I was privileged and delighted to receive an advance review copy of the latest book by Elizabeth St. John
London, 1649. Horrified eyewitnesses to King Charles’s bloody execution, Royalists Nan Wilmot and Frances Apsley plot to return the king’s exiled son to England’s throne, while their radical cousin Luce, the wife of king-killer John Hutchinson, rejoices in the new republic’s triumph. Nan exploits her high-ranking position as Countess of Rochester to manipulate England’s great divide, flouting Cromwell and establishing a Royalist spy network; while Frances and her husband Allen join the destitute prince in Paris’s Louvre Palace to support his restoration. As the women work from the shadows to topple Cromwell’s regime, their husbands fight openly for the throne on England’s bloody battlefields.
But will the return of the king be a victory, or destroy them all? Separated by loyalty and bound by love, Luce, Nan and Frances hold the fate of England—and their family—in their hands.
A true story based on surviving memoirs of Elizabeth St.John's family, Written in their Stars is the third novel in the Lydiard Chronicles series.
This is, as the blurb says, the third in the Lydiard Chronicles and one thing I would say at the outset is that ideally readers should acquaint themselves with this family by reading the first two in the series. Reading this book as a standalone is perfectly possible, as Ms St. John makes it clear who everyone is, and offers appropriate backstory where necessary. But to skip the first two books is to miss the nuance, and the development of the characters who now play out the final part of this rich and detailed story.
At the centre of this story is the divided loyalties of a family torn apart by civil war, the continuing struggle for peace and resolution of all conflict, political and personal. This is not so easy for, as one character says, "The war has not ended, not while the king breathes and hope beats in men’s hearts.”
Luce, Nan and Frances have different experiences of life, love, and war, yet they are bound together, and not just by their family connections. They are women who find a way to live through such historic times, and to protect what is dear to them. Sometimes this sees them working together, and sometimes it throws them into conflict. And this is a perfect time for me now to talk about the author's skills.
There is a section of the book where Frances has reason to turn against Nan and the drama works brilliantly because Ms St. John allows only us, the reader, to know the truth.
She is also a master of scene-setting, so that we can see the characters in action and in context. She never forgets who else is in the room and allows for interaction. I particularly liked the distracting chatter at the moment Frances is put at odds with Nan, and when Barbary Villiers is being spoken to by Nan but is constantly trying to look over Nan's shoulder to try to attract the attention of the king. Such little touches bring the tableaux to life.
We aren't just reading about these people, we can see them. We watch the scenes unfolding. The characters so inhabit their world that it's exactly as we assume it was. Yes, this is how 17th-century people moved, spoke, felt. Nothing is anachronistic, nothing jars or jolts us back to the present.
And the author achieves this in a way that makes it look effortless. She has an economy of phrase and yet manages to drop the reader right into the 17th-century world. The dialogue is realistic and appropriate. While the politics direct the wider stage, the story remains personal. We really feel for this family riven by war and divided loyalties.
The book is evidently well-researched. The author knows her history but her characters know it too and there is no clumsy exposition. Everything just flows. It would have been easy for Ms St. John to dump a lot of information (she is a direct descendant of the family) and to let the documented history speak for itself, yet whilst we are reading about people who actually lived, we are also reading about characters who have been brought to life by the authors's research, imagination, and creative pen. Had these all been purely fictional characters, they would still have felt real.
On a side note, since I'm talking about real history, there was a moment in the book where I thought, 'Did that really happen? If it's true, it is shocking and appalling.' And yes, sadly, it is; a terrible and stark reminder of the dangers these people faced. When it is pointed out that two characters speak of “Old history in these times, sir,” the reply comes, “And yet memories are long.”
And just when we think all will be well come the restoration, the reality hits. Not everyone will be forgiven (particularly the king-killers). Perhaps it is naive to hope for a happy ending? The outcome, though, is not a foregone conclusion and the drama and tension continue to the very end. In some ways, hidebound by the historical fact, the author cannot offer a happy-ever-after resolution and yet, here at the end of this remarkable trilogy, the ends of the threads are tied up beautifully.
Of course, along the way, and again sticking to the known facts, Ms St. John must deliver some bad news from time to time. No spoilers, but again, with a breath-taking economy of words, she made me cry.
You can find the book:
Kobo, Apple, Nook: https://books2read.com/u/mZBDw5
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