Ever since reading the first book in this series, Traitor's Knot, I've been eagerly awaiting the follow-up so I was thrilled to be offered an advance review copy of Severed Knot. Ms Bazos has a true talent for imagery, such as when she describes the enemy 'surging like maggots over a carcass' to portray how the odds are stacked against the protagonists. And boy, are these odds stacked high!
Early on we are introduced to Iain, a Scot who has been fighting for the exiled Charles II, and Mairead, an Irish catholic, (this being enough of a crime to see her imprisoned) and with a lightness of touch we are given reminders of how they speak without heavy use of dialect. Iain sometimes adds a 'right' to the end of his sentences, while Mairead thinks in terms of things being 'grand'.
This book focuses on the aftermath of battle during the English Civil Wars, but shines a light on a less well-known consequence of this conflict: the sending overseas of prisoners where they would be 'Barbadoed' - set to work in appalling conditions on the sugar plantations in theory as indentured servants, but in reality as little more than slaves. We might think we know the pitiful plight of such slaves, but some indignities make the point in subtler ways.
The shaving off of his beard is, to a seventeenth-century Scotsman, a humiliation, while Mairead is stripped of something equally personal and precious - her very name. The love story which develops between the two plays slowly, each wary of the other, and the way they are drawn together is beautifully written. We can thoroughly believe and understand why these two want to be with one another. Neither is blind to each other's human failings, either - Iain can be an 'ogre', a trait which can see him seeming boorish, but can also serve him well.
Both have their demons, causing them to doubt their worth and wonder if there can be redemption. This leads to misunderstandings when neither is sure how the other feels. There is no doubt that the situation into which they are thrown deepens their feelings for one another, but this is played out in a realistic way that chimes perfectly with the setting. The images of the stifling heat, the sensation of cooling water, meager rations and substandard grog all add to the three-dimensional imagery. Characters' reactions to the violence and degradation which they suffer, and which they see meted out, ring true and don't fall prey to melodrama.
The overall arc is a perfect shape, and there are moments of real, breath-holding tension, where I found my reading speeding up to keep pace with the action. There are also moments of real terror and, as no doubt in real life, no easy, happy resolutions. Fugitives might think themselves safe, but there is always fresh danger. I can only applaud the clever, tight, plotting which ensures that these action scenes work so well. The workings and layouts of the ships and the plantations have clearly been thoroughly researched.
Having finished the book, I feel like I have in some way been living alongside these characters, watching them as if in a visual drama. The story is entertaining, but is also thought-provoking. I certainly did not equate the period of the English Civil wars with exportation and slavery.
This is a beautifully-written book and I especially liked the way it linked to the first book at the beginning and at the end, though this is not to say it can't be read as a standalone. I very much look forward to reading the next in the series.
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To read more about the life of indentured servants in Barbados, read Cryssa's article on EHFA HERE
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