Playwrights and the American Revolution: “Mistress Firebrand”

22450833Mistress Firebrand by Donna Thorland
NAL Trade: March 3, 2015 (Historical Fiction)*

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Mistress Firebrand is the third in Thorland’s Renegades of the Revolution, a series that puts a romantic spin on the American Revolution. That said, despite the romance element in Mistress Firebrand, this in no way sugarcoats the challenges faced by people during this period. In particular, I was struck by the challenges faced be the heroine, Jennifer Leighton, an actress trying to make her way as a playwright. Unfortunately, being an independent and ambitious young woman during this time is not a path that is carved smoothly and you sense the almost sinister atmosphere that surrounds Jennifer in many of the decisions that she will be forced to make.

Mistress Firebrand is set in New York in 1775, right in the midst of the American Revolution. Jennifer Leighton has come to the city to stay with her aunt, a notorious and renowned actress who has fled scandal in England. Jenny has been writing plays for one of the playhouses in New York; however, with the revolution going on, the playhouses are being hit hard. What Jenny needs is a patron, and who happens to be in town, John Burgoyne, an English military leader who has great influence in the acting communities in England. Knowing that there is no future for a playwright in America, Jenny decides that she must obtain patronage from Burgoyne and make her way to England.

When Burgoyne receives Jenny’s invitation to see Jenny act, he considers it a different kind of invitation. Yet his protector, Severin Devere, has no intention of letting Burgoyne off his docked ship and into the hands of the Liberty Boys, so Devere is sent to fetch Jenny instead. Unfortunately, this invitation sets in motion some rather severe consequences, forcing Jenny and Severin, devoted spy to England, to make some hard decisions.

Mistress Firebrand was a good read. It was atmospheric, filled with great historical detail and the set up for the romantic plot was unique and engaging. I liked how the author focused on the use of playwrights in the cause for independence. The battle wasn’t always fought by soldiers, but it was often more subversive and I liked that this element was represented here with Jennifer’s highly political plays. Originally Jenny was determined to find her way to England and become a playwright there, but when she can’t make the ultimate sacrifice to get what she wants (nor should she have to), Jenny has to reevaluate her priorities and soon finds herself committed to the ideals of the Revolution. This reconsideration of what the Revolution is a processes that both Jenny and Severin go through, and was well executed. At the beginning neither Jenny or Severin were committed to the cause of American independence; they were basically out for themselves and it was that transformation in thinking about the Revolution in a different way that was the strongest element for me, it made the Revolution seem more human.

Severin’s transformation in loyalty particular was well developed. Severin begins the book as deeply committed to England. He’s half Native American and spent his formative years living in America. After being forced to live in England, being a spy is the only way that he has gotten respect and recognition, even if it was only half-hearted. However, Severin becomes aware of how manipulated he has been in the course of his life.

As he been maneuvered, he fully realized, into his role as spy and provocateur to counter the stigma of his Indian blood. He had never been bitter about it before. Not until his trip to America. Not until Boston (p. 58).

 Without Severin’s growing disillusionment about his place in the world, he never would have taken a stand to help Jenny. When Jenny is maneuvered into helping the Rebel cause, it is only Severin’s skills as a spy that keep her free from the noose. Without Severin’s awareness of his own manipulation, I don’t think he would have gone to the lengths that he did to fight for Jenny and subsequently the American dream of independence. The changes to both Severin and Jenny throughout Mistress Firebrand played a highly important role and the author did an excellent job of showcasing the internal conflicts and decisions that both would be forced to make.

As much as I liked the character transformations and the palpable sense of tension throughout Mistress Firebrand, I felt that the romance was a little lacking. Severin and Jenny are attracted to each other from the beginning, but due to the nature of the time this attraction is tested and I found it contributed to my sense that the romance was based more on the high emotions of the time rather than something emotional. Mistress Firebrand is not a romance in the traditional, genre defining sense, but it does fit the turbulent times in which the novel was set. I only wish that there had been more time spent on wrapping up the romantic plot as I felt that it was rather anticlimactic in comparison to the suspense and tension that readers experience from page one.

Mistress Firebrand was a solid addition to Thorland’s American Revolution series, and is my favourite of the series to date. It was suspenseful and gives readers a snap shot of what life was like for Americans who were not the soldiers fighting in the war for independence.

*Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Similar Reads

Set quite a bit earlier than Mistress Firebrand, I think fans of American history will also be interested in Jean Zimmerman’s The Orphanmaster. In New Amsterdam (modern day Manhattan) orphan children are going missing and Blandine von Couvering, a 22-year-old trader is investigating, along with the help of a mysterious British spy. While the set up of this one sounds like it’s going to be founded in romance, it’s actually a rich historical novel, which will appeal to fans of the detail that Thorland included in Mistress Firebrand.

The Orphanmaster

While The Tea Rose is not grounded in American history (although that becomes part of it), I think it will appeal to readers who found Jenny’s determination to be something other than wife and mother interesting. The Tea Rose is a bit of a saga, but it’s romantic and richly historical featuring some excellent characters.

The Tea Rose (The Tea Rose, #1)

Lastly, if you’re at all interested in American history, it is essential that you read Sara Donati’s Into the Wilderness. While this one is not set in the cities of budding America, it is a great snapshot of life in the wilds of undeveloped America. Such a great read, great characters, and a fantastic romance – highly recommended.

Into the Wilderness


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