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Historical Romances

REVIEW:  Under the Same Sky by Genevieve Graham

REVIEW: Under the Same Sky by Genevieve Graham

 

Dear Ms. Graham,

I’ve been trying to read more historical romance lately, so when I was offered your book and I saw that it was a departure from the usual England as Regencylandia fare, I was happy to accept. The unusual premise (Outlander meets Last of the Mohicans) sounded promising and it looked like a modern incarnation of the epic romances that some of us really miss from the olden days. Unfortunately, there were a number of issues that made this a less than satisfying read. It straddles the romance/fiction boundary, but not always in a way that works.

The novels opens in the 1730s, when our narrator, Maggie is a child. Maggie has vivid dreams in which she sees the future, and she forms empathic connections with other people, most notably with Andrew McDonnell, a young teenage boy who lives in the Highlands of Scotland. She feels a strong bond with him, but at that point she knows nothing about him.

When Maggie is seventeen, her life of terrible experiences begins. First, her abusive, alcoholic father dies, leaving her mother and three sisters to scratch out a living on their farm. Then, when she is seventeen, white men come to their farm, shoot her mother dead and kidnap Maggie and her fifteen- and ten-year-old sisters and gang-rape them. Her youngest sister, Ruth, dies from the assault and fifteen-year-old Adelaide is severely traumatized. Maggie and Adelaide are able to escape with the psychic help of Andrew and the real-world help of some sympathetic Cherokee men, who take the girls to their village. As Maggie and Adelaide are nursed back to physical health, Maggie is befriended by Waw-Li, an old woman who also has psychic abilities, and she and her sister are incorporated into the Cherokee community. Things are relatively not-horrible for a while, but the reader should not get too comfortable.

Meanwhile, Andrew and his father and brothers are, as McDonnells, loyal to the Stuart cause and wind up at Culloden on the losing side. Andrew is separated from the others in the battle and assumes they have been killed; he is saved only because Maggie psychically assists him. He makes his way back to the family property, only to find that the English have burned the buildings and killed his mother. Andrew leaves his home and hikes through the Highlands for two months before he meets a fellow Scot, Iain McKenzie, who was also at Culloden and whose wife and children were also killed in the aftermath. Iain and Andrew join forces, walking past abandoned houses, until they find the McLeod property, untouched, where they are welcomed by the family. Andrew has decided to leave Scotland, and Iain joins him. The McLeod’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Janet, wants Andrew to marry her and take her with him, but he is committed to his vision of Maggie.

All this happens before the reader is halfway through the book.

The grimness of the stories is almost unremitting. Children are brutally assaulted and killed, as are women. White men in the Colonies and the English in Scotland are uniformly evil (although the English inexplicably fail to ransack every home they come across, leaving food and even honey in the cupboards of some Scots they kill). The Cherokee are uniformly good. Unfortunately, we don’t really get to know the Cherokee except through Maggie’s perspective. They aren’t quite ciphers, but they’re far from rounded characters, considering we spend a fair amount of time with them, and there’s a lot of exposition about Cherokee ways and beliefs. And oh yes, the one Irish character plays the fiddle.

There is a strong sense of historical place in the novel. The Scottish countryside is well described, as are the scenes in colonial America. There is a lot of Gaelic and brogue, but it didn’t bother me as much as it has in many historical romances (The “dinna fash” count is 2). Inexplicably, however, the historical verisimilitude falls apart in the last quarter of the book. Andrew, Iain, and the others accompanying them make their way to the Scottish coast, where they easily gain passage on a ship bound for Virginia. They have plenty of money to pay the fare for five people, and Andrew even gets paid for working on board the ship on the journey. Then, once they reach Virginia, they make their way to Cross Creek, North Carolina without difficulty, and from there to Charleston. Which in this book is in North Carolina. And Andrew, Iain, and Seamus (the Irish fiddler) are able to gain title to 100 acres of land in the “province of North Carolina” on the same day they arrive in Charleston (the biggest town in the South at that point) because:

the magistrate was going over petitions and, being in a cheerful mood, was handing them out like candy. The royal officials granted the land free, subject only to a small surveying and transfer fee: four shillings proclamation money per hundred acres.

And the group soon runs into Maggie, even though she has been in South Carolina for the entire book and not moved from that area.

No, no, no. North and South Carolina were different colonies (not provinces) in 1747. Charleston is in South Carolina. And even “free” land cost a lot more than four shillings in conveyance and other fees. I felt as if I’d been dumped into another book. It was so disappointing, because the historical context was the best thing about the novel up to that point.

Maggie is the most interesting character, perhaps because we spend a lot of time in her head and she is written in first person POV. Andrew is next, written in third person POV. The rest of the characters are kind of stock. The writing is serviceable but there is a lot of exposition and the dialogue is predictable. Here’s an example:

“Your dreams, your magic, your gift from the spirit world. Pah! You can make them say whatever you want. You do not want me, you blame the dreams. You are wrong about something, and you blame them, too. If you do not want to marry me, Ma-kee, you should be strong enough to say it. And if that is so, why do you kiss me and hold my hand? Why do you look at me the way you do?”

“I—” I said in a tiny voice, but stopped, having no idea where to start.

“This is what I mean,” he fumed. “You cannot answer a question without consulting your dreams. You do not know what you want. I waited for you, Ma-kee. I trusted your eyes. Do not tell me some story about your dreams. Do not treat me like an idiot. The others may listen to every word you say, but I know you.”

He disappeared into the trees, crackling twigs under his feet. I didn’t watch him go, but stared at the dead tree beside me, feeling wretched.

He was right and he was wrong. To be fair, I did listen to my dreams, and paid close attention to them. But they didn’t rule my every decision. I thought for myself and always had. The dreams only provided insight and guidance. What hurt was when he had said I didn’t know what I wanted. It hurt because in many ways he was right. I didn’t know why I allowed myself to grow close to Soquili when my heart already belonged to Wolf. I liked being with Soquili, doing what we’d been doing. Before he came along, I had never felt protected or cared for by anyone other than Wolf. I had never expected to want to touch a man after what had happened to me in the woods. I hated that I had hurt him. That he’d felt the need to strike out the way he did. I liked Soquili very much. But he had to understand I was never going to be his wife.

Maggie has been snogging poor Soquili, so it’s not surprising he’s confused. But after a while he comes around and becomes Just A Friend, indeed, such a good friend that he saves Maggie later in the story.

I’m really not sure who the audience is for this book. The hero and heroine do not meet in person until the very end, and the HEA is a given, so romance readers are likely to feel unsatisfied. If the audience is readers of historical fiction, the Carolina problems are pretty glaring, the immigration journey is something out of a pirate romance, and I’m not altogether sure about some of the bits set in Scotland (Andrew walks for months without seeing a soul, which seems unlikely to me, but I could be wrong). While the writing is perfectly adequate, it’s not a book you read for the lyrical prose. And finally, the storyline is grim, grim, grim, I’m all for gritty, but this goes way past that. Grade: C

~ Sunita

 

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REVIEW: The Duke’s Perfect Wife by Jennifer Ashley

REVIEW: The Duke’s Perfect Wife by Jennifer Ashley

Dear Ms. Ashley

The McKenzie family epitomizes the Byronic creed of being mad, bad and dangerous to know. The MacKenzie head of the family was a horrible man who beat his kids, sent his youngest son into an insane asylum, and ultimately killed his wife. Hart MacKenzie, the eldest, did all he could to protect his family, saving his brother, Ian, providing money for his brothers. But the instability of his home life drove Hart to become obsessed with power, believing that power would save his brothers and even when the brothers no longer need saving, Hart can’t let go of his quest. It is his obsession.   Yet for all the money and power, Hart could not protect his family.  The unofficial motto of the MacKenzie family was that they broke everything that they touched.

the duke's perfect wifeTheir fortunes began a reversal when the youngest brother, the Mad MacKenzie, Ian found love with Beth.  If Hart is the head of the family, Ian is the heart and the glue that holds them together.  The two have a complicated relationship.  The MacKenzie series begins with The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie and it is in that book that we are introduced to Hart.  I have a feeling that if The Duke’s Perfect Wife is the introduction a reader has to the MacKenzie brothers, this book will generate a much different opinion.

Hart has built up a certain reputation in the past of having a dark sexual nature.  I was not able to separate what I learned about Hart in previous books with what appeared on the page in The Duke’s Perfect Wife.  Ultimately I felt like you wimped out on Hart, that I was promised to see a man whose bedroom tastes became a source of conflict for him and his beloved.  How would this be resolved. Unfortunately, how it was resolved was to make Hart out to only want to have control in the bedroom, much like he wanted control in every other aspect of his life.  This was a natural extension of Hart’s personality but again, not consistent with what we were previously told. (In one scene in The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie, we are told that Hart engaged in sexual asphyxiation, for example)

What new readers and followers of the series may have in common is attempting to understand the exact reason that Eleanor refused to marry Hart years ago and why she reverses her decision now.  While I believed in the deep love that both of the characters had for each other, Eleanor had jilted Hart over his treatment of women. It wasn’t that she was afraid of his sexual activities or that she was particularly upset that he kept a lover.  It was something else, something that led her to be frightened but I didn’t get it and because I didn’t get why she left, I wasn’t sure why she came back.

The setting is Victorian England and the political unrest of the time was used to great effect.  This was not a story you could have lifted out of its setting and have had the same result.  Hart’s quest to be prime minister and the conflict over the vote for the Irish Home Rule were integral to the plot arc.

If I take the book alone, without referencing the previous series, other than Eleanor’s thin and confusing reasons for leaving Hart (and she had good ones but it was asserted that she did not leave him for any of those good reasons), it is a strong romance.  Hart’s obsession with power is met with increasing resistance from supporters of the Irish Home Rule. Some radicals begin targeting Hart’s family with violence and Hart’s control over his life unspools.  Not helping is the reappearance of Eleanor, his first and only love.  Hart had proposed to Eleanor, the daughter of an impoverished but well respected Scottish nobleman, when she first came out.  They fell madly in love.  But Eleanor spurns Hart after a summer of engagement based on something.  Over the years, Hart has had other women and even married and lost a young son, but he has never been able to fully forget Eleanor.

As for Eleanor, Hart was her one true love but as a teenager, she could not have met power with power.  Hart was older than she and already a man.  Eleanor had not yet come into her own. In the intervening decade, Eleanor grows into her own person and when she returns to Hart, she does so fully able to counter his demands and exert her own will.  I really loved Eleanor.  She had a strong personality tempered by vulnerability.  She was capable without being foolish.  She was unafraid of what Hart perceived to be his demons.  Because Eleanor was so great, I was doubly disappointed at the watering down Hart’s sexual nature.  Eleanor was completely Hart’s equal and I wanted to see that challenge met inside the bedroom as well as outside.  In glossing over the history of Hart, I felt both Eleanor and I were cheated. B-

Best regards,

Jane

 

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