Celia Rees,
(Bloomsbury, 2008)

The story of Sovay is drawn from a brief English ballad in which a young woman poses as a highwayman to test her lover's mettle. Disguised and armed, she will demand a ring from his finger, one she herself had given him as a token of love. If he refuses to part with it, all ends well. But if he gives up the ring under threat of death, she will know him to be faithless and shoot him dead.

In the ballad, he passes the test. In the novel by Celia Rees, he fails -- but her angry shot is deflected by a well-meaning bystander.

And that's only the beginning of this novel about revolution and deceit in 18th-century England, shortly after the end of the American Revolution; England is again at war, this time with France, which is in the midst of its own bloody revolution.

While Sovay may have donned the guise of a highwayman with a single purpose in mind, she finds the lure of danger and excitement irresistable. But she finds a nobler purpose when her own father and brother find themselves accused of sedition and treason, and she takes to the road again to save their reputations and lives.

Rees is an accomplished historical novelist, and her young-adult perspective is always a treat to read. And yet, although I found the novel engrossing and story well-researched, it seemed at times like the plot grew too fantastic, with exploding towers, a Frankenstein lab and an escape over the countryside via a hydrogen balloon among its more sensational elements. That Sovay, an inexperienced country lady of just 17 years, matches wits so adeptly against Britain's double-dealing master spy is also somewhat hard to believe. The end required a coincidence in timing of monumental proportions.

I found myself often wishing Rees had devoted more of the book to, well, highwayman stuff.

And, while I understand the book is competing with ranks of young-adult novels that veer more toward the adult-oriented bodice-ripper genre, Rees is too classy for that overrated, oversaturated market. Still, the publisher has selected as its cover tagline: "She fought for life. She robbed for love." Will that get those bosoms heaving or what? Still, it might mention that the love she's worried about is not some wild-maned barbarian with a torn shirt and a passionate look in his eyes, but her imperiled father and brother.

And, while Rees does toss a few potential suitors in Sovay's path, she discards them as unsuitable all until the very end, when she fishes an entirely new prospect out of nowhere. So no, tender hearts, this is not that kind of romance novel.

It's a shame Sovay is being marketed under false pretenses, because the book is a largely solid work of historical fiction that will keep readers turning pages to the final scene. However, Rees's earlier novels Pirates and Witch Child are, all in all, better value for the money.

review by
Tom Knapp

19 July 2008

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