Anyone longing for old-style big, sweeping historicals will probably enjoy Cheryl Sawyer’s latest novel, a story rich with historical detail. Sawyer, an Australian author being published for the first time in the United States, delivers a large-scale historical drama in a fashion reminiscent of historical fiction and historical romances from many years ago. However, instead of the passive, doormat heroines and rapist-heroes of old, she uses strong characters to tell a story from a very intriguing time in history.
As the story opens, Leonore Roncival is cementing her position as mistress of the Caribbean island of San Stefan after the death of her father, leader of a gang of privateers. The fact that she is known to be alone in running both San Stefan and the businesses her father left behind has left her vulnerable to other privateers and pirates as well as the French, Spanish, and English colonial governments in the region.
One of these privateers, Jean Laffite (a real privateer, by the way), manages to navigate the complex lagoons of San Stefan and take over the island. He makes his presence known to Leonore as she is bathing and, from that moment, the sparks start to fly. Though there is an attraction, Leonore will not countenance a challenge to her rule of San Stefan and she makes plans to remove Laffite.
It was at this point that Sawyer’s book first won me over. The invader/captive plot is certainly a familiar one but Sawyer’s characterizations make it good. Laffite is no puffed-up buffoon determined to show his power by shouting out orders and forcing Leonore into submission. He is far too subtle for that. He uses less direct methods to show his power and, while rougher than most modern men would be, he respects Leonore too much to completely subjugate her.
Leonore is no “feisty” heroine from central casting. She grew up under the tutelage of a father who seems to have been a master at controlling his own destiny, and Leonore herself is a capable strategist. She decides what she wants and pursues it as best she can. Rather than wasting a lot of time ranting and raving about how she would like things to be, Leonore analyzes situations for what they are and makes plans that actually have a realistic chance of succeeding. She is not always likable, but she is a very interesting character.
Throughout the span of this story, Leonore and Jean are separated and reunited several times. Readers who absolutely cannot handle the idea of a hero and heroine spending time apart during the course of a romance may not find this to their taste, but Sawyer handles it well and it didn’t bother me. The separations were realistic for the most part and both led such interesting lives during the separations that I stayed invested in the story. My only problem with this couple lay in their treatment of each other. While there are some very romantic moments between them, there are also some points in the second half of the book where I couldn’t help wishing that these two strong-willed people would just set pride aside and talk to each other. This behavior, combined with some abrupt time jumps in the action, caused this novel to fall short of being a keeper for me.
Still, the story is undeniably readable, and I loved sinking into this rich and complex novel. Sawyer obviously researched her time period and the historical detail in the story really works well. In addition to enjoying the characters and the romantic flavor of the story, I learned a lot about the history and politics of the time.
As mentioned above, this is a huge story and it covers much more than simply Jean and Leonore. Readers get to experience numerous partings and reunions, sea battles, political machinations, and a war. Needless to say, a story this big can be somewhat exhausting. I felt somewhat wrung out by the end of the novel, but I can honestly say I enjoyed almost every minute of it. Sawyer’s historical descriptions and rich prose are compulsively readable and readers who like historical fiction with a romantic twist or who long to see an author that does not adhere firmly to the “rules” of romance would do well to give Siren a try.