Philippa Gregory’s DARK TIDES (FAIRMILE #2) narrated by Louise Brealey

It is always a pleasure to watch the havoc one person can create amongst people, especially people who are far too polite for their own good. In TIDELANDS, that person was James Summer. Handsome, charming, young, he wins the love of Alainor – a woman in her late twenties with two children, and an abusive husband who has either died or disappeared. Alainor reciprocates his love, but she is a herbalist, some might say a White Witch, some of her neighbors said worse. This is 1648, people believe in witchcraft, and when James discovers that Alainor is to be tried as a witch with a little trial drowning, James abandons her to almost certain death fearing for his family name.

Alainor is saved by Alys, her 15-year-old daughter, who abandons her marriage plans in order to take her mother away from Sealsea Island (now known as Selsey Bill). Both women are pregnant, Alainor with James’ child and Alys with her fiancee’s. During the course of this novel it is never made clear whether Alainor actually gave James a son and heir, a daughter and heiress, or lost the baby.

Fast forward 21 years to 1670, when DARK TIDES opens, and James (now known at Sir James Avery) still handsome, charming and now rich, returns to Alainor to persuade her to be his wife. But he is far too conscious of the “great gift” he is to bestow upon her, and Alainor wants nothing to do with him. Her dunk in the village mill-pond has left her with weak lungs and painful memories. And so James never finds out from Alainor or her daughter Alys if any of the unborn babies of 1648 are his heirs. The children, Johnny and Sarah, think they are twins. Johnny has just finished his apprenticeship as a clerk and wants to join the East India Company. Sarah has just finished her apprenticeship as a milliner, and neither young person seems suited for the life that Sir James has in mind for them.

Sir James, accustomed to getting his own way and frustrated by Alainor’s steadfast refusal to accept any help from him, is hanging around this modest warehouse on the wrong side of the river, when the Glamor Puss appears in the shape of Italian widow Livia, married to Alainor’s son Robert who graduated as a doctor from the University of Padua.  Livia, exotic, dressed to the nines, clearly out of place on this greasy wharf, immediately sinks her claws into Sir James Avery as he is the only wealthy person around in this sour corner of London. She is a dealer in antiquities. Her first husband (an Italian count) was a collector of taste. She has a warehouse full of this lovely stuff, which is now in vogue in London since the restoration of King Charles II. She throws herself on Alainor’s family, claiming poverty (which her silken skirts belie) telling a tale of how her darling Roberto (her second husband, and Alainor’s son) was sunk somewhere in the dark tides of Venice.

Charming, flirtatious, with an unearthly beauty, Livia is an expert liar. Most people believe her. The only person who does not is Alainor, and when she hatches a plan to send her grand-daughter Sarah to Venice to find out what is really going on, the engine of the novel really starts.

Like many readers, I am a fan of Philippa Gregory, but I agree with most of them that this is not her best book. The first book in the series was successful because it focused on Alainor’s story, and milked it for tension. This volume suffers from a subplot set in North America in the 1670s, when the colonists and the Native Americans were readying themselves for war. This part of the story had almost nothing to do with the main plot-line, except for the fact that the protagonist in the North American tale was Ned Ferryman, Alainor’s brother.

Some readers enjoyed experiencing Livia’s come-uppance at the end of this volume, but for me, the person who had the punishment meted out was Sir James, who found himself stuck in a loveless marriage that he had brought on himself. For me, this was a fitting punishment for the man who ruined Alainor’s life, abandoned her to her fate while she was carrying his child, and fled from her family, who included two innocent children, including the boy he had been tutoring.  I enjoyed reading about the miserable life he is sure to have with his new bride Livia, who will give him a run for his money, as he is far too polite (and guilt-ridden) to protest at anything she does. Or says. Four stars.