Sunday 7 March 2010

A Swashbuckling War Epic!!!

Ramdom House, the UK publishing company provided Critical Literature Review with some books to review and this week, Critical Literature Review is proud to present the review of the first of the books. Produced below is Emily Varga's review of Claire Letemendia's historical epic début novel, "The Best of Men".  Enjoy!!!

Claire Letemendia, the debut author of The Best of Men, drops readers into the world of English Civil war—a world filled with enough intrigue, sex, violence, love, and spies—just enough to make us forget about the state of the world’s banks for a little while.

The novel’s lead protagonist is Laurence Beaumont, a cardsharp, mercenary, and spy, who has spent 6 years on continental Europe and is now returning to Great Britain—with proof of a plot to assassinate the King in his possession. Beaumont is the typical tragic, bad boy hero—hopping from bed to bed while at the same time engaging in exciting action scenes which are decidedly not Byronesque.

When I first picked up this book, I thought I would need about a month to finish it, and I am not a traditionally slow reader. This is because the book is a 700 page long historical novel. However, the more I read, the more I became engrossed in the novel and impressed by the story telling tactics of Letemendia. Often, large historical novels such as this can become bogged down by history and the reader can get lost in an academic textbook of fact. This book does have its fair share of history and packs a wallop of information. But it still manages to keep a pace that makes it interesting to the reader and exciting as a story. This is particularly hard in a novel with the setting of the English Civil War, as Letemendia’s is. There are times when there are so many characters that it is difficult to keep track of who is who and which historical event is what. There are also moments when I definitely noticed that it was a 700 page book that I was reading. However, these criticisms are fleeting amidst the vivid world that Letemendia invokes and the visceral characters that she builds within this world.

I particularly liked the character of Isabelle Savage—a temptress for Beaumont and an intelligent and strong woman in her own right. It is sometimes very difficult to find female characters in historical novels like this which are not reduced to stereotype—which is why a woman who is a sexual creature but who is also very independent and who lives in the middle of the 17th century is so very refreshing. Perhaps she is a bit out of her time, but with this view then so is the protagonist. It is what keeps the reader engaged and what allows the reader to relate to the main characters—and find humanity in history. 

The beginning of the novel took a bit of work to get into, but once you got past that first initial chunk things began to form shape. Instead of trying to figure things out and remember which character is connected to what, I just gave up after a while and kept reading. After that, things got a bit easier and I was able to enjoy the novel as a novel, and not a giant historical enactment. That is not to say that history lovers will not enjoy this story, on the contrary, evidence of Letemendia’s incredible research and scholarly background seeps into every page of the novel. This is a book which took her ten years to write, and it has definitely paid off.

There is heady romance in this story, adventure, swashbuckling, and a brilliantly developed plot. What I have described here has all the chemistry for a great bodice-ripper romance novel—but it isn’t that easy, or simple. The plot is a story that has been told before, but it is rare to find such an excellent combination of storytelling, historical world-building and riveting suspense wrapped up in one book. The main conflict—that of the assassination of the king—is not resolved by the end of the novel, but that is because Claire Letemendia promises a trilogy.

I do think that this book could definitely have been sheared down a bit to become a more succinct and sleeker novel. But as it is now, I would recommend it to anyone who wants an escape into an excellently built world. If you want a fantastic historical detail of the English Civil War, more information on the role of the Scottish in the civil war (as history tends to forget that both Ireland and Scotland fought in this war too!), and also to know the machinations of life in a brothel, or read a book with action, torture, romance, and duels, then you just may like this book. It didn’t take me quite a month to read it, but it is by no means a quick read. However, if you are willing to invest the time, it is definitely worth it. Forget about the recession for a while and think about how much worse—or better—things could have been amidst the English Civil War.

[Emily Varga is an English Literature graduate who has worked in book publishing in North America. She has previously reviewed works in her university newspaper literary and arts supplements. She currently lives in Scotland where she works in the public sector. Emily is an active member of her city book club and still enjoys writing the occasional book review.] 

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