Sunday, February 23, 2014

A different kind of Raj quartet

The Pool in the Desert, Sara Jeannette Duncan

I came across this on the library sales shelves last year.  The Penguin spine caught my eye, and then the back-cover blurb sold me:
Sara Jeannette Duncan was the first Canadian woman to achieve international success as a journalist, novelist, and travel writer . . . First published in 1903, the four novellas in this collection are told with a fine sense of irony and sophistication.  Set against the backdrop of British India these vividly rendered portraits of women who attempt to defy convention are as fresh and provocative today as when they were written.

Any novel from the Victorian or Edwardian era with "women who attempt to defy convention" pretty much has me at hello.

It was only later that I realized I had already been introduced to Duncan and her books, by Barb over at Leaves and Pages.  After reading her posts, I downloaded copies of The Simple Adventures of a Memsahib and An American Girl in London to my e-reader (where they still sit unread).

The four novellas here, which aren't connected, are set at stations in British India, particularly Simla, among the army and Civil Service families.  Duncan herself lived in India for many years after her marriage to a civil servant.  In some ways these stories are like Jane Austen's "three or four families in a country village."  Duncan's focus is the domestic and social ties that bind the British together in India, not the details of colonial administration.  She does include some descriptions of the scenery, particularly around Simla, which made me curious about her travel writings.  Each of the stories is told in the first person, by someone who plays a part in the events she or he narrates, but who is also observing the others involved, with more or less objectivity.  As one of the narrators puts it, in the story that gives the collection its title:
It was there between them - the tenable ground of what they were to each other; they occupied it with almost an equal eye upon the tide that threatened, while I from my mainland tower also made an anguished calculation of the the chances.
I was not surprised to learn that Duncan was a friend of Henry James, who admired her work. The back cover of my edition quotes a 1903 review from The New York Times, which says that Duncan has "the elusive, fine-drawn style of Henry James."

Each of the four stories is very different.  The first concerns a mother whose infant daughter was "sent home" after a serious illness, with only two visits in twenty years. When she arrives for a third time, to bring her daughter back to India, she doesn't find the instant connection that convention tells her should exist between mother and daughter.  Another story involves a young American artist, whose paintings of Indian life enthrall two Simla residents, as does the artist himself.  The third is the story of another American, a young woman traveling around the world, who meets new friends - and an unexpected old one - in Simla.  And the final story is about two women whose friendship is tested when one of them falls in love.

From a reference to "Her majesty" in one of the stories, I suspect that some of them at least were written before 1901. However, except for the references to horse-drawn carriages, they could fit very well in with Paul Scott's Raj Quartet.  I was surprised by more than one character's divorce, which leaves them not ostracized, but in something of an ambiguous situation.  As the back-cover blurb states, the women in these stories are acting and choosing for themselves.  These choices may end in conventional ways, but the lines are often blurred.  In the first story, the mother chooses to remain in India, with her husband, rather than going with her daughter to England.  She leaves her child to be raised by relatives because "I may have been Cecily's mother in theory, but I was John's wife in fact."

I learned from the introduction to this book that Sara Jeannette Duncan and a friend, also a journalist, set out on a round-the-world tour in 1888, a year ahead of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's historic race.  Like Bisland, they set off westward.  (It was during their visit to India that Duncan met and became engaged to her future husband; she left him behind to complete the trip.)  Duncan later wrote a book about the trip, a novel called A Social Departure, which is now on my TBR list.  I expect I'll be adding more of her work.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Chasing the elusive black tulip

The Black Tulip, Alexandre Dumas

After falling in love with The Count of Monte Cristo last year, I started looking for more of Alexandre Dumas's books.  Helen, whose review of The Count had inspired me to find a copy, also wrote about The Black Tulip as a story similar to the Count's, which was enough to add it to my reading list.  But I've been slower to read the books than I was to collect them, so I decided to choose one for the TBR challenge.  It was serendipity to discover that this was published in 1850, so that it also qualifies for my Mid-Century reading project.

At only 230 pages in my Penguin Classics edition, this has to be one of Dumas's shortest books.  But he manages to pack so much into his story: Dutch politics, mob violence, tulipomania, false imprisonment, and a chase across Holland with a rare black tulip, worth 100,000 florins to its inventor.  There is also quite a passionate love story - a triangle, really - between the falsely-accused prisoner and his warder's beautiful daughter, who suspects that he may actually love tulips more than her.  The action moves quickly between suspense, comedy and romance, before wrapping up neatly and happily in the last chapter, which even gives us a peek at the characters' lives in the future (my favorite kind of conclusion).

Dumas set his story in 1672, a confused time in Dutch politics, with rebellion against the Spanish crown followed by war with England and France, and conflict over a republican form of government.  It's a period I know very little about, despite being of Dutch descent on my father's side.  But the hero of this story isn't interested in politics.  Cornelius van Baerle, a wealthy young man of leisure, has devoted his life to tulips.  With his fortune, he can afford everything he needs not just to grow the best, but to study them and to develop new varieties.  When the Haarlem Tulip Society offers its prize for the first black tulip produced, Cornelius sets to work, under the constant surveillance of his neighbor and rival, Isaac Boxtel.  Cornelius's downfall comes when he innocently accepts a packet of papers from his godfather Cornelius de Witt (a real historical figure).  When the older Cornelius and his brother Johann are murdered by a mob in the Hague (a real historical event that opens the story), the fictional Boxtel uses that as an excuse to attack his rival. He denounces von Baerle to the authorities for holding treasonous papers from the de Witts.  The packet is discovered just where Cornelius put it, and no one believes him when he swears he had no idea what was in it.  He barely has time to hide in his clothing the three black tulip bulbs he has produced before he is hauled off in turn to the Hague.

Sentenced to death, he bequeaths the bulbs to Rosa, the beautiful, blonde daughter of the brutal prison warder Gryphus.  He instructs her to raise the tulips, win the prize, and marry a handsome young man on the proceeds.  Rosa has already chosen her handsome young man, though she doesn't immediately inform Cornelius of her choice.  But when he is spared for execution and transferred to the prison of Loevestein,  Rosa manages to get her father transferred there, and she comes along, with the precious tulip bulbs.  She visits Cornelius each night, talking to him through the barred window in the door of his cell, and he is soon as deep in love as she is.  They manage quite a bit of contact through that window!  More innocently, Cornelius teaches her how to read and write, using the Bible.  He also instructs her how to plant the precious bulbs, which Rosa accuses him of loving more than her (and with some reason).  Meanwhile, someone else has also arrived in Loevestein, and though he professes to be in love with Rosa, it is another prize that he has in sight.

I thoroughly enjoyed this fast-paced adventure, which had me laughing out loud more than once.  I had forgotten how funny Dumas can be.  This is a much lighter story than The Count!  In addition to learning a little about Dutch history, I also have a new appreciation for tulips. I've been looking at Google images, including some stunning black tulips (though apparently they aren't really black, just dark deep purple).  Yesterday, in another moment of serendipity, in an exhibit of Impressionist paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts here in Houston, I came across a lovely Renoir painting of tulip fields in flower (you can see the painting toward the bottom of this article).

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Death on the stairs

Out of Circulation, Miranda James

This is the fourth book in Miranda James' "Cat in the Stacks" series.  Miranda is actually Dean James, whom I have known for many years through Houston's Murder by the Book.  The series features Charlie Harris, who moved from Houston back to his home town of Athena, Mississippi, after the death of his wife.  He lives in the old family home inherited from his aunt Dottie, which he shares with his son and daughter, as well as two boarders.  Another resident, the cat in question, is Diesel, a Maine Coon, a breed known for its size, intelligence, chattiness, and charm.  Sometimes mistaken for a bobcat at first glance, Diesel goes almost everywhere with Charlie, even to work.  Charlie is a special collections librarian and archivist at Athena College, and one day a week he volunteers at the local public library.  Dean himself is a librarian, so the details of Charlie's work are always right, though I don't know any archives that would actually allow a cat in their stacks.  In the acknowledgements for this book, he thanks two local archivists, colleagues of mine, "for their expert advice on archives and rare books."

This book is really all about libraries and archives.  It opens at a difficult meeting in Charlie's home, where the board of the Friends of the Athena Public Library has gathered to plan their annual fundraising gala.  One member, Vera Cassity, wants to wrest control - of more than just the gala - away from the Ducote sisters, Miss An'gel and Miss Dickce, the last of a prominent old Athena family.  Quick-tempered and brash, Vera has made more enemies than friends in the town, and in the days leading up to the gala, she picks fights with people all over the place.  She swoops into the college archives and tries to bully Charlie into giving her access to the Ducote family papers, obviously hoping to dig up some dirt on the sisters.  Since it is a closed collection, he refuses, and she retaliates with threats to get him fired and Diesel impounded.  I wasn't the least surprised when she is murdered during the library gala at the Ducote mansion, pushed down a steep staircase.  Charlie's long-time housekeeper, Azalea Berry, becomes the chief suspect, and her daughter Kanesha asks his help in finding the real killer.  A chief deputy in the sheriff's office, Kanesha is of course barred from the investigation while her mother is a suspect.

The library gala was a hoot to read about, at least up until Vera is killed.  It is a costume party, with guests coming as their favorite literary characters - and I suspect some of Dean's.  Charlie is Hercule Poirot, with his date as Ariadne Oliver (a character I had to google).  The Ducote sisters are Elizabeth Peters fans.  Miss An'gel dresses as Amelia Peabody Emerson, complete with pith helmet and tool belt, and her sister as Jacqueline Kirby.  Charlie's daughter Laura and her boyfriend Frank come as Nancy Drew and Ned Nickerson, his son Sean with his girlfriend as Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.  There are other guests dressed as Jack Reacher, Mma Precious Ramotswe, and Scarlett O'Hara (the victim Vera).  I was giggling all through those chapters and trying to decide what my costume would have been.

As part of his investigations, Charlie reluctantly decides that he has to check out the Ducote sisters as well as other possible suspects, including Vera's husband Morty, who according to the town's grapevine has been carrying on an affair with a neighbor, Sissy Beauchamp.  For the Ducotes, that means looking through the family papers in the college archives.  There he discovers a diary, with a long-held family secret. The sisters themselves don't even know it's there, let alone what it might tell them.  But it's in talking to people, asking questions and putting information together, that Charlie discovers the solution, and the murderer.

This is a fun series, and I enjoy both the characters and the setting.  The fifth book, The Silence of the Library, which has just been published, has already made The New York Times' best-seller lists.  When I stopped in at MBTB to get a copy on Saturday, Dean was there and very graciously signed a copy for me.  Since Deborah Crombie's new book has been pushed back to September, I may use my TBR-dare new-book exemption to read it instead.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

A May-December marriage

Nancy, Rhoda Broughton

This is the fourth of Rhoda Broughton's novels that I have read.  I found the last one, Cometh Up as a Flower, so bleak that I was in no hurry to get to the two that I still had on the TBR stacks.  But in checking the shelves for books that fit my "Mid-Century of Books" project, I noticed that this one, published in 1873, opens with the six children of the Grey family making toffee in the school-room.  That sounded like a promising beginning, perhaps to an Alcott-like story.

At the time, I didn't read far enough to discover that, while they are in the school-room, five of the six are actually young adults.  Nancy, who narrates the story (in the present tense), is 19, with two siblings above her and three coming after.  "There are no two of us, I am proud to say, exactly simultaneous, but we have come tumbling on each other's heels into the world in so hot a hurry that we evidently expected to find it a pleasant place when we got there."  Though I found the present-tense narration distracting at the start, I was immediately taken with Nancy's breezy, confidential voice, and with the chaff and jokes that fly between the siblings, sometimes cruelly.

I knew nothing of the plot of this book when I started it, and I enjoyed discovering the story.  I did cheat about a third of the way through, and read the last chapter, in case I needed to brace myself for a traumatic ending. Just a warning, for those who would like to discover the story on their own: there will be spoilers below.  I guess it's because I like to chew over books that I don't seem to be able to write about them without spoilers.

Just as the toffee is poured out to cool, their mother arrives to tell them that their father's friend Sir Roger Tempest is coming to stay.  The young people make a great many jokes about the visitor's advanced age and the possibility that he might adopt one or another of them.  But when Sir Roger shows an interest in one of them, it isn't adoption that he has in mind.  Nancy is as astonished as her siblings to learn that he has offered for her - and the reactions of her siblings (except the saintly Barbara) are hilarious.  She is reminded constantly that he is forty-seven, to her nineteen, and that he was at school with her father.  Nancy, proverbial in the family for her frankness, can't help mentioning those points herself from time to time to Sir Roger, who is embarrassed but persevering.  In the end, she accepts him, because she likes him, and because she wants to get away from her father, whose cold angry sarcasm makes life miserable for his wife and children.  He is one of those domestic martinets with a sociable and cheerful face for outsiders, who think him a perfect father and husband.  I know someone with a father like that, and she got so very tired of people telling her how lucky she was to have such a great dad.

So Nancy marries her father's friend, though it almost breaks her heart to leave her mother and siblings.  Naive and unsophisticated, she finds it difficult to adjust to married life, and she feels isolated and bored, separated for the first time from her boisterous family.  She and Sir Roger have hardly returned from their honeymoon when he announces that he must go to the West Indies to deal with business concerns there.  Since Nancy cannot face the long voyage, he reluctantly leaves her at her new home, his estate of Tempest.  Her siblings join her there for visits, and she hopes to make a match between Barbara and their nearest neighbor, Francis Musgrave.  She doesn't seem to notice that he pays much more attention to her than to her sister, though others do.  At the same time, Nancy meets another neighbor, Mrs. Huntley, who she learns from Mr. Musgrave was Sir Roger's first choice for a wife, many years ago.  Nancy, who is learning to care more about her husband in his absence, can't help but feel some jealousy, which is made even worse when her brother Algy falls victim to Mrs. Huntley's charms.  When Sir Roger returns, it is to rumors about his wife and Mr. Musgrave, while Nancy cannot restrain herself from accusations about Mrs. Huntley.  Their relationship cracks under the strain, though as the husband reminds his wife more than once, they are tied together until death.

I thought this was an interesting study of a marriage, the May-December type so frequent in Victorian novels.  Despite its serious elements, including the death on one character, it is not a depressing story, in part because of the liveliness of Nancy's narrative voice, and of her siblings.  I found both Nancy and Sir Roger very sympathetic characters.  Broughton manages to convey Nancy's innocence and essential goodness, but her immaturity and lack of awareness as well, so that the reader sees much more than she does.  This story is also a romance, one that develops slowly, with the protagonists separated for at least half the book.  It's clear that Sir Roger is smitten with Nancy from the moment he meets her, and he is soon deep in love.  He marries her knowing that she doesn't love him, and he is almost afraid to believe that she could come to care for him, especially with the handsome young Mr. Musgrave hanging around.  He is rather humble about it all, at least until jealousy makes such trouble between them.

I was surprised at one element of the story: I expected Nancy to come back pregnant from her honeymoon, or to discover she is expecting after Sir Roger leaves on his trip, but there is no mention of children, even at the end.  When I thought about it, I realized that is true for all the heroines in Broughton's books that I've read so far - none of the married women has children, at least in the course of the stories.  This seems unusual for a Victorian novel.  After all, Nancy's mother was continuously pregnant for the first five or six years of her marriage, and she had an unexpected later child as well.  Yet Nancy like Broughton's other heroines is quite open about expressing her growing love physically, by throwing herself into Roger's arms, kissing him, and sitting in his embrace with her head on his shoulder.

I really enjoyed this story, with its mix of comedy, romance, and domestic drama. I still have Red As a Rose Is She on the TBR stacks, and it will be interesting to see where it falls on the spectrum of Rhoda Broughton's books.  I saw one reference to it as an attack on "ludicrous Victorian propriety," which sounds promising.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

A story of deception

The Ivy Tree, Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart played me like a violin with this book.  Not once but twice did she pull the rug out from under me, and each time I sat there with my mouth open, thinking "Wait, what?"  And then I started furiously turning pages back - all the way to the beginning at one point.  In fact, I think I spent more time reading backwards than I did forwards.

Just in case I'm not the last person to read this book, there will be spoilers below.

On a June morning in Northumberland, Mary Grey encounters an angry young man, Con Winslow. He insists that she is his cousin Annabel Winslow, who left their family home of Whitescar eight years ago.  He accuses her of returning to claim her share of the estate, with her grandfather's health failing.  Mary finally convinces him that she is not his cousin, but a stranger recently arrived from Canada.  A few days later, a woman turns up at the café where Mary works, to sit and watch her.  Eventually the woman tracks Mary to her boarding house, where she introduces herself as Con's sister Lisa.  She makes a startling proposition: that Mary should impersonate Annabel long enough to help Con secure the estate against the third heir, his cousin Julie.  Mary eventually agrees, in return for a regular stipend, future financial security.

It was seeing reviews of this book a couple of years ago that got me interested in Mary Stewart's suspense novels (I had read only her Merlin books).  I often saw it compared to Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar, a book I love.  With Tey's story, we know from the start that Brat is an impostor, masquerading as Patrick Ashby, who disappeared when he was 13.  With that story in mind, I took it for granted that Mary is just who she says she is. I even chuckled over Stewart's cleverness in incorporating Brat Farrar into her story.  Lisa, Con's sister, takes it as her guidebook in training Mary for her role.  Remembering the ending of the book, I wondered what had happened to the real Annabel, and I kept a sharp eye on Con, the most obvious suspect.

I also took it for granted - and perhaps for authorial license - that Mary learns so quickly and so well from Lisa, that she plays her part as Annabel without a single slip.  I admired the way that she leads people on to talk, gathering information from them and covering gaps in her own, as when the housekeeper Mrs Bates tells her of the night Annabel left Whitescar.  I admired the cleverness, but I found myself not liking Mary much.  It seemed a shabby thing to do, with Annabel's grandfather so frail, gruffly welcoming back his prodigal; and even worse to be doing it for money.  It didn't bother me when Linda in Nine Coaches Waiting lied about her background, but this felt worse.  I started to wonder if Mary Stewart had actually created an unsympathetic central character, for a change!

Annabel's cousin Julie arrives half-way through the book, and that's when things went all cattywompus for me.  At first I thought her Scots friend Donald, quiet and charming, might be the hero I'd been half-expecting (if he'd had a small son, that would have clinched it).  But then Julie drops the bombshell of Annabel's affair with a married neighbor, Adam Forrest, and all kinds of things I thought I knew about her were suddenly not true.  I started reading back, looking for clues about Adam.  Events begin to move so quickly after that, as Mary meets Adam and confesses to him that she isn't Annabel. Then Julie is attacked, and in the aftermath of that, Mary confesses to Adam that she is Annabel.  At that point, I actually thought she was lying to him.  It was a few pages on that I realized she had told the truth, which sent me frantically paging back yet again and trying to work out the story in my mind.  I drove to work that morning in a fog, thinking of Annabel and Adam rather than the other cars on the road with me.

Running through all of this, and adding to the turmoil, is the frail health of Annabel and Julie's grandfather, and the constant question of how he will leave his property and his money.  After all, that is what led Con to recruit Mary in the first place: to secure the estate for himself.  It is clear from the start that Con will do almost anything to ensure that happens. Instead, in an ironic twist, he is killed, his death following close on his great-uncle's.  As the story closes, Annabel seems to have inherited Whitescar, but I don't understand how, since she can't be Con's heir.  It's a small point, but it bothers me.  Perhaps her grandfather made her the residual heir?  We never actually hear what's in his will.  He just likes to hint a lot, which in mystery stories can get a person killed.

I have to mention one other quibble with the ending: when Julie finds the letter that Annabel wrote Adam eight years ago, where Julie herself put it in the old oak tree.  When Annabel learns earlier in the story that Adam never received the letter, she worries that his wife Crystal had gotten it and discovered their affair.  She tells him that this will always be between them, that they can never be together now.  And then at the very end, like magic, the letter turns up safe.  I think it is unnecessary, when Adam and Annabel have already made their peace, in the stable after the accidents, "when both of us had to be driven to the very edge of loss, before we could accept the mercy that had saved us and allowed us to begin again . . ."  (and that, by the bye, reminded me very much of Lymond and Philippa, when he comes riding to Flaw Valleys, at the end of Checkmate).

Still, quibbles aside, I thought this was an amazing, marvelous book, the best of Mary Stewart's that I have read so far.  And I may still re-read it all from the start, to watch how she fits the different layers of her plot together, and to see where she so neatly and easily led me up the garden path.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

More of Trollope's short stories

Tales of All Countries, Second Series, Anthony Trollope

I really need to stop buying books of Anthony Trollope's short stories.  I already have them all, in two collections (divided into "Early" and "Later") published by Oxford University Press.  But I find the volumes of the "Penguin Trollope Series" nearly irresistible.  I think it's partly the familiar orange of the design, but even more the image of Trollope himself on the cover, looking venerable and benevolent:

These editions have none of the introductions or notes that I find so helpful, but they are neat and compact, and I can't help thinking how appealing they would look, all lined up together along on my Trollope shelf.

As you may perhaps have guessed from the title, this is the second of two books of short stories, which were drawn from Trollope's experiences traveling on post-office business.  Many were originally published in the Cornhill Magazine, edited by his friend William Thackeray, and later published in book form (this second volume in 1863).  The stories here really are a mixed bag, some with exotic settings far from Barsetshire or London.  The first, "Aaron Trow," set in Bermuda, is about an escaped convict who breaks into an isolated cottage in search of food and money.  Finding a woman there alone, with no money to give him, he threatens to "do worse than murder you."  The next day, her quiet fiancé joins an island-wide manhunt to track him down.  It's a bleak, violent story, and when I finished it, I put the book down for quite a while.

When I came back to it, I found familiar Trollopian elements in two that take place in England, both concerned with romance and marriage, though in very different ways.  The others deal with British citizens abroad, working or playing.  "Mrs. General Tallboys" is set among the British expatriate colony in Rome, where the title character is spending a winter away from her husband. The author's note mentions that Thackeray rejected this story, because its subject is "a woman not as pure as she should be."  Three are narrated by British gentlemen traveling abroad, and they're the funniest.  I was particularly taken with "George Walker of Suez," who has been sent to Egypt, ostensibly for health reasons, but really he believes because "my partners wished to be rid of me while they made certain changes in the management of the firm."  Poor George goes on to Suez, where he is mistaken for someone else, to his eventual mortification.  And Mr. Robinson, who tells the story of "The Man Who Kept His Money in a Box," gets embroiled not just with that man and his family, but also with the box itself, which goes missing at a crucial moment.

It is a neat coincidence that I was reading Trollope's short stories three years ago today, when I sat down and created this blog, on a sudden impulse.  It's hard to believe that another year of blogging has come and gone (and how far the TBR stack has grown).  Thank you again for reading along, and for sharing your love of books here and on your own blogs.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Six weeks on the lam in 1651

Royal Escape, Georgette Heyer

When I first discovered Georgette Heyer's books, in the early 1980s, they were hard to find, at least in my corner of the United States.  The library had a few of her Regency novels, which I read and re-read, but I had no luck finding copies for myself.  Despite the lists of "Other books by Georgette Heyer" that I occasionally saw, I really had no idea of the scope of her work.  It was only when I joined an on-line Heyer discussion group in the late 1990s that I learned she had also written four contemporary novels (later suppressed) and twelve modern mysteries, let alone historical fiction, set much earlier than the stories with which I was already familiar.

Luckily this was at a time when her books were becoming more available, both through reprints and on-line book-sellers. It also helped that I was living in a city with lots of bookstores.  Since I enjoy mysteries from the Golden Age of the 1930s, I started collecting those.  But I was more hesitant about Heyer's historical fiction.  In reading about Heyer herself, starting with Jane Aiken Hodge's The Private World of Georgette Heyer, I learned that she was a tireless and careful researcher, who turned first to primary sources, amassing countless volumes of notes for both her Regencies and other historical works.  She wanted to be taken seriously as an author, and her ambition was to write straight-forward historical fiction.  But while I still had some of her Regency novels to track down, let alone the mysteries, I wasn't anxious to read her books about William the Conqueror, or Simon the Coldheart in the reign of Henry IV.  When Beauvallet came up for discussion on the Heyer list, I took the plunge with that one, and I enjoyed it more than I expected.  It's a swashbuckling story of an Elizabethan privateer, who captures not just treasure from a Spanish galleon but a lady's heart as well.  It can't compare with Dorothy Dunnett or Patrick O'Brian (my gold standards for historical fiction), but it's a quick fun read.

I've had a copy of Royal Escape on the TBR shelves for several years now.  I don't remember why I bought it - maybe for a discussion on the Almacks list.  I have to admit, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book.  It is the story of King Charles II's escape after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in September of 1651.  Rather than retreating to Scotland, the starting point of his campaign, he hoped to make his way to France.  For the next six weeks, he moved in secret across southwestern England, evading Cromwell's soldiers, guided and hidden by Royalists from all ranks of society.  Heyer carefully researched contemporary accounts of the King's adventures, most famously his hiding in an oak tree, but also disguising himself as a servant traveling with family parties.  She writes with sympathy of her Charles, a young man, a king with no throne, finding his way among dangerous factions.  Despite his harsh features, he has great charm and charisma, and an easy way about him, which draw people to help him almost in spite of themselves.  Still a bit immature, he will run risks that horrify the elders around him, particularly his loyal Lord Wilmot, a fussy courtier wilting under the harsh conditions of life as a fugitive, and the responsibility he feels for his sovereign's safety.

This is a very enjoyable adventure story, complete with priest's holes and disguises and messages sent in code.  Charles has more than one narrow escape in his wanderings, particularly after news spreads of a £1000 bounty on his head.  And it has some familiar Heyeresque elements, including a snippy valet who would be completely at home in any of her Regencies.  But I have to say, I struggled with the first couple of chapters.  The story opens with a bang, in the middle of the battle.  Heyer must have assumed that her readers would be familiar with Worcester and those who fought it.  She introduces ten or fifteen of the King's supporters, in what becomes a confusing crowd of names.  Then she takes all of them fleeing from Worcester, and I got equally lost among the villages and roads.  I finally resorted to an atlas to figure out where exactly they were heading.  A map showing Charles' route and the various places (including the manor houses) where he found shelter would have been a great help in this book.  Heyer also seems to have assumed that her readers would know the context of the battle, how Charles came to be in England and what brought him to Worcester.  There is some discussion of this with various people he meets in his travels, especially the problems he had in Scotland before the campaign started, but they don't explain enough.  This is tricky to handle in historical fiction, to give the necessary background without overwhelming the story, and Heyer doesn't manage it well here.  My other quibble is the dialogue, which to my mind reads a bit awkwardly.  That's another tricky thing in historical fiction, and Heyer does it well in her Regencies (though sometimes relying too much on slang).  Here the language seems self-consciously "historical," with convoluted grammar and people constantly saying "oddsblood" and "oddsfish."

As much as I enjoyed this book, it did not inspire me to immediately read The Conqueror or My Lord John.  But it did though leave me wanting to know more about Charles II, both before and after Worcester.  Can anyone recommend a good biography of the Merry Monarch?