Great story about 18th C Scotland – The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

My knowledge of British history gets very high level after the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, and if truth be told, lately I’ve read far too many fiction novels about Tudor times.  So it was a refreshing change to read The Winter Sea, a terrific time slip tale by Canadian author Susanna Kearsley, which swept me to Scotland in 1708, a year after the Union with England.

In The Winter Sea, Kearsley uses “genetic memory” to draw the link between the two main characters – Sophia Paterson, visiting Cruden Bay and Slains Castle in 18th century Scotland and Canadian author Carrie McClelland, visiting the ruined castle and nearby town to research and write her new novel.  Carrie is writing a fictional story of the failed Jacobite uprising in the spring of 1708, when French and Scots soldiers nearly succeeded in landing  James Stewart (would have been James III of England/James VIII of Scotland) in Scotland to reclaim the Scottish crown.  She is not long in Cruden Bay before she discovers that her plot and characters track startlingly close to historical fact as she accesses ancestral memories.

It is a compelling tale of difficult choices, conflicting loyalties, and strength of character – even in defeat – and true love.  Even though it is a love story (actually two love stories), it is not romantic historical fiction with prescribed heaving bosoms.  Sophia’s love interest, Mr. Moray does not even make an appearance in the first quarter of the novel—but when he finally does, it is well-timed.

Its emotional highs and lows are told beautifully, and with restraint – the more impactful because of it.  This is one of the first time slip novels in which I actually liked the main character in both time periods, though admittedly Sophia, with her quiet strength, captivated me a bit more.   Both love interests — Moray (18th C) and Graham (21st C) were perfectly drawn. The supporting cast of characters – in both time periods – were sharply memorable and even a little unexpected.  I loved the Countess Erroll, who was decisive and forthright, without being a caricature.  I had the sense that Kearsley met some real characters in Cruden Bay and weaved them into her story as Jimmy and Stuie Keith and Dr. Weir.

We all know the uprising didn’t end well for James Stewart and his supporters—yet in an unexpected twist, Kearsley turns tragedy to triumph in the ending, which hits the romantic high note of the book.  It is a beautiful ending.

If I had any complaint it is that Kearsley captured the dialect of the area so closely that I found it a distracting from the storyline.  Advice I have been given on a similar issue is to go light on dialect.  But it was a minor distraction and others may really enjoy it.  Kearsley does a wonderful job of putting you on the East Coast of Scotland, probably because she did her research – much like her character – by staying in Cruden Bay.

I can’t claim to be Scottish, although both my parents were born and raised in Fife.   I did spend most of the summers of my childhood and many, many weeks as an adult in Scotland, especially on the coast of Fife, so I know when an author has captured the spirit of the place. At one point, Kearsley describes the wind coming off the sea – the cold East wind – and I thought, “Yes, that is exactly how it feels.”

I’m going to Scotland in a few weeks, on a long-awaited trip to visit sites for my novel about Mary, Queen of Scots.  The Winter Sea transported me there ahead of the jet—it is a great story, well told.  Highly recommended–loved, loved this book!

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