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THE NIGHT WATCH by Sarah Waters

TheNightWatchI loved the concept of this book. What a clever way to write an historical novel by beginning at the end and working back to the beginning. And the metaphor of the movies was a clever setup. But what a disappointment this turned out to be.

I am a reader who has enjoyed three of Ms. Waters’ previous novels, TIPPING THE VELVET, AFFINITY and my favorite, FINGERSMITH. So I was surprised to find that I really couldn’t keep going after about page 340, in the middle of the middle section set in 1944. So what went wrong?

First of all, the writing was far too static. The tension in the novel was simply not milked for all it was worth. The character I found most interesting was Duncan, the troubled young man. I think this novel would have been much stronger if it had been told exclusively from his point of view, using him (of course) as an unreliable narrator. That would have created at least some tension, plus an interesting puzzle for the reader to figure out when he was telling the truth and when he was lying. This is quite a technical challenge for the writer, but one that I am sure someone of Ms. Water’s formidable gifts could handle perfectly well.

And that brings me to my next point. Ms. Waters takes a tremendous risk in having several protagonists telling their stories. While this method of story-telling gives the novel a certain kind of richness, the problem for the reader is that it is too jarring to be thrown from one point-of-view and into another. In this book there were Kay, Duncan, Helen, and Viv. While it is possible that a 530-page trade paperback could encompass four protagonists, the problem with this novel is that we have to keep changing point of view so fast. In Chapter One, for example, we are in Kay’s point-of-view for just six short pages before we are flung into Duncan’s. Speaking for myself, I just found that too disorienting.

Lastly, I agree with other readers who found the plot problematic. I thought there were not nearly enough plot points to make this interesting. We learn that Helen is in a frustrating relationship with Julia who seems about to ditch her for a smarter woman. Then Viv is carrying on with a married man. But neither of these affairs interested me very much because they seemed entirely predictable. Instead, I wanted to know more about Duncan, and his friend Fraser. Three Stars.

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BELOVED PILGRIM by Nan Hawthorne

I loved the beginning of BELOVED PILGRIM by Nan Hawthorne. The first words of the novel drew me into the world of Europe in 1100:

With a loud crack the sword cam down onto a helm already knocked askew by an earlier blow. The helm flew off and the wearer staggered and nearly lost his feet.

“Ho, valiantly done!” the fifteen-year-old Elisabeth von Winterkirche called from her perch on the wooden fence.

This shows clearly that Elisabeth, the protagonist of this tale, is no simpering miss. She’s not sitting in her mother’s solar at her embroidery. Instead, she’s learning how to fight. And this is just as well, for when her mother and brother die, and her father abandons the family to join a crusade, Elisabeth is left at the mercy of her husband, who rapes her.

But Elisabeth is not easily cowed. Seeing no future for herself as a submissive, ill-used wife, she dons a knight’s garb and sets out on crusade with Albrecht, her brother’s best friend and lover. Elisabeth and Albrecht have many hair-raising adventures. But the ending of the novel doesn’t quite satisfy. The problem is that an important loose thread is not tied up. In my opinion, Elisabeth should find her father, as her continual search for him motivates many of the choices she makes throughout the novel. By not giving us that scene, the author lost an opportunity not only for tension and conflict (how I would have loved to have seen the expression on Sigismund’s face when he saw that one of the knights was his own daughter), but also for a truly resonant ending to the novel.

Despite this flaw, this is a great read for those of you interested in the crusades. The author has clearly done her research, and the novel is replete with vivid depictions of fighting in chain mail and armor. My favorite one is of Elisabeth wearing her knight’s armor while trying to cope with the heat of the Middle East. A vivid characterization of the agony that must have been suffered by those knights of long ago.

–Cynthia Haggard writes historical novels.  She has two completed manuscripts that will be published in the coming year. THWARTED QUEEN  is a portrait of a woman trapped by power, a marriage undone by betrayal, and a King brought down by fear.FAMILY SPLINTERS is  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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