Patricia Veryan wrote some thirty-five historical romances between 1978 and 2002, many of which were out of print for a long time but are now available digitally. (Note: ebook editions only appear to be available in the US.) Two of her best-known series are set in the eighteenth century and the other – which is also the longest one – in the nineteenth. I reviewed Some Brief Folly, book one in the Sanguinet series for a TBR prompt last year, and decided to pick up the next book, Feather Castles, for this year’s “Old School” round. It’s more of a romantic adventure yarn than pure romance, and is actually the first book in which the character who gives his name to the series – the villainous Claude Sanguinet – appears. The story took a little while to get going, and flagged a bit in the middle, but I enjoyed it on the whole, and there’s a neat twist near the end that I hadn’t expected but which lays ground for the rest of the series.
The book opens immediately following the Battle of Waterloo, and we find our heroine, Rachel Strand, accompanying her friend and mentor, Sister Maria Evangeline, to the battlefield to search for someone among the dead and wounded. When the ladies are accosted by a group of looters, they are saved by a wounded officer Rachel takes to be French (given that’s the language he speaks before collapsing) who comes to their aid just before Sister Maria Evangeline’s friend, Diccon, finds them and runs the ruffians off. Diccon and Sister Maria Evangeline want to get away as quickly as possible, but Rachel refuses to just leave their rescuer to die, so they bundle him into their carriage and later aboard ship, bound for England.
Meanwhile, on another part of the battlefield, Captain Sir Simon Buchanan (brother of Mia, heroine of Some Brief Folly) is dismayed to learn of the death of his friend, Tristram Leith, from an exploding shell. It’s with a heavy heart he carries the news of the death of Lord Leith’s only son and heir back to England.
Of course, the reader is able to put two and two together straight away, and work out that the courageous ‘French’ officer is Tristram Leith, but he is unaware of his identity for most of the book, his memory returning in fits and spurts, but not giving him a complete picture, or providing him with any clue as to his name or place of origin. He does work out that he’s English rather than French, and discovers he was a high-ranking officer (a Colonel) but his memory is like a jigsaw puzzle with lots of pieces missing. The first part of the story focuses on his recovery from his injuries, and the burgeoning romance between him and the lovely Rachel, but she is betrothed to the suave and powerful Claude Sangiunet, and when Tristram is sufficiently recovered, they part, he to journey to London, to Horse Guards to find out what he can about himself, she to her fiancé and wedding preparations.
Feather Castles gets off to a bit of a slow start and it took me a while to get into it, but once I did, I was pulled into the world the author has created. We’ve got an evil mastermind – who is scarily plausible and good at hiding in plain sight – plenty of adventure and long odds to be overcome, together with attractive leads and a group of secondary characters who are present as more than just sequel-bait; they have important parts to play within the story, and will, I suspect, crop up throughout the series. Tristram is a terrific hero, a military man whom the author actually shows being the sort of commanding, cool-under-fire presence his rank would suggest. Even when he doesn’t know who he is, his sterling qualities are obvious; he’s clearly a leader of men and Ms. Veryan shows those skills over and over again. We’re also introduced to the impulsive, brash Alan Devenish, a rather insubordinate young man who has obviously yet to come into his own, and whose impetuousness serves as a good contrast to Tristram’s calmer but no less determined approach.
Rachel is the sort of heroine who has perhaps gone out of fashion in recent years. She’s fairly passive in the first part of the story and doesn’t really start to question her actions or try to seek a way out until fairly late on in the book. Her family’s disgrace (her father had cheated at cards, which was a huge no-no at this time) means she and her siblings have been ostracised from society, and she saw an engagement to the wealthy, charming Claude as a way to make sure that her invalid sister Charity would be taken care of. She accepted Claude out of gratitude, and even though Sister Maria Evangeline makes it clear she believes Rachel is doing the wrong thing by agreeing to the match, Rachel refuses to consider an alternative; her focus is on Charity and Rachel is, to start with at least, wilfully blind to the signs that Claude isn’t the kindly altruist she believes him to be. But in this, she’s a woman of her time; so much of a woman’s ‘worth’ was bound up in family and reputation, and with no other way of keeping a roof over her head and paying for her sister’s treatment, Rachel took the only option open to her. Her situation certainly evokes sympathy, and I liked that she gradually came to admit to her mistake and to want to do something about it. On the downside however, the romance lacks a real spark; the absence of bedroom scenes isn’t an issue, but while I liked Tristram a lot, it wasn’t until near the very end that I started to believe Rachel was the woman for him.
Still, I think fans of traditional romances, or those looking for a Regency-era story full of intrigue, adventure and derring-do will enjoy Feather Castles. Patricia Veryan deserves to be more widely read; she’s frequently likened to Georgette Heyer, although I’m never sure that’s a completely apt comparison given Veryan wrote mostly romantic adventures as opposed to comedies of manners, but chances are if you like Heyer, you’ll like Veryan – and even if you don’t like Heyer, I suspect you could read it and be pleasantly surprised.