I should have read this so much sooner! I’ve owned a Kindle version for years now. I guess I was thinking this was more like your standard “historical” romance, with the focus mostly on the romance, and where history often takes a backseat, or gets a bit imaginary (cough Tessa Dare cough). And don’t get me wrong, I enjoy those types of books often when done well. They are a fluffy good time. But there’s something about the style this book is written in, which frankly reminds me of one of my favorite authors, K.J. Charles, that sets this one apart a bit.
The historical detail is front and center, and you really feel the time and place, in this case the Scottish Enlightenment circa 1820, a time period I really didn’t know much about going in. But Chambers uses the historical setting in such a clever way. We’ve got actual historical happenings; our main character, David Lauriston, is an advocate for the men accused by the state of being radicals who brought about an uprising: the “Radical War”, or as it’s called here, the weaver plot. Workers in Scotland sought government reform and decided to strike, but the government feared them, and the whole thing ended with Andrew Hardie and James Baird (the leaders) being executed, and many other men transported to Australia. The book actually opens with David attending their execution, and it really pulled me in, the way we see it through his eyes. He clearly cares about his clients, and in some ways sympathizes with them, but he’s also a man who as the son of a tenant farmer who nevertheless managed to receive an education, is very careful to follow the rules.
The way Chambers writes the scene is very affecting, and it sets the tone for the rest of the book. She even quotes Baird’s last words, although she seems to have given them to Hardie instead:
“—in a few minutes, our blood shall be shed on this scaffold,” Hardie cried, “our heads severed from our bodies for no other sin than seeking the legitimate rights of our ill-used and downtrodden countrymen—”
Shouts of encouragement from the crowd echoed all around at his words. The sheriff surged forward to place a restraining hand on Hardie’s arm.
“Stop this violent and improper language, Mr. Hardie!” he demanded. He was almost purple with anger. “You promised not to inflame the crowd!”
The spectators protested loudly at this silencing of the prisoner. “Let him speak!” someone cried. Hardie shrugged MacDonald’s hand off, declaring angrily, “We said what we intended to say, whether you granted us liberty to do so or not.”
A loud cheer greeted this, and it seemed to draw Hardie’s attention to the throng of spectators. He looked about himself. Out at the crowd, then up at the gibbet above his head. At the block beside him, readied for his own beheading, then out at the crowd again. At the people grouped in the square to witness his death, all hemmed in by countless redcoats. Everywhere there was the scarlet of dress uniforms, the glint of weapons, the quiver of nervous horseflesh. David watched as the condemned man took it all in, and saw the potential of what might happen here today. Hardie held up his hand and spoke one last time.
“Do not drink any toasts to us tonight, friends.” His voice rang out clearly, but his tone was sombre as he eyed the soldiers. “Leave the public houses behind. Go to your homes. Attend to your bibles this night.”
So all that is going on in the background, and in the foreground we have our hero David, the rule-follower, who meets Scottish lord Murdo Balfour, and they have themselves an assignation. David is attracted to men, and he has struggled with it his whole life. Society and his parents and his religion have told him it’s unnatural and wrong, and he has internalized that. But still he can’t stop himself from slipping every now and then, and then hating himself afterwards. I’ve only just realized now while typing this review that their relationship parallels that of the Enlightenment. David is stuck in an unenlightened mindset while Murdo openly embraces the ideas of empiricism that propelled the Enlightenment. He says to David that reason tells him his pleasure harms no one, and makes him happy, so he will do as he likes. This attitude is utterly foreign to David, and they clash constantly throughout the novel, all while being attracted irresistibly to each other.
But Murdo doesn’t have all the right of it. David is a moral, kind, idealistic man, and he is often in the right in their confrontations, just as often as he is wrong. Murdo’s confident personality and temper hurt David in a couple of his most vulnerable moments, as Murdo doesn’t understand what really motivates David; he only sees that David is stuck in a backward way of thinking that is harming him. We aren’t allowed inside Murdo’s head as the book is told exclusively from David’s POV; in fact, part of the plot hinges on David not being sure that Murdo can be trusted. There’s a plot that spins out from the execution of the weavers, involving an agent provocateur sent from Whitehall to inflame the radicals, and “root out troublemakers,” and there is good reason for us and David to believe that Murdo might have been that man.
This book is interesting in terms of its structure. Mostly, romances are one and done, but here, their arc is spread across three books, so we basically just get the opening salvos of their conflict. Presumably next book we’ll see how that initial conflict deepens, and how they resolve it. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get to the second two books, but I’ve already bought them, so hopefully it will be soon.