Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Fairer than Morning - Rosslyn Elliott

The lives of farmer’s daughter Ann Miller and indentured apprentice Will Hanby collide in the first novel in the Saddler’s Legacy series, igniting early nineteenth century Pittsburgh with adventure and romance. When Ann travels to Pennsylvania with her father and younger sisters, she doesn’t expect to experience anything more exciting than travelling on a boat and shopping in a busy city. But as she and her sisters embark on their trip to visit their father’s business associate in Pittsburgh, Ann begins to realise that they’re being followed. But why would anyone wish to stalk her father, a mere saddle-maker and travelling preacher? It is only when she sees her father arguing with their mysterious stalker that Ann begins to wonder whether her father is doing more than preaching on his trips away from the family farm. But when Ann arrives in Pittsburgh, a chance encounter with saddler’s apprentice Will takes her mind off her father’s troubles, as she sees someone riddled with abuse and physical and emotional turmoil at the hands of a merciless master. Ann vows to help Will and enable him to escape from his life of neglect and maltreatment. Will himself has long given up on plans to leave his master, and has settled for living out his indenture, but gradually finds himself retreating into his pain-riddled mind, no longer able to see any beauty in the world. Will Ann be able to rescue him, or is he beyond redemption?

Expecting another standard historical romance, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Rosslyn Elliot combined various elements into her novel that aren’t commonly found in Christian historical fiction. While romance did have a part to play in the story, I felt that it was secondary to the development of the characters and other aspects of the plot. This is definitely a book for those who like their historical romances to delve deeper into the contemporary issues of the period and witness characters engaging with them.

Ann struggles with the same problems that many young women in her position in the period would have encountered, particularly that of a suitor who appears to have lost interest. And just when he begins to pay more attention to her, Ann finds herself given the opportunity to escape to Pittsburgh with her family, where she will decide whether to pursue the path of marriage or wait until her motherless sisters are older before she leaves the family farm. I found Ann to be a very relatable character, although she is younger than I typically prefer my heroines to be.

Will was a slightly more distant character, and while I praise Rosslyn for allowing her readers to witness the true brutalities that mistreated apprentices suffered, I didn’t feel quite as connected to him as I did to Ann. Will suffers greatly under his master, not only physically but also mentally, and he retreats into dark places in his mind in order to escape his abuse. More sensitive readers may feel uncomfortable in a few places in this book, but I did feel that the details were necessary in order to express the truth of the characters’ situations.

I would have to say that the aspect of this novel that I felt wasn’t quite as developed was the romance between Ann and Will. Perhaps this is an error in the marketing, as I got the distinct impression that this book was a romance, yet the characters didn’t meet each other until over a third of the way into the novel, and even then they barely speak to each other. Ann is courted by two other men; a suitor from her home town and a man that she encounters while in Pittsburgh. While Rosslyn clearly made the first beau unappealing, so that the reader would root for Will instead, I actually quite liked the second one, especially when he fought to protect Ann’s honour. While Ann evidently dislikes the idea of a man fighting on her behalf, I really felt that any attacks on the second suitor were a bit weak, up until the end of the novel when he makes a derogatory remark about belief in God. For a decent part of the novel, when Will was going through his dark period and engaged in an act which would make any Christian romance reader dislike the apparent hero, I actually found myself wondering why the author had made a secondary character so appealing at a point in the novel when Will was making himself less attractive. I may be in the minority with this opinion, but the romance just didn’t develop in the way I’d prefer. Will did eventually redeem himself and the romance between him and Ann gently develops, but not until close to the end of the novel.

Despite my qualms about the romantic aspect of this novel, it is still a wonderful story about redemption and freedom, exploring so many issues that I’ve not yet encountered in Christian historical fiction. Rosslyn Elliot’s debut already sets her apart in the genre, and I encourage historical fans to look out for her work. I fear that her novel may merely have been marketed wrongly, in which case, those expecting the hero and heroine to encounter each other on the first page and swoon because of their passion-filled chemistry may be disappointed. This is not merely a romance peppered with history, but a character-driven novel that will enlighten even the most dubious of readers. 8/10

Review title provided courtesy of Thomas Nelson.

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