Sunday, 12 February 2017

Review: A Dream Defiant by Susanna Fraser

4 stars

In my mind, there are two types of Regency romances: those that follow in the tradition of Austen and Heyer, showing the privileged world of the Ton and the upper-middle classes, and those that lift the veil and show ordinary Britons and the socio-political context that affected their lives. Over the past eighteen months I've really come to appreciate this second type of Regency, and A Dream Defiant is no exception.

It's a wonderfully detailed interracial romance, set in Spain during the Napoleonic War. The hero, Elijah, is an black man and an non-comissioned officer in the British army. When one of his men is killed looting after a battle, he promises the dying man that he will take care of his wife, including passing on a valuable looted necklace. Elijah has admired Rose from afar for years, but her husband's death has put her in a very difficult position. She's without protection in a rough army camp, with a young son and rumours swirling that she is in possession of a valuable necklace. She needs to remarry quickly, and soldiers are lining up for the privilege. Elijah is the only one she trusts, but he's also the only one who seems to have no interest in marrying her. 

The real beauty of A Dream Defiant is the way that it showed the realities of the characters' situations. The life of women who followed the drum was difficult, as is Elijah's position as the son of runaway slaves who now has command over white men. Most of the conflict comes from the interracial nature of Elijah and Rose's romance. Elijah wants to make sure that Rose understands what being his wife would mean, and there's some racist blowback from other characters. 

Around two-thirds to three-quarters of the way through, there's a time jump, and the rest of the book is about Elijah, Rose and her son's life back in England. I had mixed feeling about this last bit. It was nice to see the couple's life together when they were settled, and to see what Elijah's life as a black man was like in his homeland, but it also just felt like a really extended epilogue with it's own mini-plot. 

Without giving too much away, I'm also not sure how I feel about the quick resolution of that mini-plot. I know that some racism is the result of ignorance, misunderstanding and fear of the Other, but I also don't feel like we can write it all off as not being malicious, especially in the current political climate. And the impact on the individual and his family is the same regardless, so in the end it doesn't really matter what prompts people to be racist. Ditto when racism is mingled with or disguised as a non-racist grudge. Perhaps I wouldn't have the same reservations if the book were longer, but because this part of the book is little more than an addendum, there's not adequate space to give the issue the space it needs and deserves. It's sad, really, because the representation elsewhere in the story was so nuanced. 

In truth, I wish that A Dream Defiant had been a full-length novel. There would have been a smoother transition from Spain to England. We could have seen Rose and Elijah getting to know each other and falling in love slowly, and it would have given the reader a smoother transition from Spain to England, with more context to the scenes of them as a married couple in England.

Despite the fact that I've spent the last two paragraphs listing my quibbles, I really did enjoy A Dream Defiant, and I thought it was done very well for a novella. The way Fraser writes about life following the drum is intense that it stuck in my mind for weeks afterward, so A Dream Defiant joins the many books that I've given 4 stars to lately. But what can you do? There are books that just beg to be reviewed, and, lately, many of those have been 4 star reads.

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