The Splendour Falls, by Susanna Kearsley

>> Tuesday, September 26, 2006

I fell in love with Canadian author Susanna Kearsley's books when, thanks to a recommendation in my Barbara Michaels book group, I read The Shadowy Horses. My experience with this book was a bit weird: I could see its flaws and weaknesses perfectly, but it was still an A+ for me. There was something about it that clicked with me in such a way that I even loved what I know were its problems.

After that, I immediately ordered what books I could get from her backlist. Named of the Dragon and Season of Storms were easy to get, and a year later, I was able to find her first, Mariana. They were very good. Not as perfect as TSH, but extremely enjoyable.

I was still missing three books though. Undertow and The Gemini Game are impossible to get (we're talking about some $100 here), but I had some hopes I could find a cheapish copy of The Splendour Falls. Well, a couple of weeks ago, I did. The copy I found listed in abebooks had its cover a bit torn in the corners (the reason why it was affordable), but I didn't mind.

Chinon -- château of legend, steeped in the history of France and England. It is to Chinon that Emily goes on a long-awaited holiday, to meet her charming but uinreliable cousin, Harry. Harry wanted to explore the old town and the castle, where Queen Isabelle, child bride of King John, had withstood the siege of Chinon many centuries ago, and where, according to legend, she hid her casket of jewels.

But when Emily arrives at her hotel she finds that Harry has disappeared, and as she tries to find him she becomes involved with some of the other guests and learns of a mystery dating from the German occupation during the Second World War. Another Isabelle, a chambermaid at the hotel, fell in love with a German soldier, with tragic results.

Emily becomes increasingly aware of strange tensions, old enmities and new loves; as she explores the city, with its labyrinthine dungeons and tunnels and its ancient secrets, she comes ever closer to the mystery of what happened to both the Isabelles of Chinon's history.
I started TSF two weeks ago and drew it out as long as I could, because reading it was such a pleasurable experience. This isn't a book to read for 15 minutes between tasks, or while waiting for the bus; it's one to read in a comfy chair, feet up and a glass of good wine at your elbow. It's not really a page-turner, so I could pace myself without much trouble. A B+.

When Emily Braden's cousin Harry badgers her into accepting to come with him to the medieval town of Chinon (see location here) for a holiday, she just knows it's not going to work out as planned. Harry has a history of not being where he promises he'll be, and so Emily's not surprised when she arrives and he's nowhere to be seen.

She's not too worried, either. Plantagenet-mad historian Harry's very interested in investigating the tunnels under and around the Château Chinon, in which he suspects Isabelle, John Lackland's young bride might have hidden a treasure before she escaped from the château under siege, so Emily knows he'll turn up sooner or later. She'll simply settle in at the hotel (fortunately, Harry did make the promised reservations!) and explore a bit on her own.

And she does have a lot of fun, at first. Chinon is beautiful, and she's soon settled in with the people at the hotel and even some Chinon residents. But as the days go by and Harry doesn't show up, Emily begins to get worried. And she begins to get the feeling that some of her newfound acquaintances are hiding something.

I think it's fair to say that if you've enjoyed other Kearsley books, you'll probably enjoy this one. It's got that mix of fascinating history with more contemporary drama, all set before a wonderful backdrop.

One of the best elements of TSF is its atmosphere. Chinon is a character in its own right, and provides an excellent setting. This is a constant in all this author's books: she finds unique settings (an archeological excavation in Scotland, searching for a lost Roman legion in The Shadowy Horses, a beautiful villa in Northern Italy in Season of Storms, a house built next to a ruined tower in Wales in Named of the Dragon...), and makes them come alive. She did the same with Chinon. She writes in the dedication that she actually spent some time there, and this shows in the level of detail.

But it's not just a matter of knowing exactly where each stone is set, it takes a special ability to be able to make the reader see what she's seeing, touch what she's touching and even smell what she's smelling, and it's an ability Kearsley has got, in spades. After I was done with the book, there was nothing I wanted more than to go there, stay at the Hôtel de France, as Emily did (is this the Hôtel de France, where they stay? It sure sounds like it. But it's a Best Western! That kind of ruins the mood, I'm afraid), and be served drinks at the bar by Thierry. I wanted to sit under the statue of Rabelais and watch the river, and I wanted to explore the castle and go visit the Cave des Cloches and try their wine. That was one of the main reasons I didn't want the book to end: I didn't want to leave Chinon.

Something else that was interesting about TSF's atmosphere was its timeless feel. It reminded me more of Mary Stewart than of Barbara Michaels, as some of Kearsley's other books did. Even though it was published in 1995, the setting could easily have been moved to the 1960s without having to change many details. Yes, it needed to be set a certain number of years after WWII, but other than that, any changes made would have been minor.

I really enjoyed the plot. I loved the way the investigation into Harry's whereabouts intersected with the mystery of Isabelle de Angoulême's hidden treasure and the hidden treasure of yet another Isabelle, a young Frenchwoman who fell in love with a German soldier during WWII. Both were fascinating, and I appreciated the way the solutions mirrored each other.

The characters populating this book were just as interesting as the mystery. Well, other than Emily, that is. I never found her to be a particularly compelling narrator (which would be the only negative in the book), but the people around her were more than colourful enough. I liked that though they were colourful and had their faults, they were all of them basically good people. I've read a couple of books lately in which the characters were interesting but so nasty that I reached the last page feeling depressed about humanity. Not so here. Even the villain had a humanity to him/her, and you could almost understand what had led him/her to those actions.

I did end the book a little bit depressed though, but that was because a character I was half in love with is murdered. I don't count it as a negative, because I see it really was necessary to the story, to increase the stakes. Plus, it inspired one of the most touching moments in the book, which was Emily's posthumous tribute to him. So well, the ending was a bit bittersweet. There is a nice (if subtle) romance, which made me happy, but my smile at the end of the book was probably a little sad.

To close this review, a little note, probably of interest only to me: Emily's father is a diplomat, and he's living in Uruguay, of all places, working at the British Legation in Montevideo! It was such a jolt to see this; as you can imagine, it's not particularly common for my tiny country to be mentioned in anything other than football histories (we won the 1930 and 1950 World Cups) or international trade texts (because of the GATT's Uruguay Round, which gave birth to the WTO). Anyway, Mr. Braden plays a not unimportant role in the book... he and Emily actually talk on the phone a few times, and he uses some of the influence he still has to aid her investigations. I found it very funny that every time Emily phones Uruguay, it's a huge deal... they don't talk much because if she were to phone Uruguay very often she'd go bankrupt, the lines are so bad it's like talking to someone on the moon, and so on. A funny little detail for me.

After years of searching for info about her online, I'm happy to report that Kearsley now has a website. In it, I discovered she had a new book out just earlier this month, and it's fortunate I discovered the website, because she's publishing it under a new pseudonym, Emma Cole. The title is Every Secret Thing, and it sounds great!

I do hope she adds more info, though, since there just isn't much there. For instance, she says "Please visit the newly updated Emma Cole page", but never says where that page IS! I tried googling and got nowhere (it's probably too new) and then random pages (,,, and finally found her at Kearsley mentions there that Evert Secret Thing is supposed to be an old-style thriller, without the paranormal thread that usually runs through the Susanna Kearsley books (boo-hoo, I love that supernatural element!), and that's why it was published under another name.

Whatever it is like, I hope I can get it soon... according to amazon US, the book came out on September 16th, but though they have it in stock, it takes 2 to 4 weeks for them to ship it. I also checked in Amazon Canada and Amazon UK... Canada because that's where the author is from, the UK because that's where the publisher, Allison & Busby, is from. Amazon Canada shows October 15th as the release date (both for the paperback and the hardcover), while Amazon UK has September 16th, and ships immediately.


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