Sovay by Celia Rees
I admit I had high expectations regarding Sovay because I 1) love Witch Child, and 2) am a sucker for a story set during the French Revolution. Plus, highwaymen! But while I found the plot of Sovay compelling and loved the detail of the setting and intrigue, the book somehow didn’t engage me the way I would have thought the combination of all these elements would have. It’s not that I think Sovay is a bad book. It’s not. It’s just…average. Which some people may think is even worse than being bad.
Anyway, it’s 1794 and Sovay is a headstrong girl who realizes the man she is betrothed to has not been faithful to her. She holds up his carriage and asks for the ring she gave him as a token of her love, which he had sworn to die before removing, but he immediately removes and gives the ring to her. Thus start her escapades as a highwayman. When Sovay receives word that men are coming to arrest her father for treason, Sovay dons her highwayman’s clothes once again, this time to steal the papers authorizing her father’s arrest. But along with the warrant are other papers, records and reports about men who are being spied upon for their “radical” ideas, and when Sovay heads to London to search for her father, she is drawn into the machinations of one of the most powerful, treacherous men in England.
As I said, I liked the historical detail and setting, which moves from the English country to the London of both the aristocracy and lower classes to France. I liked the plot. I liked the political commentary, the way Sovay learns of inequities and passages in the book, like the one that begins on page 107. But I agree with Leila when she says, “I never developed any sort of rapport with or affection for the characters. Sovay was brave, headstrong, bright, etc., etc., etc., and I found her adventures entertaining and exciting, but never really cared about her. Or about the others, excepting maybe Captain Jack Greenwood.” In the end, Sovay was one of those book I had to finish to find out how the various plot threads were resolved, not because I was invested in the characters. I also thought the book got off to a slow start, which is kind of an odd thing to say when the book opens with Sovay about to hold up her betrothed’s coach, but there was so much headhopping in the opening chapters, with the narrative point of view moving from one character to the other so rapidly, that I had a hard time getting into the story. Because of the frequently shifting perspectives, Sovay begins in a rather muddled way before the story starts picking up speed.
As an adult reader, another issue I had with Sovay is the way it recalls other French Revolution-set novels without really creating an identity of its own. Which may not be a problem for teens (although I’m not sure how many will stick with it after the headhopping in the first couple of chapters unless they’re already intrigued by highwaymen and/or the French Revolution), but may be for other adults reading Sovay. On page 7, I hoped we were meeting a Scarlet Pimpernel-type character. (Unfortunately, he wasn’t.) Once Sovay left for London, I was totally reminded of Susannah Kells’/Bernard Cornwell’s The Fallen Angels. (Which actually made this section more entertaining, since I love that book.) But I was never able to separate Sovay from these books, to see it as a distinct novel by itself. I think this, more than any of my other criticisms, is responsible for my ambivalent reaction to it.