This is the conclusion of Pendle’s Fallen trilogy and a sort of farewell to historical fiction. It is by far the strongest of the 3 books but can be read as a standalone.
Plot: Hugo just inherited a Dukedom. Turns out that much of the wealth of that dukedom was built on the backs of slaves. Slavery had ended 50 years prior, but it still feels wrong to continue to benefit from such a vile thing, especially while the people who were victimized by it got nothing in recompense. It’s too much for a dissolute young aristocrat to handle, so he runs away. Fortunately, by fluke, he meets farmer Bea at an inn, who is looking for some long lost family. Shenanigans and existential crises ensue.
I’ve seen few books that have tried to tackle the moral gray (at best) area that is being an aristocrat in historical fiction. Some writers get around the whole issue by having their characters get rich in the stock market or in business (as if that isn’t fraught with moral issues). Some writers try to tackle it head on, but stay mostly within the status quo (treat their own workers well but not advocate for broader reform). It is a rare few that use the format to not only push their characters entirely out of accepted conduct but use the medium to make broader commentary around how we ought to treat one another in a way that transcends setting (Courtney Milan being, of course, top of mind for this).
Pendle is one of these rare authors. It is a very, very hard line to walk. Especially as a white author writing about white characters dealing with a racially charged issue like slavery and what the descendants of people who benefited from free, forced labour ought to be doing in redress. A high point for me was her author’s note, where Pendle straight up names a British MP who still owns the plantation his ancestors used to steal wealth from enslaved people.
It’s so hard to say whether she was successful in writing this book or not because I don’t think there’s a perfect way to deal with these kinds of issues and as a white person commenting on the work of a white person, I just don’t think I’m the right person to decide if it was well done or not. What I will say is that Pendle clearly worked hard to write a book that was meant for white audiences to meaningfully engage with what might be considered the more radical aspects of truly resolving centuries-long injustices. She writes in attempts at white savourism specifically for the purpose of explaining what it is, why it is bad, and how a person who wants to do better might think about alternatives that don’t centre on them being celebrated as the Good Guy. She engages with the idea of reparations as a foregone conclusion – back wages, not charity or guilt money.
This book tries to answer the question of what do good people, faced with a wrong not of their doing, but which they benefit from and have the power to do something about, taking that responsibility seriously, and doing it in a way that centres the people that were wronged rather than the people fixing the problem.
Slavery isn’t the only issue Pendle tackles in this book. While Hugo is facing this paradigm shift in how he views the history of his family and the men who led it, Bea is also facing an existential identity crisis as she tries to plan for the future of her farm since, as we learn early on, she is not able to have children. This is a multi-faceted device through which Pendle explores our conceptions of family, class, power and our relationships to them.
You might think that with these heavy topics, the book is heavy, but it isn’t. Maybe because the characters all come to us having already mostly reformed. Hugo doesn’t need to be convinced he needs to do something. Even when he makes a mistake (inevitable), he is very quick to admit to being wrong, accept feedback, and move on, so situations don’t get toxic. Maybe because to offset the heaviness of the subject matter, Pendle gives us many breaks to just enjoy how naturally (and enthusiastically) Hugo and Bea fit together. Honestly, the most distressing thing in the book was when a cow was hit by a carriage, but don’t worry – she’s fine.
I can’t recommend Pendle enough to any reader who enjoys historical romance novels high on angst but low on stress, even while facing the wrongs of the era head on. Pendle proves over and over that you can write a gentle, sweet romance in an environment that hasn’t been sanitised of the texture of the real world. Of course, I’m also wildly curious as to how she’ll write contemporary novels with an intersectional lens, which frankly may be even more difficult.
I received a free ARC this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. You can get your own copy May 26th. The first 2 books in the series, which I have also reviewed, are available through Kindle Unlimited, so it couldn’t be easier to get a copy and support a self-published author.