Author: Deborah Swift
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 17th Century / Lace / Swordsmanship / Spain / Expulsion of the Moriscos)
Publisher/Publication Date: Pan MacMillan (10/23/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: In 1609, a young Englishwoman learns of a secret cousin who inherits the family lace business she anticipated running and finds herself following him to Spain.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: Eh -- I'm not wild about it.
I'm reminded of...: Lynn Cullen, Sandra Gulland
First line: Magdalena was afraid to sleep in case she did not wake.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you enjoy meaty historical novels that don't feature royals,
Why did I get this book?: I loved Swift's previous novel, The Gilded Lily.
Review: This was one of those historical novels that leave you breathless; it's so much more that the blurb suggests. Deborah Swift impressed me with her novel The Gilded Lily -- I loved the setting, the heroine, the evocative articulation of the era -- and in A Divided Inheritance, she does it again.
Set in 1609, the novel follows Elspet Leviston, a young woman with a miserly father who runs a successful lace business. Smart and committed, Elspet hopes to one day continue her father's legacy after she marries, but that dream is derailed when Zachary Deane, a long-lost cousin, suddenly appears. Elspet's father makes it clear Zachary will be heir to the company, despite Zachary's obvious disinterest in the business. Only after Zachary is arrested for fighting -- Elspet's cousin is passionate about swordplay -- does her father decides to send him on a Grand Tour in hopes of educating the young man. But days after Zachary leaves, Elspet's father dies, and she goes after Zachary in hopes of wresting the business from his hands.
In the end, however, this isn't a novel of inheritance rights or family squabbles. Zachary goes to Seville, Spain, studying the art of swordfighting at a Spanish academy, when the edict ordering the expulsion of the Spanish Muslims or moriscos is signed. Bustling, glorious Seville is a cosmopolitan city with a diverse population, and many of Zachary's acquaintances are Muslims or moriscos. Despite his disinterest in getting embroiled in anything outside of his practice with the sword, Zachary finds himself having to act.
While this might sound complicated, Swift conveys the various threads easily and expertly. I'm not a fan of swords or sword-fighting (in most novels, I kind of gloss over the fighting scenes), but Swift manages to articulate the artistry and physicality of every move so that I could see it in my mind's eye.
As with The Gilded Lily, the unfamiliar 17th century comes alive in her prose without being weighted down by the dreaded infodump. I felt immersed. There are wonderful layers to the novel, be it the freedom to worship (Zachary and Elspet are secret Catholics in London, but can worship openly in Spain) or the freedom to pursue one's aspirations, and I found much in the story to relate to even though I've never had the urge to fence.
This was a surprising novel -- the arc of the story is so much greater, more rich, than the blurb allows -- and those who enjoy characters that aren't immediately easy to like will want this one. There's armchair escape to Seville, as well, and action in spades. At nearly 500 pages, this book races every moment, and I couldn't put it down.