There are a lot of Regency-set historical romances that deal with war or espionage in some way. Too frequently, this takes the form of a minor suspense subplot that seems pasted into the love story to provide an artificial air of suspense to the end. The Chase by Cheryl Sawyer is unusual: it is a sprawling, tightly-packed novel of war, espionage, and suspense, which is also a love story.
There’s a lot of plot here, so I’m just going to brush over the salient points. A beautiful young English widow, Lady Sophia Hamilton, gets a hint that her beloved husband died, not in battle in Spain as she’d thought, but behind the lines in France. Apparently he was involved in some sort of espionage scheme. Meanwhile, a soldier named Jacques Decernay is in trouble. He deserted from the French and has fought for the English in several battles. Now Jacques he has been arrested and is likely to be court-martialed and hanged. Sophia, who has a bit of a history with Jacques, comes forward with information that might clear his name. But Sophia is not certain where Jacques’ loyalties lie, and turns for support to her handsome cousin, Sebastian. Meanwhile, Napoleon has just escaped from Elba and is marching on Paris, beginning the sequence of events that will end in his final defeat at Waterloo. And, in addition to all of this, we learn of a secret conspiracy to assassinate Napoleon.
Most of this novel is told from Sophia’s point of view. The three most important men in her life – Jacques, Sebastian, and her late husband Andrew – are all involved in espionage in one way or another, and all have big secrets. We watch as Sophia wrestles with the problem of whom to trust, and slowly we learn the truth. Some of the secrets I guessed early, but some were a complete surprise to me. I enjoyed this. The novel comes to a long, breathtaking climax at the Battle of Waterloo.
Jacques is an unusual and very fun hero. He’s not one of those tormented heroes who torments others in return. He is charming, witty, and contains his considerable angst behind a cheerful façade. He reminds me of the hero of an old Errol Flynn movie, always laughing in the face of danger. There’s a wonderful scene in which he engages in a practice duel. Playfully, he adds a bucket of whitewash to the standard weapons of combat.
I liked Sophia equally well, at first. She is that rarity, a heroine who is seriously shy. She’s uncomfortable and self-conscious at balls and parties. When Jacques tries to engage her in witty repartee, instead of responding with a stinging rejoinder, she blushes and can’t think of anything to say. I sympathize with these traits wholeheartedly. I also admired her passionate hatred of war and her (admittedly, sometimes illogical) attempts to protect her son from it.
However, as the espionage plot picked up, Sophia lost some brain cells. Her inability to figure out whom to trust is one of the things that added suspense to the book, so in a way it worked; but I got more than a little tired of her dithering. Seriously, if a hero couldn’t figure out whether or not the heroine was a traitor and murderer by about page 20, I wouldn’t want to read about him. Sophia remains in the dark a lot longer than that. While I am traditionally more forgiving of heroines than I am of heroes, this was definitely pushing it. I have to say, I wish that the author had found another way to increase suspense. My growing disenchantment with Sophia was the one flaw in this book that I just can’t overlook.
The Chase also features the best villain of any novel I’ve read in a couple years at least. As with other characters, we don’t learn the extent of his villainy all at once, but get glimpses of it here and there, until by the end the whole breathtaking extent of it is revealed. This villain is totally convincing. I just adored him.
To sum up: this is a big, juicy, complex novel. If many historicals can be compared to candy bars – yummy, enjoyable, but not exactly sustaining – this one is a turkey dinner. Just as, in war, the demands of war must sometimes take precedence over the love lives of people, so in this book the love story takes a bit of a back seat to the events of history. Nevertheless, it’s more than worth reading, and I recommend it.