Monday, December 06, 2010

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley
Copyright 2010, 2008
Sourcebooks Landmark - Historical fiction paired with a contemporary story
544 pages

'Ye cannot start a battle, lass, by thinking ye will lose it. Now come, let me show ye how it's played.' He was a soldier, and he taught the movements from a soldier's viewpoint, starting with the forward lines. 'These wee men here, the pawns, they're not allowed to make decisions. They can only put one foot before the other, marching in a straight line to the enemy, except when they attack. Then they follow the thrust of their sword arm, see, on the diagonal.' Moving his pawn against one of her own, he demonstrated. 'Now, the knights, at their backs, they can move that much quicker because they're on horseback and bolder . . . '

--from the uncorrected Advanced Reader's Edition of The Winter Sea, p. 354 (some changes may have been made to the final print version)

The Winter Sea tells the story of novelist Carrie McClelland. A successful published writer, Carrie is having difficulty writing her latest historical fiction, the tale of how a Jacobite fleet nearly succeeded at landing the exiled Scottish king, James Stewart, back in Scotland to reclaim his crown in 1708.

After visiting the area in Scotland where the invasion attempt took place, Carrie decides she's been writing from the wrong perspective and rents a small cottage near the ruins of Slains Castle. As she settles in and begins to write, she finds that whenever she checks her facts, the scenes she has already written turn out to be stunningly accurate. Eventually, she realizes that she is channeling the memories of her ancestor, the heroine of the book, Sophia. The story is told from both historical character and author perspectives, in alternating chapters.

As Carrie writes, she gets help from various Scots who live in the village nearby and falls in love with one of her landlord's sons. The cover of the book describes the historical portion as, "a tale of love and loyalty . . . and ultimate betrayal," a very apt description.

What I loved about The Winter Sea:

Everything. Okay, I know, that's not very specific. To be honest, I've had trouble putting a finger on what exactly it is about this book and this particular author's writing that so completely captured me. It's the kind of chunkster that you can sink your teeth into, though -- a thoroughly escapist read but also a dazzling adventure, not one but two romantic tales and one of my absolute favorite settings: Scotland.

I was truly impressed with the way Kearsley deftly moved from historical to contemporary storylines so that it was always clear which direction in time one was stepping. Also, there is a haunting air about The Winter Sea that reminds me of Daphne DuMaurier's writing and the historical description is emphatically believable. As is often done in more recent printings of historical fiction (this one is a reprint from the late 80's, I believe), the author describes what is real and where she has "taken liberties" with history. It appears that the research on this one was pretty meticulous and that may be one reason it's so believable.

What I disliked about The Winter Sea:

Absolutely nothing. Okay, that's not entirely true. There was one little quirk of Scottish historical speech that kind of drove me nuts -- the addition of "did" or some form of the word "do" before a verb, as in, "He did escape through the back door," rather than, "He escaped through the back door." Those are not sentences from the book, by the way. I don't know if they stuck a form of do/did/does before their verbs in the late 17th - early 18th century, but it sure was annoying. Other than that: nothing. Seriously. I loved this book.

I've already ordered a second book by Kearsley because I'm so enamored of her style that I want to see if I feel the same way about another of her titles.

The bottom line:

Beautiful, clear writing, a believable storyline, adventure and romance landed The Winter Sea on my list of favorites for 2010.

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  1. What a positive review! I love historical fiction, and I love tales in two time periods. This one sounds like a winner.

  2. Jenclair,

    This is one of the best historical/contemporary combos I think I've ever read. Do you follow the Historical Tapestry blog? They've been reading some of Kearsley's books, so you can read more reviews at that blog site.

  3. Oh this does sound good. Another one for my list :)

  4. Isn't historical fiction so wonderful to read during the wintertime? I love the cover of this one, too. I'm looking forward to tracking a copy of this down and reading it right away!

  5. Iliana,

    It's the bees' knees. Or something like that. I can't say a bad word about it, so I do hope you'll read The Winter Sea. :)

    Coffee and Book Chick,

    Well, considering the fact that we don't have much in the way of "winter", I think it's pretty much terrific year-round, but it's actually cold here so I'll just say, "Yes. Why, yes indeed, historical fiction is a very fine thing to curl up with in the winter." Maybe that will make me sound like I live in the real world. ;)

    I hope you love The Winter Sea as much as I did! It's always exciting to find a new author you think is fabulous so I'm all giddy, myself.

  6. With such a positive review, it is hard to not check out this book. This book reminds me of Blood, Money, Power. It's a historical fiction novel based in two eras, just like The Winter Sea.

  7. Nicholas,

    I did kind of gush, didn't I? :) I'll have to check out Blood, Money, Power. I don't always like bouncing between two eras, but it can make for enjoyable reading if done well.

  8. This sounds like a good one - thanks for letting me know about it.

  9. Bridget,

    You're welcome. :)

  10. The heroine does have a fabulous name.

  11. Carrie,

    That may be one reason I thought of you, the entire time I was reading the book -- that and the fact that I was absolutely certain you'd love it.


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