Dawnlands by Philippa Gregory: A seething, smouldering and stunning tale – book review –

Just as the different generations of the Reekie family finally feel settled into their lives and careers in the bustling and burgeoning city of London in 1685, England once again faces the turmoil of a civil war between the warring Stuarts.
Dawnlands by Philippa GregoryDawnlands by Philippa Gregory
Dawnlands by Philippa Gregory

And in a divided country, where power and loyalty conquer all, the peace that wise woman Alinor has sought for almost forty years looks set to be torn apart by her brother Ned who has returned from America with only one thing on his mind... rebellion.

In the third book of her dark and atmospheric Fairmile series, Philippa Gregory turns her historian’s keen eye and novelist’s vivid imagination to a thrilling new adventure as we are swept from the busy River Thames wharfside and opulent palaces of London to the marshy coastal tidelands of Sussex where Alinor Reekie’s story began, and on to New England and the shores of slave island Barbados.

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And after the dramatic events of Tidelands and Dark Tides, this epic historical odyssey skips forwards 15 years to catch up with ageing healer Alinor, now a grandmother and great grandmother, her hardworking businesswoman daughter Alys, Alinor’s cold and scheming former daughter-in-law Livia Avery, and Ned Ferryman, a fierce Parliamentarian who fled England after King Charles II was restored to the throne but is now back to see off the new Catholic King James II.

And in her trademark style, Gregory delivers a seething, smouldering, stunning tale steeped in political turmoil, vaulting ambition, perilous secrets, the challenges facing women in a male-dominated world, and the rewards and dangers to be found in a New World which is opening up far across the seas.

In the spring of 1685, England is on the brink of a renewed civil war as the new Stuart King James II and his Italian wife Queen Mary Beatrice of Modena fully embrace their Catholicism in a country that has renounced the ‘old religion.’

Many families are still bitterly divided and inspired by news of a rebellion against the king, Ned returns from Boston in New England with his teenage Pokanoket servant girl Rowan, and swears loyalty to the late King Charles II’s charismatic, Protestant but illegitimate son James, Duke of Monmouth.

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And after years of political and personal strife for them both, Ned cannot persuade his sister Alinor that he is right to join the rebel army. Even though she still misses her true home beside the tidelands of Sussex, Alinor has at long last found peace and a good living for her family on the Thames riverside.

Meanwhile, Lady Livia Avery, the calculating woman who was once married to Alinor’s doctor son Rob, is now a lady-in-waiting to Queen Mary and is hatching a plan to save the queen from the coming siege.

To make matters worse, Livia has coaxed Alinor into helping her... and the rewards are life-changing. The family could return to their beloved tidelands, and Alinor would be able to rule where she was once lower than a servant.

Alinor’s son, Rob, is determined to stay clear of the war but when he and his nephew Johnnie set out to free Ned from execution for treason, and Rowan from a convict deportation to Barbados, they find themselves enmeshed in the creation of an imposter Prince of Wales... a surrogate baby to the queen and an heir to the throne.

It’s a clever gamble but one that could prove deadly...

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Strong, determined women take centre stage once more in this new chapter for Alinor Reekie and her family as the little known Mary of Modena, second wife and queen of James II, the beautiful, manipulative and mesmerising Livia, and Gregory’s formidable new star, the feisty, straight-talking Pokanoket girl Rowan, face obstacles and prejudice on all fronts.

And while the women fight their personal battles in palaces, parlours and prisons, the fair-minded and principled Ned hitches his wagon and his fortunes to the young Duke of Monmouth, determined to fight for his countrymen and to help bring about a Protestant revolution.

But it is across the ocean, in the hidden caves on the slave island of Barbados, that the courageous and uncompromising Native American Rowan faces her greatest test when she is forced to witness the horrific treatment of those working on the sugar plantations.

Reaching far beyond the murky waters of the Thames, the battleground at Sedgemoor on the desolate Somerset Levels, and the walls of St James’ Palace, London, Gregory brings readers a cast of exquisitely observed characters and a thrilling adventure rich in imagination and the rawness of real history.

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But Dawnlands is also the unfolding of a story of past evils, a look back that fearlessly and relentlessly exposes the cruelties of slavery and racism, and the glaring social divides between poverty and privilege.

With time and place captured perfectly, and Gregory’s immersive storytelling to embellish a gripping plot, the fascinating Fairmile series is flowing ever onwards as it journeys through one of England’s most turbulent and compelling periods of history.

(Simon & Schuster, hardback, £20)

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