Let me confess up front that I have a weakness for historical romances set in colonial Virginia. I’ve lived in Virginia most of my life, and for four of those years I lived in Williamsburg, the colonial capital. Not surprisingly, I’ve also long been fascinated with the history of colonial Virginia and felt it to be an underutilized historical setting – especially these days, when most major publishers might as well be called Regencies-R-Us. Proof positive that colonial Virginia can be a highly effective setting for a romance comes in the form of Pamela Clare’s debut historical, Sweet Release.
The illness of her father has put Cassie Blakewell in the position of struggling to keep their tobacco plantation afloat, while also trying to conceal her father’s condition from her neighbors. Cassie doesn’t like slavery, but she has little choice but to buy slaves and indentured servants if she wants to keep Blakewell’s Neck productive. When she sees Cole Braden, a convict who is a “defiler of women,” she buys his indenture because he is ill and she fears he’ll die if she leaves him to his fate. Cole Braden, however, isn’t a convict at all, but is instead wealthy English shipbuilder Alec Kenleigh, who has somehow been abducted and wound up in the colonies under the wrong name. Alec can’t prove he’s not a convict, but as he recovers and shows his true nature through his actions, Cassie slowly begins to believe his story. Will anyone else believe him, or will Alec be doomed to serve out his fourteen-year indenture?
As a supposed “defiler of women,” Alec doesn’t dare make love to Cassie, as another conviction of “ravishment” will be punished by hanging. Cassie, for her part, is already scorned for her unladylike ways, but she risks scandal and censure if she succumbs to her passion for Alec. There are no silly misunderstandings or petty conflicts here; we have two good, decent people who can’t let themselves fall in love for solidly practical reasons. They want each other, but they can’t give in to their desires, which creates a strong, believable conflict.
Alec is a decent, strong hero, who desperately wants to escape and return to his own life, but not if it will endanger someone else. He cares for Cassie, but he also cares for the people living on her plantation, and he puts his life in jeopardy more than once for others. Cassie, for her part, shows great devotion to her ill father and her small brother, as well as a strong sense of responsibility toward her home and the people who live there.
I’m happy to note that the history in this book is not merely “wallpaper” since it’s obvious that Clare did a great deal of research. The native flora and fauna are described in accurate detail. Correct terms are used – for example, Clare labels crooked, stacked wooden fences correctly as “worm fences,” and she uses fairly obscure but accurate words, referring, for example, to “linsey-woolsey” fabric. The author also seamlessly integrates real historical figures, such as Robert “King” Carter and Governor Gooch, into her storyline. Slavery, always a delicate issue, is handled brilliantly, as an unpleasant fact of life which touches everyone, from a Virginia plantation owner to an English shipbuilder who’s never before realized his ships might be used to transport slaves. I’ve always thought of Leisure historicals as being of the “wallpaper” type (true of the last two Leisures I’ve read) and I’m absolutely thrilled to see a Leisure author using this sort of accurate historical detail. The description may actually be laid on just a bit too heavily in places, unless, like me, you are deeply interested in the details of colonial tobacco cultivation, but Clare is such a good writer that the historical information doesn’t overwhelm the story.
Until I was about halfway through this book, I felt it was pretty much perfect. The writing is incredibly vivid, the conflict strong, and the unusual setting used to great effect. Unfortunately, just after the halfway mark, Alec and Cassie had sex. And then they did it again. And again. While love scenes are important, too many seem like padding, especially if they don’t advance the plot. I counted five rather long love scenes (and significantly more orgasms) in the space of sixty pages, few of which really accomplished much from a plot perspective. The sex scenes were well written without being purple, but there were simply, in my opinion, too many of them, which had the effect of shoving the conflict between hero and heroine onto the back burner. But after this sag, the action picks up and doesn’t let up until the end. An evil villain with an evil plot comes between Alec and Cassie. Alec is in mortal peril, Cassie is in danger, and it’s not at all clear how they’re going to find a happy ending.
This is easily the best debut I’ve read in years, and, despite the slight imbalance in pacing, it kept me engrossed right up till the last page. For those of us tired of reading one Regency-set historical after another, it’s a delightful change of pace to read a historical with a real sense of history. Even if you don’t share my enthusiasm for this setting, the writing, the characters, and the romance are too good to miss. This is one book you owe it to yourself to read.
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