I can’t remember where I heard about Sovay by Celia Rees, but when I saw the audiobook version at my library, the title jumped out at me as familiar, and I decided to give this YA novel a try.
About the Book
Our first introduction to Sovay Middleton, the fiery daughter of an English aristocrat, is when she dons men’s clothing and sets out as a highwayman to stop the carriage in which her fiance is riding. There have been rumors that he’s been unfaithful, and Sovay is determined to test him. He wears a ring she gave him, one he swore he’d rather die than remove. And therein lies her test: Will he remove this token of her love when the mysterious highwayman demands it? Or will he die instead?
But errant fiances quickly become the least of Sovay’s worries. As the French Revolution rages on the continent, things in England are far from peaceful, and Sovay soon finds herself and those she holds dearest entangled in an invisible and dangerous web of suspicion and conspiracy. Not one to sit quietly at home and wring her hands, Sovay launches herself into the fray, determined to do what she can to help the people she loves.
Sovay has about it the air of a legend or a fairytale, the kind of story where all the rough edges have been smoothed away and the narrator has her timing down perfectly from many retellings. Miraculous coincidences occur. Resolutions come easily. All the extraneous bits that make a story feel rich and real have been stripped away. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. It just made for a different kind of book, one I wasn’t expecting and don’t normally gravitate toward.
Sovay was almost too impetuous for me to like. She’s strong-willed, to put it mildly, and, for the most part, unafraid to the point of rashness. Because of these traits, she ends up in situations that a less hasty person (of either gender) would use common sense to avoid. There was little in her character to endear me to her, especially since I quickly realized she was untouchable and would get out of any scrape she got into relatively unharmed. Also? Every man who crosses paths with her falls for her, though she remains conveniently (and frustratingly) oblivious. Don’t go looking for a great love story here.
It was some of the more minor characters I really liked: Gabriel, the son of the Middletons’ steward; Virgil, an American whose work brought him to England; Captain Greenwood, one of Sovay’s highwayman peers; and Toby, a poor young orphan Sovay runs into (somewhat improbably) time and again in her London adventures. They, more than Sovay herself, kept me mildly engaged in the story…and prevented me from docking the novel another metaphorical star.
I wondered, as I listened, whether Sovay were based on some fragment of a true story. Several of the bigger incidents felt like the only way an author would choose to include them would be if they’d really happened, because otherwise no one would believe them. It turns out the very first scene, with Sovay as highwayman, was inspired by a traditional ballad that tells a similar story. The rest, however, is the author’s own creation.
Bianca Amato read the audiobook, and she was ok. Her narration style had a matronly air to it. As I listened, I could almost imagine a stately nanny reading the story aloud to her young charges in a warm, almost teacherly voice. The thing that really bothered me was the lack of accents — particularly for the American, though there were Irish and French characters who could’ve used a little flavor and differentiation, too. Everyone sounded British. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by too many stellar narrators, but it grated on me just a little when rough-and-tumble American Virgil perpetually sounded like a mild, genteel English gentleman.
The Verdict: Mediocre
Sovay was enough to keep me mildly entertained, which is why I didn’t quit partway through. But it didn’t make much of a lasting impression, and you won’t find me begging people to run out and read it ASAP. Not bad, per se, but not amazing, either.
What books have you enjoyed that were sparked by a little-known scrap of history?