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REVIEW: Sergeant’s Lady by Susanna Fraser

Dear Ms. Fraser,

When I saw your book featured in the upcoming releases at Netgalley.com, I was intrigued. Although the Napoleonic War is pretty heavily mined territory for historical romance novelists, the prospect of a cross-class romance appealed to me, and I’m always on the lookout for new authors.   While the story starts out much the way many Regency-set historicals do, it is far from a cookie-cutter plot, and as the story develops it comes very much into its own.

The Sergeants Lady by Susanna FraserAnna Arrington is the niece of an Earl, the sister of a Viscount, and a considerable heiress in her own right. She is also unhappily married to Captain Sebastian Arrington and following the drum as he serves in Wellington’s Spanish Campaign.   Anna meets Sergeant Will Atkins, an innkeeper’s son who serves in the 95th Rifles, when she assists him in a difficult childbirth in camp.   Will and Anna are immediately drawn to one another, but even after she is widowed, their differences in rank and background, both in the army and in general society, preclude them from pursuing a relationship.   When they find themselves alone after escaping from French captivity, they give in to their feelings on the journey back to British lines, and they secretly continue their seemingly doomed romance until Anna returns to England.   In the second half of the book, Will continues to serve in Spain, while Anna tries to reestablish a life at home and faces unexpected events.   When Will is invalided out of the army after the Battle of Badajoz, he and Anna are finally both in England, but the social differences that kept them from openly declaring their feelings in the army loom even larger.

I admit that my heart sank during the first chapter, because the Spanish woman giving birth was named Juana. As I’m sure you are well aware, there was a real Juana, married to an officer in the 95th, and her romance was fictionalized in Georgette Heyer’s The Spanish Bride.   Perhaps you meant the name as an homage to both Juana Smith and to Heyer, but it pulled me out of the story. Luckily for me, you quickly established a very different story with characters with unique and well-drawn attributes.   The narrative arc is unusual for a romance. The hero and heroine realize their feelings for each other quickly, and they communicate them.   The conflicts that keep them apart are serious and authentic to the period, and I was genuinely unsure how you were going to bring them together for an HEA. That is no small feat for a romance novel.   In addition, the scenes of army life and the Peninsular context are very well done and reflect what we know from scholarly research and the historical materials of the period rather than romance conventions and shortcuts.

Anna is an interesting heroine. She is beautiful, rich, and vivacious, but you show us how those attributes have   brought her grief as well as advantage. I didn’t find her easy to warm up to, but I admired and respected her. Will, on the other hand, won me over completely. His sense of honor and his fight to retain that honor in the face of temptation were well realized.   And they are a wonderful match for each other. The scenes where they realize their own feelings, discover that the other reciprocates those feelings, and then act on them, are incredibly romantic.   Their conversations are delightful,   and their internal monologues are illuminating without going on and on.

Once Will and Anna are separated, however, the book shifts gears, and not altogether for the better. They really live in separate worlds at that point, and even if they are thinking about each other, there is no interaction, such as through letters, for the reader to latch on to. This break makes complete sense in the context of the story, and it gives the plot suspense (How will they get back together? Can they really make it work?). But it means that the romantic elements have to be sustained through things that happen to each other separately. And the things that happen to them are frequently depressing or stressful, so that takes us further from the romance. Paradoxically, I think that because you did such a good job with the romance in the first part of the book, I missed those scenes more in the second half. When Will and Anna finally get back together in England, the scenes between them felt all too short.   That said, the way you found to bring them together was ingenious, especially since it incorporated a part of Anna’s background and interests which you had presented much earlier in the book. And it felt historically appropriate as well.

I had a hard time giving this book a grade, even more than I usually do. It is a terrific debut novel, and I will definitely watch for future novels and stories by you. The sections that focused on Will and Anna together were enormously satisfying in terms of the romance. But I hesitate to recommend this unreservedly to readers who want the romance to be the primary focus of the book; even though the events that occur when Will and Anna are apart are influenced by their relationship, many readers will find those parts less satisfying. With that caveat, I can definitely recommend it to fans of historical fiction and to readers of historical romance who enjoy Peninsular-set English historicals and would like something a little different.   B

~Sunita

Book Link | Kindle | nook |   Sony| Carina Press

Sunita has been reading romances since she ran out of Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and Chalet School books and graduated to Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer. Other old favorites include Mary Burchell, Betty Neels, Elsie Lee, and Edith Layton. Among current writers, she reads and rereads Anne Stuart, Tamara Allen, Jordan Castillo Price, Sarah Morgan, Marion Lennox, Josh Lanyon, and Susanna Kearsley.

29 Comments

  1. Kim in Hawaii
    Aug 23, 2010 @ 15:25:55

    Thank you for the review. I look forward to reading it as several other reviewers have recommended this ebook. I applaud Ms. Fraser for thinking outside of the Regency box with her hero and heroine.

    Perhaps I will approach the book from a different perspective as a military spouse – sounds like Ms. Fraser was able to capture the essense of what current military spouses feel during long (and repeated) deployments. Coming home does not always guarentee the HEA in real life. Even if military personnel are physically near their families, they can be emotionally far, far away.

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  2. Danielle D
    Aug 23, 2010 @ 15:45:57

    I want this book!!!! It sounds so good.

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  3. Mary Gramlich
    Aug 23, 2010 @ 15:55:36

    @Kim in Hawaii – thank you as always for bringing this military reality to the fantasy of the written word. Your expertise as a military spouse is one I greatly respect and admire and always like reading your comments.

    Now, I was honored to have been asked to read this book a few weeks ago and was thrilled to have done so. In fact I bought a Kindle after reading the synopsis I wanted it that bad and the story made the Kindle worth the price I paid for it. Susanna Fraser writes a wonderful story with great characters and hopefully this will sell allot of books for her so that we can read more of her works.

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  4. TKF
    Aug 23, 2010 @ 16:21:36

    Romances actually set in Continental Europe during the war are few and far between in my reading experience. Mostly, the Napoleonic Wars seem to be used as an of-stage source for the hero's PTSD in books with post-1815 settings. This has always disappointed me. There's so much room for romance, adventure, danger, and truly huge stakes with a wartime setting. I'm really excited about this book, and can't wait to read it (but then I'm a huge Sharpe's fan, so I'm fine with this having a bit more “war” to leaven the romance).

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  5. Sunita
    Aug 23, 2010 @ 17:49:43

    @Kim in Hawaii: I think that the book has something for people from widely ranging perspectives. I should note that when Anna and Will part, they are very much afraid they will never see each other again, even if Will survives the war.
    @TKF: Ms. Fraser refers to her love for the Sharpe and Aubrey-Maturin novels, and I can see their influence. As a fellow Sharpe devotee, the book definitely reminded me of those stories.

    I also want to note that people without ereaders have many ways of reading this book: Kindle for PC, Mac, Android, and iThing, as well as the Sony and B&N PC & Mac programs.

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  6. Susanna Fraser
    Aug 23, 2010 @ 18:20:49

    Thanks for the review, Sunita, and I’m glad you enjoyed the book! Though I think I’ve learned my lesson about using character names as a tip of the hat to Those Who Have Gone Before, since so far those readers who notice seem to find it more distracting than anything else…

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  7. KristieJ
    Aug 23, 2010 @ 18:39:25

    I have this one on order – just waiting for the release day before I can claim it. Also, I noticed that Carina has a great deal going until September first.

    Wait a minute – I just checked and I can get The Sergeant’s Lady downloaded today! Sweet.

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  8. Aoife
    Aug 23, 2010 @ 18:44:55

    Sunita, thanks for the review, it made me want to find this book and download it immediately. It’s exciting when an author uses an overused setting, and makes it fresh. I’m hoping that’s what happens for me here.

    I don’t think the use of “Juana” for the laboring mother is going to bother me much, since it’s a pretty common name!

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  9. orannia
    Aug 23, 2010 @ 18:45:20

    Thank you Sunita! I love historical fiction, especially historical fiction with a strong touch of romance, which is sounds like this books has. And the premise has me intrigued. Now the question is whether I can read it on my iPhone (the whole format issue drives me bonkers) and whether the book’s purchase is geographically restricted…

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  10. Sunita
    Aug 23, 2010 @ 18:45:59

    @Susanna Fraser: I think my reaction was because I didn’t know you as an author and I have read so many copycat Regencies which get stuff wrong that I flinched. Also, remember that I read the book without prior information about it or you. Once I finished, I was pretty sure it was knowledgeable homage. But I wanted to signal to other Heyer buffs in case they had the same reaction.

    I think that as people get to know your work (and if they have more advance info) the tips of the hat will be seen as Easter Eggs. Diane Farr did that in a few of her Regencies and it was a lot of fun.

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  11. Jenny Schwartz
    Aug 23, 2010 @ 19:19:47

    Juana from The Spanish Bride is a lovely tip of the hat. Years ago when I was researching West Australian history I read an extract from a diary of one of the women travelling to the then Swan River Colony (I think it was Mrs Molloy, but don’t quote me). They stopped in South Africa on the voyage from England, and the Governor was Harry Smith, Juana’s husband. The colonial wife said Juana had put on weight! but was charming.

    I wonder if I kept my notes and can check my memory? Anyway, it really made Juana real, that connection. Apparently after the Napoleonic Wars these officer-husbands-family men had to find something to do, and they headed for the colonies.

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  12. Lynn
    Aug 23, 2010 @ 19:26:00

    As a long time Regency reader, I have been following comments about this title on a number of blogs and was debating about purchasing it — all of the titles that I have on my K1 have either been free or below $2 since I have been unemployed since March and have had to drastically reduce my book budget.
    However, the review here has tipped the balance — after reading it, I bopped right over to Amazon and downloaded it — can’t wait to get started.
    Hopefully, once I return to work I can increase my book budget and can start purchasing more titles from Carina.

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  13. Tae
    Aug 23, 2010 @ 20:31:24

    wow, this really sounds like a good book and something I’d enjoy. I really like the idea of “how will they get together” tension. Looks like this is going on my list.

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  14. Susanna Fraser
    Aug 23, 2010 @ 21:59:06

    Thanks, Sunita! That makes sense.

    And thanks to all who’ve commented so far. I’m glad I’m not the only one interested in the military side of the Regency era, and I hope you enjoy the book.

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  15. Ros
    Aug 24, 2010 @ 02:49:43

    @Susanna Fraser: Hmm. I’d buy that Juana is a common name and so the link is coincidental. But if you’re saying that you did it deliberately, I wonder why? Juana Smith didn’t ever have children.

    Anyway, I loved your website and I like the sound of the book.

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  16. Merrian
    Aug 24, 2010 @ 06:56:50

    OK it sounds as if I have my first buy from Carina press. The town of Ladysmith in South Africa was named after Juana and was the site of one of the long sieges of the Boer war.

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  17. Sunita
    Aug 24, 2010 @ 09:52:34

    I’m so glad the review is encouraging people to read this book,and I hope you all enjoy it. And thanks so much for the South African info, I had forgotten about that part of their careers. As you can probably tell, I was somewhat obsessed with The Spanish Bride, the 95th, and the Smiths when I was younger. Thanks to the digital project at Penn, Harry Smith’s biography is now available online,and there are Wikipedia entries for both Harry and Juana.

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  18. Erica Anderson
    Aug 24, 2010 @ 10:35:43

    I bought this the day it came out because the setting reminded me of my favorite Carla Kelly traditionals. So glad it lives up to its promise!

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  19. Kiersten
    Aug 24, 2010 @ 11:48:45

    For me, it’s automatic. Napoleonic Wars + 95th Rifles = Sharpe & Sean Bean. So, yeah! Also, the class distinctions remind me of the original romantic conflict in Persuasion.

    I was already on board for this book due to Susanna’s great web site and Twitter posts. Thank you Sunita, for the heads up on the 2nd half. I would have found it a tad jarring I’m sure but will enjoy it now that I’m prepped for the change.

    Congrats Susanna!

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  20. Nifty
    Aug 24, 2010 @ 11:54:32

    The cover is gorgeous!!

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  21. GrowlyCub
    Aug 24, 2010 @ 16:28:05

    I just finished reading this and really enjoyed it. Thank you, Sunita, for the review without which I would not have read the book as cross class romances aren’t usually my cup of tea.

    I have to respectfully disagree with you, however, with regard to the separation; having read the review I looked very carefully and they don’t separate until over 2/3 of the book has taken place, rather than half. Apart from the page count I really did not feel that this was an overlong separation or that this book would not qualify as a historical romance rather than a romantic historical. I’d have no hesitation whatsoever to recommend it to romance readers who prefer their focus to be on the couple. While they were physically separated, the focus did not shift to a suspense plot or other unorganic device.

    It’s always interesting how differently we all perceive the same texts. I felt I ought to make this point just in case some might decide not to read due to concerns about the separation/length thereof.

    I agree it would have been nice to see a bit more of them together at the end. In this book, an epilogue would definitely have been welcome.

    I had more issues with the resolution as

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    my impression is that English society in India was of an even more stratified nature, so that their respective stations in life would be even more of an issue there.

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    Nevertheless, I’m very glad I read The Sergeant’s Lady and will look for more titles by this author.

    Definitely recommended. I’d give it a B+.

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  22. coribo25
    Aug 24, 2010 @ 17:10:24

    Would love to read it but it’s not showing as available on Amazon Kindle UK. Anyone know if Carina are restricting distribution of their titles to the .com site, or whether it will be available on the .co.uk site at some time?

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  23. Jane
    Aug 24, 2010 @ 18:38:28

    @coribo25 I believe these are geo free.

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  24. Angela James
    Aug 24, 2010 @ 18:43:46

    Jane sent me over here to answer about geo restrictions. Yes, the Carina books are all geo free. We contract worldwide rights so they can be purchased and read worldwide.

    I’m not sure how Amazon Kindle UK gets their titles versus Amazon US, and Aideen, our e-tailer liaison, is on vacation this week but I’ll ask her to comment when she returns from vacation! But in the meantime, have you tried purchasing the book from Amazon US?

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  25. Sunita
    Aug 25, 2010 @ 08:58:18

    @GrowlyCub: You are quite right, GrowlyCub, the separation is less than half the book; I should have been more careful in describing the shift. You have a very good point that since the book doesn’t go off into a suspense plot or something else, it isn’t the same type of separation that can annoy readers so much. I think that for me it was the change in tone and focus, rather than the separation per se (which I usually don’t mind at all). Also, I know some readers hate when the h/h aren’t together, so I wanted to let them know.

    As for the ending,
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    I thought that sending them to India was a wonderful way to solve the cross-class HEA. You are absolutely right that British Indian society became extremely rigid and class-conscious, especially after 1858. But in the book’s period it was more open because bringing wives and families was not yet the norm and the empire was not fully established. It was not the wild wild east it had been in the 18th century, but it hadn’t been fully consolidated into the Passage to India society either. I’m not as steeped in the historical materials of this era as I am in the late 18th and late 19th/early 20th centuries, but I’m pretty sure this is historically accurate. I’ve always thought that authors missed an opportunity by not using the 1770-1830 period of the British in India, because they have to do a lot of historical gymnastics to make cross-cultural and cross-class romances work in the later eras.

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  26. GrowlyCub
    Aug 25, 2010 @ 09:08:38

    @Sunita:

    Oh, excellent point about the time period re India; I didn’t consider that as most of what I’ve read situated there takes place later!

    The things that bother you in the later part of the book just enhanced the angsty reading experience for me, but I understand that’s not for everybody.

    Thanks again for the review. I love finding new authors! :)

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  27. coribo25
    Aug 25, 2010 @ 16:17:14

    @Jane: Thank’s Jane. It’s still showing as unavailable on Amazon UK Kindle. I’ll email the author or carina and ask when it will be available.

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  28. Edie Ramer
    Aug 26, 2010 @ 14:58:40

    What a thoughtful review. Though I haven’t read this book yet (but plan to), I like it that this isn’t a typical romance. I applaud Carina for publishing a romance that’s different.

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  29. Wendy
    Aug 30, 2010 @ 16:26:47

    I read this in one sitting. Really well done. A refreshing lack of the usual games that cause the are-they-aren’t-they suspence in a romance. (It is this that makes me only a sporadic romance reader.)
    I applaud Ms. Fraser and will look forward to future offerings.

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