Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Two Beverly Swerling reviews

I'm going to start this post with a bit of a rant. I read City of Glory before I read Shadowbrook. The first reason for doing so is that there was no indication at all that Shadowbrook was connected to the earlier book, City of Dreams, whereas just the title of the third book tells you that there is a connection! I really dislike reading a series out of order but it's done now. I will review the second book in the series first, even though it was the third book I read. Does that last sentence make any sense?

1754. In a peaceful glen in the Ohio Country, the firing of a musket ball signals beginning of the infamous seven-year that paved the way for the American Revolution.

In Shadowbrook a cast of unforgettable characters brings to life the bloody conflict between the French and the English that ignited the 18th century and sparked a nation's battle for independence. Characters like Quentin Hale, the fearless gentleman-turned-scout the Indians call 'Red Bear'; Cormac Shea, the part-Irish, part-Indian woodsman scarred in battle by his own kin, sworn to drive white man from his land; Nicole Crane, the beautiful young half-French woman whose struggle to reconcile her love for Hale with her vow to become a nun causes her to become a pawn in the quest for territory.

Centred around the coveted Shadowbrook, a prosperous plantation in the northern wilderness, and peopled with such historical figures, including a young George Washington, this richly textured novel vividly captures the conflict that opened the eighteenth century and ignited our nation's quest for independence. A classic in the making, Shadowbrook is a page-turning tale of ambition, war, and the transforming power of both love and duty.

When I read City of Dreams, one of the things that I found most surprising was that the author chose to tell the story of several generations in one book, and therefore covered quite a significant period of history (from 1661 to 1798). Whilst it didn't detract from the novel too much, I do much prefer to read a book that concentrates more fully on just one set of characters.

There is nothing in the blurb to easily connect Shadowbrook to the first book. It is only as you start to read that you find out that Quentin Hale's mother is a Devrey of New York and therefore connected to the characters from the first book. With a time frame from 1754-1760 this book sits within the scope of the first book, but I guess the story was just so much bigger than just being a section of the earlier book.

The two main characters are Quentin Hale and Cormac Shea - they are not physically brothers, but they are in all other ways, including by the fact that they have the same Indian 'adult' father, with Quentin having been adopted by the Potawatomi tribe. Cormac is half Irish and half Indian, and had been bought to Shadowbrook as a young teenager when Quent's father made Cormac's mother his mistress. To the Indians these two young men are Bridge people - men who can provide a way for the Indians to understand what is happening in the very different world of the white man. For Cormac and Quent, quite often it means internal strife as they must try to balance the two worlds of which they are part.

The story that Swerling attempts to tell is huge - not only is there the Indian vs white man issues to deal with, there is also the simmering tensions between the British and the French who are fighting to win control of the land stretching from what is now the northern US up to and including Quebec in Canada. Add in the machinations of the Church, and you have a complicated and diverse cast of characters. There are also episodes of Indian mysticism, as well as Catholic religious experience.

As if that is not enough, when Cormac and Quentin meet after a long time apart, Cormac is accompanying a young lady north to Quebec. Her name is Nicole Crane, and she is half British-half French, and she is travelling north to become a member of a the Sisters of the Poor Clares - a convent. Whilst Quentin is a man of honour and wouldn't dare to touch Nicole whilst he believes that she has chosen Cormac to be her man, he finds himself falling in love with her, and when his mother seems to sanction her as the perfect wife to be mistress of Shadowbrook, he knows that she should be his. The only problem is that Quent will never be master at Shadowbrook. As the younger son, he has to watch his sadistic older brother (a completely one dimensional character - evil in just about every way - particularly in comparison to the perfect Quent!) make decisions that will cause trouble for all those who live there, including the slaves and the Quakers who live in a township on the Hale patent.

There are several historical characters woven into the narrative - in particular during the sections dealing with the battles between the British and the French. Possibly the most interesting inclusions were a young man by the name of George Washington who was leading a force of Virginian soldiers and fighting on the side of the British against the French, influential Indian chief, Chief Pontiac, and several generals on either side of the battles over land.

On many levels this story did work for me, but at the end of the day, there was too much left unexplained for me to really love this book.

As an example, one of the major story lines was the wheeling and dealing that was being driven by a one-eyed Scottish man, Hamish Stewart, who fought at Culloden. Hamish wants the Hale patent...badly...and will do almost anything to get his hands on it. He manipulates and bribes, even at one stage trying to destroy the Hales, just so that he can be the owner. What I never did get is what his motivation was. He had been coveting the land for over twenty years, but why THAT land. Why was he so determined that Shadowbrook was the only land that he wanted. This is just one example.

Before finishing up I should mention that this is not a book for the faint of heart. There are battles galore, blood everywhere, and plenty of scalpings. For the most part, it is a fascinating read, although it is a long way from being a perfect read. I would class it as mostly enjoyable.

I should also mention that this book was one of the ones that I had listed for reading as part of the Chunkster Challenge, so it is now two down, two to go to complete the challenge!

Set against the dramatic backdrop of America's second war for independence, Beverly Swerling's gripping and intricately plotted sequel to the much-loved City of Dreams plunges deep into the crowded streets of old New York.

Poised between the Manhattan woods and the sea that is her gateway to the world, the city of 1812 is vibrant but raw, a cauldron where the French accents of Creole pirates mingle with the brogues of Irish seamen, and shipments of rare teas and silks from Canton are sold at raucous Pearl Street auctions. Allegiances are more changeable than the tides, love and lust often indistinguishable, the bonds of country weak compared to the temptation of fabulous riches from the East, and only a few farseeing patriots recognize the need not only to protect the city from the redcoats, but to preserve the fragile Constitutional union forged in 1787.

Joyful Patrick Turner, dashing war hero and brilliant surgeon, loses his hand to a British shell, retreats to private life, and hopes to make his fortune in the China trade. To succeed he must run the British blockade; if he fails, he will lose not only a livelihood, but the beautiful Manon, daughter of a Huguenot jeweler who will not accept a pauper as a son-in-law. When stories of a lost treasure and a mysterious diamond draw him into a treacherous maze of deceit and double-cross, and the British set Washington ablaze, Joyful realizes that more than his personal future is at stake. His adversary, Gornt Blakeman, has a lust for power that will not be sated until he claims Joyful's fiancée as his wife and half a nation as his personal fiefdom. Like the Turners before him, Joyful must choose: his dreams or his country.

Swerling's vividly drawn characters illuminate every aspect of the teeming metropolis: John Jacob Astor, the wealthiest man in America, brings the city's first Chinese to staff his palatial Broadway mansion; Lucretia Carter, wife of a respectable craftsman, makes ends meet as an abortionist serving New York's brothels; Thumbless Wu, a mysterious Cantonese stowaway, slinks about on a secret mission; and the bewitching Delight Higgins, proprietress of the town's finest gambling club, lives in terror of the blackbirding gangs who prey on runaway slaves. They are all here, the butchers and shipwrights, the doctors and scriveners, the slum dwellers of Five Points and the money men of the infant stock exchange...conspiring by day and carousing by night, while the women must hide their loyalties and ambitions, their very wills, behind pretty sighs and silken skirts.

Bearing in mind that I read this, the third book in the series, second, I can't tell you how pleased I was that the author didn't try to fit another 100 years of history into one book. In fact, in this book the time frame of the novel is tightened down yet again, and instead of covering a period of over 100 years (as we were in City of Dreams) or even a handful of years (Shadowbrook), we are treated to the stories of what happened to a group of characters, some imagined and some real, over the period of 10 days or so (with a few flashbacks here and there). And what a tumultuous ten days they were in 1814. The British were advancing on Washington, and everywhere there was fear, distrust and temptation.

The main character of this book is Joyful Patrick Turner. He is a surgeon until he is forced to look for a new line of work due to the fact that his hand is blown off by a British cannon ball during the blockade. Joyful as a character has an intriguing past, having spent many years in China as a young man, and his ability to understand the Chinese way of business as well as to speak the language are very handy skills to have, as he tried to work his way up to being one of the most influential people in the world of New York trade, and if that influence comes to the detriment of his estranged cousins, then so be it.

Along the way Joyful rubs shoulders with many real life characters including the Astors, and some significant events such as the meeting of businessmen in Wall Street (the basis of the Stock Exchange) and the burning of Washington amongst others events.

If I was asked to provide a summary of the events in this books there is no way that you could think that such a variety of plot lines could possibly work, and yet it does. There is opium trading, pirates, love, lust, prostitution, bribery, kidnapping, betrayal, magnificent jewels, talk of secession, battles, blackbirders (people who capture blacks, who may or may not have the necessary documentation, and sell them off to slavers). Whew...there's a lot going on, but Swerling does manage to keep hold of all the various threads of storyline and bring it all to a surprising, if a little fantastical, conclusion.

I have really enjoyed each of the Swerling books that I have read. If I had to pick a favourite though, it would definitely be a toss up between City of Glory and this one.

Now, I need to wait for the next book in the series to come out. According to her website, Beverly Swerling is working on it now. I am looking forward to seeing what period of American history the author wants to show us next.

Cross posted at Historical Tapestry


  1. Great reviews Marg. Very well thought out and written. You've convinced me, I added all 3 books from the series to my TBR. You are such an enabler!

  2. You say the nicest things Teddy!

    Don't worry, I have plenty of enablers as well!

  3. I had no idea these were meant to be connected. I read City of Dreams several years ago and really liked it. I have Shadowbrook (as yet unread) and didn't realize there was another book out! I'll have to go look forit now!

  4. Great reviews Marg!

    But 100 years in one novel? Wow...I don't know how I would be able to read about that. That's like grandma and grandpa's parents and then on and on, but you've intrigued me. Great job sweets!



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