False Lights: K.J. Whittaker

★★★★

I always love getting recommendations. Honestly, it brightens up my day every time. When RT enthused to me about this book, I realised it was already in my TBR pile and promptly moved it to the top of the list. And I’ve devoured it at high speed. It opens in 1817, two years since Napoleon scraped a narrow victory at Waterloo and placed his brother Jérôme on the English throne. Now English curfews are enforced by French troops and English patriots executed by French guillotines, and discontent is rising. We follow three characters into the heart of this powder-keg: Kitto Helford, an aristocratic fourteen-year-old with patriotic ambitions; his older brother Crow, the laconic Earl of Lamorna, whose withering arrogance hides a soul traumatised by war; and Hester Harewood, the resourceful daughter of a dashing (black) naval officer.

Hester has grown up with her loving father on the island of Bryher in the Scilly Isles, where he serves as garrison commander and local lord. (I imagine him looking like General Dumas, for whom I currently have a bit of a tendresse.) Her life hasn’t quite been conventional for a well-born lady: she’s spent her childhood shooting and sailing with her father, caring for the islanders and dreaming up ciphers with her friend Caitlin. She’d hardly fit in with the précieuses of St James’s, although they probably wouldn’t get far enough to wonder at Hester’s unusual accomplishments. They wouldn’t even get past her face. For Hester is mixed-race, born of her black father and the white noblewoman who ran away to be with him, to the scandal of her family. Her father has already started thinking about a marriage that might make Hester happy – but the decision is to be taken out of his hands. For, one day, French troops arrive on Bryher: the captain is cut down where he stands, and Hester makes a desperate bid for escape.

Kitto Helford has frequently been a trial to his elder brother, but trying to blow up the French garrison at Newlyn just takes the biscuit. When Crow comes down to Cornwall in a temper to read the riot act, he finds not only a sullen adolescent, but an unexpected addition to his responsibilities: Captain Harewood’s daughter Hester, washed up on the beach. Now Crow has to carry out a delicate balancing act: keeping his brother from the noose, and protecting Hester (who’d make quite the prize for the French) – all while handling his own increasingly dangerous game as a spy. Not to mention dealing with his widowed stepmother Louisa, who also just happens to be his mistress; and his servant Arkwright, who’s a committed revolutionary. And his own crippling sense of guilt at having been the man who – virtually single-handed – lost the battle of Waterloo. The Lamornas are not the most normal family; and the way in which Crow approaches these new crises will lead to a whole new level of notoriety.

It’s a complicated story and Whittaker does well to keep things clear as we whisk from Scilly to London and back again; or between the 1817 of the ‘present’ and Crow’s traumatic memories of 1810 and 1815. As I’ve said many times before, there is a special place in my heart for damaged heroes and, by heaven, Crow can enter their ranks with distinction. There were moments when I thought he might almost be too good to be true, and then I stopped caring and fell a little more in love with him instead. I also thought Hester was rather fabulous and, moreover, plausible. I’d have loved to see her do something wild to get her revenge on the supercilious ladies of London, but I know that it’s much more reasonable for her to behave as she does. And Hester’s story is double-edged, because it isn’t just about finding her place in a hostile world, but about finding her place in her own history. Whittaker includes small scenes that are hugely telling, such as Hester’s joy in finding a maid who can deal with her curls, or her struggle to understand her father’s final mysterious words.

I want to read more. It’s compelling and dark and absorbing and I want to know what happens next. Mixing alternative history, romance and espionage, Whittaker creates a truly unusual historical novel: a delicious adventure that’s also sensitive to questions of rank, race, gender and mental health. Fortunately I have it on good authority that there is a second novel in the works, so we just have to sit patiently and wait. But brava Whittaker. A good, strong book which manages to feature a very satisfying romance without neutering an admirably competent heroine. (Think Georgette Heyer crossed with Daphne du Maurier, with pistols, smugglers and attitude.)

And I have to spare a special word too for the cover art: I’m always struck by something different, and here we have a beautiful, (I presume) specially-commissioned painting by Elizabeth Columba, a French artist of Martiniquais ancestry who reworks art-historical conventions to make the black body the centre of her storytelling. An inspiring aim, and an image that I think works perfectly for the book. Hopefully Columba will work on the next volume too. Fingers crossed! And thanks again to RT for the recommendation!

Also, I obviously now want to go on holiday to the Scilly Isles…

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5 thoughts on “False Lights: K.J. Whittaker

  1. RT says:

    Ha! I was 99.99% certain you would enjoy it – but am over the moon to read how much you did! It truly is a delightful book and deserves huge success.

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