The Winter Sea, by Susanna Kearsley

>> Wednesday, March 19, 2008

TITLE: The Winter Sea
AUTHOR: Susanna Kearsley

COPYRIGHT: 2008 (the UK release date is next Monday, March 24th. I won't be here, so I'm posting this early)
PAGES: 527
PUBLISHER: Allison and Busby

SETTING: Contemporary Scotland, with sections taking us back to the early 18th century.
TYPE: Fiction, with nice dollops of romance and paranormal

REASON FOR READING: The Winter Sea was right at the top of my most anticipated books of 2008. I adore Susanna Kearsley's books, and though I really liked her Emma Cole release in 2006, it was a vintage Kearsley that I was wanting. So can you imagine my reaction when she emailed me to ask whether I'd want to receive an ARC? Yep, there was much joyful dancing and a long series of "yes, yes, YES!". My flatmates must have thought I was insane. And Marta must be extra convinced, because she was the one to bring the actual book up from the mailbox a few days later. She never knew what hit her; I tore it out of her hands and started dancing again. From the expression on her face, it wasn't pretty :-D

Carolyn McClelland, a writer of historical novels, finds herself with a familiar enemy; writers block.

A change of scenery leads her, and her book, in a whole new direction. Writing about the attempted Jacobite invasion of 1707, Carolyn takes up residence in a cottage in Edinburgh. Inexplicably drawn to Slains Castle, and not so inexplicably drawn to the charming, but somehow familiar, Stuart Keith, Carolyn is soon writing with an unusual speed and imagery which leads her to wonder whether her fictional character of Sophia is really so fictional after all.

Carolyn soon realises that she is somehow channelling the memories of her distant relative and that her story has a life of its own.
THE PLOT: Historical novel author Carrie McClelland's next book is not flowing as it should. She's writing about the little known failed Jacobite invasion of 1707 and her main character, a sea captain, refuses to speak to her. But everything changes when she goes to visit her agent in Aberdeen. On the way there, she drives through a small fishermen's town set at the foot of a ruined castle, and something in it calls to her. When she asks her agent about it and discovers it's Slains castle, which features prominently in her subject matter, she knows what she needs to fix her book.

A change of location (from France, where the exiled Jacobite court used to be located, to a nice cozy cottage in Cruden Bay, the small village next to Slains) and a change of narrator (from the sea captain to a young woman living in Slains at the time, who she names after one of her ancestresses), and in no time at all, she's writing as if possessed. But then Carrie slowly begins to realise that some of the details she's writing, supposedly making them up, are more accurate than she would have thought. Much, much more accurate, so accurate that she begins to suspect that she might have somehow inherited her ancestress' memories.

MY THOUGHTS: The Winter Sea was a lovely read. There's just something about Kearsley's style, about her combination of suble paranormal plots and modern contemporary stories and settings, that appeals to me very strongly. And this one was classic Kearsley, reminiscent of The Shadowy Horses in the setting and of Mariana in the plot.

The structure is one that works beautifully for the story. We get author Carrie's story in the present and interspersed with it, fragments of the novel she's writing, as she's writing it. Usually when you get something like this, two stories threads that are rather separate, I might be more interseted in one or the other, and want to stay with the one I like. Here this just didn't happen. When I was reading about Carrie in the present I kept thinking "please, please, some more, don't go to the past", but when I was reading about Sophia, I'd think "please, please, some more, don't go back to the present" :-)

Each of the stories was fascinating. Sophia's was probably the most eventful and exciting, as we see how she becomes involved in the plotting of the invasion and in a secret love affair. She's a poor relation, come to live at Slains Castle with the mother of the current Earl of Erroll, and the Countess and her son are central figures in the plot. There are people coming and going from the Castle all the time, allies, envoys from the exiled court, people whose loyalty must be doubted, and Sophia finds herself in the midst of it all, having to tread very, very carefully. And in addition to the cool political intrigue, there's a sweet romance, as Sophia and one of the visitors to the Castle fall head over heels in love.

For once, I was glad of my ignorance. I didn't know much about the history involved, and I made a conscious effort not to do some quick googling, so I could discover things as the book progressed. I did know how things turned out, on the whole (because you get that information right from the beginning), but I didn't know the details, and I loved the uncertainty.

As I implied, Carrie's story in the present day is not as outwardly thrilling as Sophia's. Technically, all that's going on in her life is that she sits in her cottage in Cruden Bay writing her novel, befriends some of the locals and falls in love with the son of one of them. There's no real danger or intrigue or suspense in her life. But... here's the thing: the subtle chills as she discovers that her writing process has been pretty much taken over by memories that are coming from unexplainable sources provided more than enough excitement for this reader. Plus, her sections were helpful breaks in the dramatic action of the 18th century, and I loved seeing her efforts to discover what's going on.

Carrie's a great character. Her reactions to all this strangeness were perfect: she's shocked and intrigued at the same time, a little bit scared but also excited at having this amazing window into the period. She deals with everything in a very sensible manner, testing herself, actually talking to trusted people about it and generally researching the hell out of the experience *g*

And there's another lovely romance here, with a guy I actually found even more interesting than Sophia's lover. It's a quiet romance, with only slight conflict in it, but I loved the way there was some interesting mirroring here of what's going on in Carrie's novel. It's very subtle, just a hint that there might be more here than meets the eye, and I really liked it.

Something else that was excellent was the way Kearsley made the settings come alive. This is par for the course for her, as she's, IMO, one of the best authors out there at describing a location and making you feel as if you were there, really giving you a feel for the place. I'd go as far as to say that she's even better than authors like Mary Stewart at it. I always finish her books feeling the need to go visit the locations, because they sound so great.

The only thing I didn't love about the novel is that the ending felt slightly anticlimactic. It was still very satisfying, but I think a slightly bigger bang (but not too much, otherwise it wouldn't have gone well with the rest of the novel's tone) would have made for an even better book.


NOTE: It seems there were two versions of the cover, as I also found this one when I googled for it to post here. I think I like the one that finally got used better, even if the dunes are more relevant to the story.


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