In Midwinter Magic, the final book in her Georgian-era Rockliffe series, author Stella Riley bids a heartwarming and utterly charming farewell to her cast of much-loved characters by bringing them all together for a memorable and magical Christmas celebration. (A warning – if you’re not familiar with the six novels that precede this series finale, you’ll likely have trouble keeping track of all the characters; if that’s the case, go back to book one, The Parfit Knight and make your way through the other books; I promise you won’t regret it!)
It’s Christmas 1778, and the Earl and Countess of Sarre – Adrian and Caroline Devereux – (The Player) have invited their closest friends to Sarre Park in Kent for the festive season. The Rockliffes, Amberleys, Chalfonts – and their respective children – the Audleys and Wynstantons, and Caroline’s grandpa Maitland and her good friend, Lily Brassington will all be in attendance, and Adrian and Caroline are looking forward to a convivial time spent in good company. Preparations for the house party are well under way, despite their housekeeper’s doom-laden pronouncements that decorating the house before Christmas Eve will bring bad luck – and Adrian has tasked his closest friend Bertrand Didier with overseeing the activities and entertainment for the duration.
With the company all assembled, things get off to a wonderful start with a visit to the beach – but on their return, it seems Betsy’s dire predictions have come true; Caroline’s pushy, social-climbing mother has arrived uninvited, and has brought Caroline’s two sisters with her. Caroline had been planning to invite them to stay at a later date, wanting to spare her guests Mrs. Maitland’s continual toadying and thinly veiled insults. But there’s nothing to be done; Caroline can’t send them back home and room is found for them at nearby Devereux House.
Otherwise, however, the house party continues as planned, with plenty of activities – for the adults as well as the children – overseen by the wily Bertrand, who really does seem to have thought of everything!
One of the many things I’ve always enjoyed about Stella Riley’s books is the way she creates such genuine friendships between her characters, something which is much in evidence here as we get to see so many of them interacting with each other, teasing and joking and supporting each other as all good friends should. There are two delightful romances to be found here (the one between the more mature couple was especially nice to see), and the various Christmas traditions are skilfully and vividly integrated into the story so that you can almost smell the greenery and see the coloured ribbons on the kissing boughs. Best of all, these are the characters we’ve come to know and love; Rock is his ducal, perceptive self, Sebastian is witty and a teeny bit naughty, Julian is charmingly distracted; and the children in the story are well-written and feel age appropriate. There are some wonderfully entertaining set-pieces, too – a boisterous game of football on the beach, a visit to Deal Castle, an impromptu concert for the tenants and villagers – and one of the most memorable moments in the book comes when Tom – the eldest of Julian and Arabella’s wards – reads a letter he’s written about his life, and his love for his adopted father, which is incredibly poignant and quite beautifully done.
The inclusion of the Maitlands and later, of Adrian’s obnoxious mother, serve to highlight that old adage that while you can choose your friends, you can’t choose your family; and their presence provides a stark contrast to the genuine warmth and affection the other characters so obviously find in their friendships and the happiness that permeates the rest of the book.
A Christmas story wouldn’t be a Christmas story without a bit of magic, and that’s here, too – albeit not in a way you might expect, and which I can’t say too much about without giving spoilers. Suffice it to say that it’s woven carefully through the story and is sure to delight fans of the series.
Midwinter Magic is just that, a magical combination of warmth and wit, love and laughter, and a perfect conclusion to one of the best historical romance series around.