My rating: I’d follow the author ANYWHERE, but this vacation wasn’t as good as the others.
Disclaimer: Susanna Kearsley is one of my favorite authors. I discovered her a year or two ago, and The Rose Garden and The Shadowy Horses are my two favorites.
Emily Braden is a young woman who became a cynic after the divorce of her parents. Her cousin, Harry, who has always been close to her, convinces her to go on a holiday with him to relax. He suggests they meet in Chinon, because he has some research to do there, dealing with the long-lost treasure of Isabelle of Angouleme, wife of King John of England (the villain in Robin Hood, brother of Richard the Lionhearted, son of Eleanor of Aquitaine, English king in the 13th century, for those who aren’t familiar with him), supposedly hidden in the underground tunnels that permeate the city. Emily decides to go, realizing she can’t depend on easily-distracted Harry, but willing to vacation on her own. Once she gets there, she meets several of her fellow guests and a few of the locals, too. As she explores the city, and gets to know the people who live and stay there, she starts to worry about her cousin, who (unsurprisingly) has not shown up. As she delves deeper into the mysteries surrounding the hidden treasure and the death of a local man, her feeling that something is out of place grows stronger, until she is fully involved in finding her cousin and solving the mysteries.
I love Chinon, and I’ve never been; I love the waywardness and absentmindedness of Emily’s family members, and the contrast between her family and the dependability of some the people she meets in Chinon. I love the slow reveal of the character of the city, and of the development of the relationships between characters. The plot is driven mostly by the mysteries, and by the relationships among the secondary characters. Both of which are interesting (actually, I found the latter fascinating). Kearsley is a master at creating complex, vivid, and unique characters, and weaving the relationships between them. The plot takes its time, the pacing meandering, to give enough space to the city and characters. The ending was shocking, in more ways than one, but it was also superb.
The romance is quiet, understated, with a subtle and patient pursuit. I especially enjoyed Emily’s reaction to one man. Her cynical nature makes her reject serious relationships, because she doesn’t believe in happy endings anymore. Which makes her uncomfortable around the serious, quiet man she becomes attracted to. She struggles with her feelings, wanting to keep her distance, not sure what she wants or if she can trust herself. And he lets her come to her own answers. And I LOVED that.
What disappointed me about this novel is the weak connection to the history of Chinon. In the prologue, Isabelle of Angouleme awaits his rescue at the chateau above the town. And very little else is said about her. Her history plays a small role in the treasure hunt that moves the characters along in the plot, but for the overwhelming most part, this book does not come close to Kearsley’s others in terms of historical fiction. And for me, that was a giant disappointment.
To all fans of Kearsley’s, I suggest you read this one, too. Certainly, it is a great story. I also recommend it for fans of contemporary romance/mystery with lyrical prose and an atmospheric setting. Fans of historical fiction and Kearsley fans who are drawn to her works because they involve ghosts, the paranormal, and a little bit of magic may feel deprived.
There are no books like Kearsley’s. But I’ll give it a go, anyway.
Katherine, by Anya Seton, has the same atmospheric setting that will bring the past to life. It tells the story of a magnificent woman, mistress of John of Gaunt (brother to Edward-the-Black-Prince of England in the 14th century). If you, like me, were disappointed that Isabelle of Angouleme played almost no part in The Splendour Falls, this may satisfy your craving.
For a tale of mystery and complex relationships in another small town, this time in a gold-rush town of the late 19th century, Crown of Dust has a similar feel and pace.
And, of course, any of Kearsley’s other works are similar and highly recommended: