REVIEW: The Winter Sea (Slains Book 1) by Susanna Kearsley
1707. The walls of Slains castle shelter Jacobite rebels, who are conspiring to sail the young, exiled James Stewart from France into Scotland to reclaim his crown—and a young woman caught up in their plot.
Present day. Writer Carrie McClelland is enchanted by an impromptu trip to Cruden Bay, Scotland, and decides to settle in the tiny village, hoping to find inspiration for her novel about the Jacobite uprising in the area’s evocative past—and in the haunting ruins of the castle.
She creates a heroine named after one of her own ancestors, Sophia Paterson, and quickly finds the words flowing, almost faster than she can write them down. But, discovering that her novel inexplicably contains more fact than she can remember researching, Carrie wonders if she could possibly be dealing with ancestral memory—in effect “recalling” what her ancestor lived.
The only way to discover the truth is to continue writing and to bring to light the whole of Sophia’s story. With each new chapter, Carrie uncovers the tale of an innocent entangled in a dangerous enterprise, the secret of forbidden love, and the final betrayal that cost James his throne—and may cost Sophia her heart.
Dear Ms. Kearsley,
When Kaetrin and I were emailing about your upcoming book, I asked her about the notation “Slains 3”. What were “Slains 1 & 2” and did I need to read them first? Turns out I’d already read the second one, “The Firebird” but this book was one that I’d put aside for the interim when I was waiting for another one of your new books. Well, this was the perfect time to finally pull it out.
I had read Sunita’s review of it ages ago but a quick reread dusted off the plot for me. Given her grade, I happily settled into another dual timeline: Jacobite themed historical along with a contemporary setting. Initially I was caught up in the story of modern writer Carrie who has traveled to Scotland thinking this will help her with the latest book she’s writing. After finding out about Colonel Hooke who helped King James VIII of Scotland try to regain his throne in 1708, all her attempts to turn Hooke into the main protagonist have stalled. Taking the advice of her agent, Carrie has started over with who she thinks is a made up character who will act as the linchpin of the tale.
“Sophia Paterson” is named after an ancestor of Carrie’s who lived in the actual time frame of the story. After serendipitously (she thinks) arriving in a small village at the foot of a ruined castle that figured in the failed uprising, suddenly the story is flowing and Carrie can barely get it down fast enough. But along with 1000s of words a day comes another realization for Carrie – in her dreams she seems to be “hearing” these characters as would her heroine “Sophia.”
That can’t be right. Can it? Surely Carrie must have at some time, in her extensive research, read these names that she gives the other characters and learned about the events of the plot. Or her own father’s interest in genealogy has to be where she’s gained this knowledge. Right? Only as she continues to write, with the help of locals who know a lot about Scottish history in general and the history of the 1708 attempted uprising in particular, Carrie realizes that the facts are confirmed, time and again, to be correct. And yet she can find no record in her research data that she’s ever known them. Is Carrie just really good at making up things for her book, or is she somehow channeling past memories of an ancestress who just might have actually lived this story?
Yeah so after a fast start to this book, Carrie settles into writing her book as well as getting to know her landlord and his two sons. Luckily for her, they’ve lived in the area most of their lives and are able to supply her with facts. But wait – there are some other characters who are (how about that!) wild about Scottish history, too, and able to pluck books about the early 18th Scottish Navy off their bookshelves just when Carrie needs to know something! A besotted fan of Carrie’s books gathers up period letters for her from a library in Edinburgh that shine light on other details Carrie thought she’d invented but which turn out to be true. After a while, I began to see this as a historical author’s wish fulfillment. There’s also way too much about characters who refuse to allow their author to write anything but what they want to say and do.
Carrie and the landlord’s son she’s interested in jump through hoops to keep their growing relationship from the son’s other brother and their father, her landlord who (let me just throw this in) thank God is one of the only ones in the book to speak in dialect. Initially there is a reason Carrie wants to hide the fact that she and Graham are getting it on but it soon pales and it becomes sillier and sillier for Carrie and Graham to continue hiding the fact that they’re seeing each other and falling in love. It’s a slow enough burn romance and I wanted it out in the open. I guess this was to somehow mirror what Sophia goes through but after a while it was more annoying than anything else.
In both the historical sections as well as the contemporary ones, there is a ton of repetition. Carrie spends hours deep into the night pounding away at her computer keyboard only to finish a section and not realize what time of the day or night it is. Carrie spends hours deep into the night pounding away at her computer keyboard only to finish a section and not realize what time of the day or night it is. Carrie spends hours deep into the night pounding away at her computer keyboard … oh, right I already said that. And read that. Meanwhile Sophia walks the shore, and walks the shore, and watches Jacobite conspirators meet while everyone waits for the day when the king over the sea will finally show up. Rinse, repeat.
It was by sheer force of will that I kept going until – amazingly – the action finally got started and the damn uprising occurred. At this point, I didn’t care that due to plot reasons, Sophia was not in the thick of any action or seeing things firsthand. Something was happening! But how would Sophia deal with what happened? Sunita’s review had indicated that there would be a HEA so I sat patiently and waited for this. It is believable and makes sense even if it has a touch of deus ex machina to it.
The writing here is, as usual, lovely even if there are scads and scads of telling and not showing. The research has obviously been done to a “T” with the historical details being seamlessly woven into the narrative. There was perhaps a tad too much description of places that went far beyond what was needed in setting the scenery. The romances – both of them – are sweet and gentle with courtly heroes who immediately know that the heroines are The Ones for them and “their women” which, now that I write that, makes it sound a bit icky. And I see where the heroine of the next book in the series comes from although …