Sunday, 13 September 2015

Review: Mistress Firebrand by Donna Thorland

4.5 stars

Set during the American War of Independence, Donna Thorland's Mistress Firebrand is a historical romance, with stress on the 'historical'. This is the first book by Donna Thorland I have read, but her detail-rich style is reminiscent of Joanna Bourne, whom I love. Except instead of Revolutionary France, we have Revolutionary New York, where Jenny Leighton is a playwright and bit-part actress at the only theatre still operating in Manhattan. She's desperate to exchange the America's provincial theatre scene for the bright lights of Drury Lane, and when she finds out that the British Army general and dramatist Johnny Burgoyne is anchored in the Hudson River, she is determined to secure his patronage.

Severin Devere is one of the Loyalists' best spies, but he's on babysitting duty, trying to keep General Burgoyne focussed on the war and away from pretty young things.  But the irrepressible Jenny makes his assignment more complicated than anticipated and then, the next time they cross paths things become even more difficult: Severin is under pressure to prove his loyalty to the British, while Jenny has made her way onto the British's hanging list for writing seditious plays.

As a reader and as a reviewer, I often stress character development over plot. I find that good characterisation covers a multitude of sins, but Mistress Firebrand made me remember how invested one can become in a good plot. It was extremely refreshing that, unlike so many more romance-y historicals, the hero and heroine didn't cause themselves unnecessary angst. When they were forced apart, it was a result of genuine, insurmountable external conflict, instead of their general blockheadedness or A Big Misunderstanding. On the flip side, this meant I needed to do some googling here and there, because a solid understanding of the War of Independence is key if you want to understand what is going on. I can't complain though, because, as I said, the depth of historical detail was something I really enjoyed about the book.

So too was Severin as a character. He was witty, thoughtful and kind. Although it doesn't mention this in any of the blurbs (it's actually quite nice that it's not being touted to sell books), he was also half-Mohawk. Displaced to England as a child, he's spent his whole life having to be "more English than the English" to disprove people's assumptions about him. Despite this, he is still frequently on the receiving end of casual racism and prejudice, and perhaps this plays a role in how he is extremely understanding of the precarious position Jenny and the other female characters are in. 

In fact, Thorland did an all-round superb job of capturing the nuances of the 1770s, in terms of both race and gender. There is no disdain for the actresses - including Jenny's Aunt Frances - who are regarded by society as little more than prostitutes. After Jenny realises that Aunt Frances sent her to Burgoyne with the intent that she would become his mistress, she bears her little ill-will, stating that it her aunt's way of trying to secure her future, and it was society who gave a woman the measly choice between being married or selling herself, with no other ways to make her own way in the world.  

With its stand-out plot, original and interesting hero and feminist undertones, Mistress Firebrand far exceeded my expectations and 75% of literature in the genre, and I'm so pleased that Donna Thorland's 3 books in this series are currently making their way across the Pacific Ocean to me. (Crazily, the kindle versions are so expensive it was cheaper to get the paperbacks shipped to Australia).

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