I bring you a book I enjoyed enormously, and I hope you find it interesting as well.
The Vanished Days (Book 3 Slains) by Susanna Kearsley
A sweeping love story set against the Jacobite revolution from much-loved, million copy bestselling author Susanna Kearsley
There are many who believe they know what happened, but they do not know the whole of it. The rumours spread, and grow, and take their hold, and so to end them I have been persuaded now to take my pen in hand and tell the story as it should be told…
Autumn, 1707. Old enemies from the Highlands to the Borders are finding common ground as they join to protest the new Union with England, the French are preparing to launch an invasion to carry the young exiled Jacobite king back to Scotland to reclaim his throne, and in Edinburgh the streets are filled with discontent and danger.
Queen Anne’s commissioners, seeking to calm the situation, have begun settling the losses and wages owed to those Scots who took part in the disastrous Darien expedition eight years earlier.
When Lily, the young widow of a Darien sailor, comes forward to collect her husband’s wages, her claim is challenged, and one of the men who’s assigned to examine her has only days to decide if she’s honest, or if his own feelings are making him blind to the truth, and if he’s being used as a pawn in an even more treacherous game.
A story of intrigue, adventure, endurance, romance…and the courage to hope.
‘A hugely engrossing book and a complete world created’ Ian Rankin
Praise for Susanna Kearsley’s books:
‘A thrilling, haunting and deeply romantic story powerfully told by an engaging heroine…enchanting and beautifully evoked.’
‘I’ve loved every one of her books! She has bedrock research and a butterfly’s delicate touch with characters?sure recipe for historical fiction that sucks you in and won’t let go!’
DIANA GABALDON, bestselling author of Outlander
‘A deeply-engaging romance and a compelling historical novel… a marvellous book.’
I‘m a former museum curator, avid amateur genealogist, and writer of modern gothic novels that interweave contemporary suspense and romance with historical adventure, meaning they don’t fit neatly into any category and are therefore a marketer’s nightmare.
The Bookseller once said of me, in a review, “She has a poetic sensibility and a sense of mystery; she could write the modern Rebecca.”
So that’s what I strive for.
I thank NetGalley and Simon & Schuster UK for providing me an early ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.
I read so many great comments and recommendations of this novel that I decided to request it, even though I normally avoid starting to read a series in the middle (or the end, as seems to be the case here, because this is the third novel in Susanna Kearsley’s Slain Series: The Winter Sea and the Firebird are books 1 and 2), but as this was described as a ‘prequel’, I thought it should work for me even if I hadn’t read the others, and it would be a good way to get introduced to the author, whom, although very popular, I had never read before. And yes, I was right. It worked for me, beautifully, I might add. But, of course, now I feel very intrigued by the other two books in the trilogy, and by the rest of Kearsley’s novels as well.
Although I will try not to go on and on (I’m known for doing precisely that), for those of you who are in a hurry, I will summarise my opinion straight on. Yes, I loved it. I loved the setting (I love Scotland and stories that take place there as well), the historical period (not one I knew much about, but now I am pretty intrigued by it), the characters (I’ll keep thinking about them for a long time), the quality of the writing (beautifully descriptive, full of detail but never over the top, and packed with scenes that pop out of the page), and a final twist that makes us reconsider (and better understand) what has previously gone on.
Having never read this author’s work before, I cannot comment on how this novel might compare to the others she has written. I checked the reviews to get some sense of what her fans thought, and most seem to love it as well, although others complained that there was far too much historical detail, and also that it differed from most of her other novels, as there wasn’t a dual timeline (there sort of is, but not how most people think of it) or any paranormal elements. I have seen her work recommended to readers who love Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander (I’ve never read it or watched the series, so, again, I can’t comment), and Gabaldon herself recommends it, so, if you like that series and others similar, you know what to expect.
The story is set, as the description explains, in Scotland (mostly Edinburgh and Leith, although other places are mentioned as well) in 1707, but the book moves back and forth between the late XVII century and the action taking place in 1707, as the narrator, Adam, gets involved in an investigation that makes him have to dig into the past of a woman, Lily, who claims to have been married to a sailor who lost his life during the Darien expedition and is seeking compensation. I must confess to knowing nothing about the Darien expedition —a Scottish attempt at setting up a colony in America— before reading this novel, and only a little about the Jacobite revolution and the twists and turns that resulted from the fights between the different claimants to the throne of Scotland, the unification with England, and the important role religion played in those events. The author couldn’t have chosen a most fascinating historical period, and although it can be confusing at times (I’m not sure I always knew exactly who was supporting who), I think she manages quite well to incorporate the historical detail into the story and also to weave real characters into the novel, without shoehorning them into narratives that would have been alien to the real people. I recommend the author’s notes at the end, as she explains her process of creation, how the novel changed in the writing (and she quotes Robert Louis Stevenson, a favourite of mine), and also her method in trying to ensure historical accuracy while at the same time making sure the reading experience is an enjoyable one. I think she made the right choices, at least as far as I’m concerned.
I have visited Edinburgh but I am not a great expert on the place, and I appreciated the feeling of walking through its streets as they must have been at the time, the atmosphere of the place, the way the people behaved and talked, the different social classes, their habits, customs, and expectations, and this worked to make the book come alive for me, and I felt immersed in the place and the period, thanks to her descriptions and the reflections of the character. Some of the themes discussed in the book are: the nature of identity (what makes us who we are), legacy and the importance/weight of family history, self-made people versus those who have inherited their positions/wealth, truth and lies (and the grey area around them), how to judge other people’s characters, loyalty and betrayal, beliefs and convictions and how far we’d go to defend them, different kinds of love, the power of literature and stories to keep us sane and hopeful in dreadful situations, and more.
One of the things that I most enjoyed was the way the story is told. Adam, the narrator, put me in mind of other narrators in other novels (Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby), although I eventually decided that, perhaps, he reminds me most of Ishmael in Moby Dick, as he at times is talking in the first person about himself and his actions (when investigating the case), addressing the reader directly, and at other times, mostly when he goes back in time to narrate parts of the story of Lily, he seems to disappear and the story is narrating itself, although we have the odd authorial comment, where he might include something akin to an author’s note, or realise that some of the things he has narrated do not make sense as he has written them and adds a little clarification. The only thing that bothered me for much of the narration was the fact that Lily’s story was being told by another, and a man at that, rather than herself (cherchez la femme once more), but the final twist puts a spin on things and brings a new perspective into what had gone before (and no, of course, I am not going to mention it). It also helped me make sense of some of the events and behaviours narrated, which I had felt seemed out of character.
I don’t want to talk too much about the characters, as I don’t want to risk revealing anything that might affect the enjoyment of readers, but I liked Lily from the beginning (even if the revelations kept making me change my mind about what she might be like and her circumstances), and Adam was an intriguing character from the beginning and he grew more and more on me as the book progressed (and I love him now, for sure). There were many other memorable characters (servants, the family Lily grows up with, in Leith, who become very important for the story), including the historical ones, and from the notes, I understand that readers of the author’s previous novels will recognise many of them from before, so that will be an added appeal. However, let me reassure you that it is not necessary to have read the previous novels to understand or enjoy this one (and yes, I can easily imagine previous followers of the author will enjoy it even more). There are some bad characters, truly horrible ones, and some that are somewhat suspect but we don’t get to know well enough to pass judgement Oh, and don’t let me forget Gilroy, who has many surprises up his sleeve as well. The book is full of characters, and we don’t get to know them all in detail, but the main characters are well-drawn and feel real and true. They had become friends and companions by the end of the story.
I’ve already talked about the beauty of the writing; there is a lot of history and stories told, and there is a degree of telling as pertains to this type of story, the writing is vivid, and although the narration meanders at times, it never dragged for me, and I was always eager to keep reading.
Because I read an ARC copy I am not keen on sharing too many quotes, in case they have changed, and, as usual, I recommend anybody interested to check a sample of the book to see if it suits their taste. To give you a taster, I share a few of the fragments I highlighted (and there were many):
Here, Adam is addressing the reader directly, and explaining his method of narration:
And you are right. She did not tell it to us in that way. She told it haltingly. We asked her questions, and she answered, and from there the story took its shape. Some details I did not learn till long afterwards, but since my purpose is to write things down for you in all their fullness I have woven everything in place as best I can, that you may have the clearest picture.
It is no small thing, hope. Without it, darkness wins. My mother used to set me on my feet again and tell me, ‘Were it not for hope, the heart would break,’ and she was right. Sometimes, when all seems darkness and despair, hope is the only thing that does remain for us to grasp —a tree branch beating at the ice within a child’s hand.
And so we make an opening, and day by day press forward, and we hold that hope.
And therein lies its power.
I have a certain memory of that night, held in the way one holds a seashell gathered on the shore —time dulls its brightness, and wears down its sharper edges, yet we only have to hold it to our ear and we can once more hear the singing of the sea. And so it is with memory.
The ending… I haven’t mentioned that there is a love story at the heart of the book (aren’t I forgetful!), and yes, the ending more than lives up to my expectations. As I’ve already mentioned the twist in the tale, I won’t talk about it again, and no, in my case I didn’t see it coming (some people did), although there were details and things that gave me pause, I think it works beautifully.
They were not included in my ARC copy, but from the author’s note, I guess that there were plans to include a family tree/list of characters, and also a map or several of the different settings mentioned in the story. I don’t know if they appear in the final version, but I am sure they would enhance the reading experience if they do.
In sum, my first experience with one of Susanna Kearsley’s novels couldn’t have been better. I loved the story, the setting, the characters, the writing style, and learned a lot about the historical period. So, I recommend it to anybody keen on historical fiction, particularly Scottish historical fiction, to anybody looking for a great story, full of unforgettable characters, adventures, and perhaps, eager to discover an author new to them.
Thanks to the publisher, to NetGalley, and to Susanna Kearsley for this wonderful book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to keep safe, to do things you enjoy, to always keep going, keep reading, and keep smiling.
Oh, a quick note, when I was trying to share the review of the book on Amazon, I realised that the book is only available in a paper version at the moment, and the Kindle version won’t be out until April, but you might want to add it to your wish list if you prefer to read an electronic version.