Saturday, March 23, 2013

Review: Tides of War by Stella Tillyard

Title: Tides of War
Author: Stella Tillyard
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.
Published: 2011
Pages: 368

Rating: 3 out of 10

The description of this book on Amazon sounded stunning. First of all, there were the central themes: it involved a little-known war, was set in both 19th Century Spain and London, involved the Wellington family, a beautiful Spanish female spy, an inventor, a physician, and an eccentric young woman. Those plot elements alone would have easily compelled me to read it. And then, there is the writing of the description, which ends with the lyrical "Tides of War is drenched in an unforgettable atmosphere, from the palms, mantillas and tiles of Seville to the glow of gas lights in foggy London, shining through the spikes of winter trees... This novel returns all all to the vivid, lost world of the past."
I actually, truly want to know who wrote that book review. Honestly. And I will go and try to find out, right after I write this review. Whoever it is, they can write.
Unfortunately, the writer of the actual book, Stella Tillyard, cannot.

There is little that I enjoyed about this novel. The beginning pages, which try to squeeze in a sense of the relationship between newly married couple Harriet and James Raven, felt wrong, though I still cannot exactly say how.
After this, dozens more characters are introduced. Most of them struck me from the very first as dull, but a few stood out only because of their professions: such as David, a surgeon who studied in Edinburgh, or Nathan Rothschild, who is working toward reinventing London by introducing gas lighting. And then of course, there is the Duke of Wellington and his wife. These characters sound so fascinating I actually feel a twinge of physical pain at how the author mangled their stories into tedium.
All of the twenty or so numerous characters shuffle in and out of the story, to be re-introduced dozens of pages later, when we have stopped caring or thinking of them. As a result, we care about and think about none of the characters, and none of them stand out to provide a much-needed focal point and backbone to the story.

The more I read, the more I am becoming convinced that romantic sub-plots are some of the hardest things to write. I suppose that, being so universal, they are generally what readers will scrutinize with a greater sense of confidence than they would about the author's fact relaying concerning the 1815 Siege of Badajos.
I seem to say in many of my reviews that the romantic scenes were stiff, or silly, or outright ridiculous. Well, this review will have to be among them. Once again, here is a book that would have done better to leave out the romance. Harriet and James' relationship never came across to me at all, and I couldn't stand the scenes between Harriet and her lover. I wished constantly that things would go badly so that these scenes would stop, which is probably not the sentiment Tillyard hoped to inspire in readers. James' relationship with Camille Florens, the aforementioned seductive Spanish spy (don't be drawn in, she appears for perhaps all of a page or two, collectively) was, though brief, the only relationship that I halfway found realistic.

Besides a messy array of uninteresting characters peppered with dashes of clumsy romance scenes, the rest of the plot, which was about men leaving for war as the women stay behind, was much of the same. There were too many plot elements for me to place any significance on any particular event, and also, I did not feel that I learned anything about the Peninsular War or history in general from this book. And that is why I read historical fiction in the first place.
The settings of London and Seville, which the writer of the Amazon book's description was able to bring to life beautifully in only one sentence, never emerged into prominence.

There were a few scenes when I was able to take a hopeful, almost positive stance on the writer, which were when the characters begin musing, more or less philosophically, about things, such as the workings of the human body, French royalty, or the parallels of battle with life. I felt that there was something here that could be perhaps developed into something good. It wasn't quite there yet, but it could be.

In short, this was a disappointing, unfocused book that I was glad to finish and get rid of.