this story. The setting, the plot, and the supporting cast are all imaginative and the choice to set the book directly after the end of the Civil War gives us a community that is still grappling with making the transition from slavery to freedom. Mrs. Milford still rules the roost, however benevolent she may be, and the less powerful whites in the neighboring town (we only see the men) are deeply suspicious and always threatening, implicitly or explicitly, to put blacks back in their former place. The laws of the time (such as those covering the manumission of slaves) are woven effectively into the storyline. Mrs. Milford, March, and Pauline (who looked after March in Virgil’s absence) are depicted with sympathy and skill, and the overall life of Milford remained with me after I finished the book.

Virgil and Amanda are interesting and sympathetic characters, but I felt that the execution didn’t quite live up to the promise where they were concerned, especially as their relationship developed. Part of this was because the gulf between them seemed so wide, and the author’s decision to use dialect for Virgil in both his thoughts and his words meant that the gulf between him and Amanda (whose speech was quite formal in its grammatical and vocabulary choices) was even wider. There is a very good scene in which we see Virgil preaching and believe the way the congregation responds so positively to him, but for much of the time Virgil seemed tongue-tied not only in his conversations but in his interior thoughts. It would have worked better for me if he had been hesitant in his speech but more fluent in his thoughts.

As a result, while I was rooting for Virgil and Mandy, I didn’t feel as if I really saw them fall in love on the page. I don’t think this was because the book is an inspirational and therefore the physical passion aspect is more muted. The author effectively conveys their mutual physical attraction and their growing respect and affection, but I never got that “oh, there they go, they’re in love” feeling. That could entirely be me rather than the book, though.

The writing was serviceable, but at times it became rough and a bit clunky. Perhaps because Amanda and Virgil didn’t have an easy time communicating, a lot of the story unfolded in exposition or interior monologues, and these often interrupted the rhythm of the story. Sometimes points were repeated, which slowed down the pace even more. The first half of the book contains a lot of setup, while the second half has much more action as the several plot points are resolved. There are some glitches in the copyediting; I noted a couple of homophone errors and a supporting character’s name changed spelling partway through the book. Overall, while the cover was indeed lovely, the rest of the production values (including the formatting) could have been better. It wasn’t enough to stop me because I really wanted to see how everything turned out, but if you’re not committed to the story, I can imagine it being enough to cause some readers to put the book aside.

This is definitely an inspirational romance. Both characters invoke God regularly and Virgil is a real preacher, as opposed to a Regency vicar, for example. The characters read the Bible to each other and they talk about their relationship in terms of serving God. I didn’t find this emphasis to detract from the romance (although I did wonder why Virgil felt it would be wrong to consummate the marriage, since they were lawfully wedded, lots of people married for reasons other than romantic love, and they were planning to stay married). I felt as if the emphasis on not just religion but spirituality fit the community and the characters, but readers who want to keep their religion and their romance separate are probably going to have some trouble with this.

Despite the flaws, I’m glad I picked up this book. It wasn’t the smoothest read, but the historical setting and the characters made up for that. I look forward to seeing what happens next with these characters and the Milford community. Grade: B-/C+

~ Sunita

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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.

12 Comments

  1. Jayne
    Aug 03, 2014 @ 17:58:43

    Wait. Is the heroine’s father’s business partner who comes on to Amanda the same guy who loaned her father the money to buy Realie out of slavery? The husband of the abolitionist who sheltered Realie? Oh, that’s just wrong. I mean this guy wasn’t a saint in “Lawyer’s Luck” by any means but that’s a major character change.

    And Lawrence is dead when this book starts? That’s part of the reason I sometimes get leery of reading about the next generation in sequels. Sometimes the previous h/h are dead and I hate to read that even though it’s probably historically true.

  2. Janine
    Aug 03, 2014 @ 18:51:08

    I’ve enjoyed both your review and Jayne’s. I was curious about the novella when I saw it mentioned on Twitter a couple-few weeks ago. The main thing holding me back from reading it was the genre– not being Christian, I’m somewhat scared of dipping my toe in the inspirational pool. I really hate feeling I’m being exhorted to change my religious views. So it’s good to know that this wasn’t an issue for you, Sunita.

    Given the craft issues you and Jayne noted, I think maybe I’ll wait a few books and see if these improve, but the setting and the characters appeal to me.

  3. Sunita
    Aug 03, 2014 @ 19:24:11

    @Jayne: Yes on both counts, which is potentially a problem for readers who decide to read the two stories in order. Changing gears in terms of characterization sometimes works, but sometimes it feels like a betrayal. And I know there are lots of readers who don’t want to find out that Book #1’s HEA gets torpedoed when they pick up Book #2.

    @Janine: I will have to read an inspirational with non-AA characters to have a better sense of the range, but in this case it seemed entirely appropriate for northern abolitionists and southern slaves to have strong religious attachments and practices. Occasionally the continued conversations with and invocations of God started to pile up, but I thought to myself, if I were reading a book about (South Asian) Indians and the characters invoked a deity using Indian-language equivalents I wouldn’t even blink. So that made it make sense for me.

  4. Kaetrin
    Aug 03, 2014 @ 23:29:42

    @Jayne: I’m with you Jayne, it is so hard for me to read when a HEA ends because of the death of one or both protagonists. The only time I can recall it ever working for me is in the Roselynde Chronicles by Roberta Gellis – and that *may* have been because I started at book 4 and already knew about Alinor’s two husbands before I started at book 1.

  5. cleo
    Aug 04, 2014 @ 08:52:28

    @Sunita – I don’t read a lot of inspies, but I’ve had good luck with Deanne Gist, who writes inspie historicals with all white characters. The religious and spiritual references make sense to me in a historical setting. I really liked her book set on the Vanderbilt estate (Maid to Match? Something like that). It’s a downstairs romance, between a footman and parlor maid, iirc.

  6. Jeannie
    Aug 04, 2014 @ 11:33:25

    I read one of Piper’s pre-published works for a critique and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I found the religious elements fit the story, but also…well…inspirational. I was moved by the characters’ faith and spirituality and how they used it to build strength and also how they passed it on to their children. Along the lines of what Sunita said, I wouldn’t bat an eye when reading an Asian novel that spoke of reincarnation or fate or karma in cultural terms.

    I think when people read an Amish romance or a historical romance set in Egypt, they understand they’re entering a world that’s not their own and willing to give it a try. When the historical setting is closer and when the “other” element is more familiar such as Christianity, then there’s more resistance, which is understandable as we’ll have more pre-conceived notions about it.

    I’m glad I got the opportunity to read Piper’s unfinished manuscript. I’ll certainly pick up this one as well. She does have great characters and recreates the era very vividly for me.

  7. Jeannie
    Aug 04, 2014 @ 11:34:18

    I meant to say that the religious elements fit the story but they were also inspiring to me.

  8. Janine
    Aug 04, 2014 @ 12:34:02

    @Sunita: @Jeannie: I don’t mind if the main characters are Christians of strong faith, in fact some of my favorite mainstream historical romances from the 1990s had heroes or heroines who were Christians of strong faith.

    I’m thinking of Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale, with its “Quaker” (Society of Friends) heroine, To Love and to Cherish by Patricia Gaffney, with its vicar hero and athiest-turned-convert heroine, Uncommon Vows by Mary Jo Putney (the hero and heroine were an ex-monk and ex-nun), Heaven’s Fire by Patricia Ryan (cleric hero and religious manuscript illuminator heroine), and Bed of Spices by Barbara Samuels (the heroine was a Christian and the hero Jewish). I think religious faith can really enhance the worldbuilding in historicals.

    What I mind a great deal is when I feel the book is telling me, the reader, what to believe. Off the top of my head the only example I can think of comes from Claudia Dain’s To Burn, a book that made me really angry. In the book, the hero and his friends are pagan Saxons, while the heroine is a Christian Roman. Throughout the book, we hear a lot about the heroine’s religion but almost nothing about the hero’s religion, which the heroine disdains as superstition.

    At the end of the book, a miracle takes place, the immediate healing of the hero’s burn via oil applied by the heroine. and the Saxons see the error of their ways. This even though that the hero was burned in the hopes that his gods would prove true and heal him. Despite that, none of the pagan characters ascribe the miracle to their gods. All of them immediately agree that their faith was misplaced and convert to Christianity.

    This book made me angry because the hero’s prior faith was treated with such complete disdain for so long, and the heroine’s Christianity was presented as the only true or reasonable religion. Moreover, it was not an inspie, but a mainstream historical. I was also angry because there was no labeling on the book cover or spine to indicate how preachy it was– and this miracle that was only interpreted one way really made me feel hammered with the message that only Christianity was right. I would never have spent my money on the book had I known that it would make me feel that way.

    Friends of mine who had read the book did not see it that way at all, and one of them told me that it was nowhere near as preachy as inspies. To this day I have stayed away from inspies on the off chance she was right.

    So, I hope this explains the distinction I’m trying to make, between books in which the main characters are Christian as was fitting for their time period, and books in which the author allows for no other acceptable alternative than to believe in Christ. I don’t mind reading about people of faith but being told what to believe is where I draw the line.

  9. Jeannie
    Aug 04, 2014 @ 15:01:54

    @Janine: I know what you mean. I’ve tried other historical inspirationals which were very heavy-handed with the Christian elements. Heavy-handed as they seemed to stick out to me rather than be integrated in a way that enhanced the personal story of the protagonists. I was left wondering whether it was a genre thing or not and I’m guilty of bowing out of the inspirational category when I judge the RITAs because I don’t want to judge someone down unfairly because of my misunderstanding.

  10. Janine
    Aug 04, 2014 @ 15:12:48

    @Jeannie: Yes. I don’t know if it’s a genre thing or not either, and I wish I knew how common such books are in the inspie genre. If I knew they were the exception and not the norm, I would be more likely to give a book like Piper Huguley’s a chance even without Sunita’s reassurance that it isn’t tilted toward proselytizing.

  11. Sunita
    Aug 04, 2014 @ 21:02:23

    @cleo: Thanks for the rec! I think I have a Gist in my TBR. I know SuperWendy is a fan and we overlap in ways that makes me think I’ll like her. And I had another rec on Twitter for an author in my TBR, so I think I know what my next two books are!

    @Jeannie: Yes, I did find it inspirational in that sense. I think that Christian foci and themes are also difficult for readers in today’s religio-political debates, so that it’s sometimes hard to see devout Christians of the 19thC in their context without contemporary issues intruding.

  12. Sunita
    Aug 04, 2014 @ 21:05:47

    @Janine: I definitely understand what you mean by the difference. I think that the kinds of examples you cite are part of the overall (often unthinking) tendency to privilege default religion, class, nation in all kinds of fiction.

    @Jeannie: The integration of religiosity into the story is the make-or-break aspect. In this book, as I said, it would seem stranger to me if the characters didn’t express some level of devotion. And given the centrality of the church as an institution (one of the few allowed to blacks in the 19thC and Jim Crow era US), I thought Huguley did a really good job of integrating both its secular and spiritual importance.

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