Celia Rees is an amazing writer. I was a great fan of her book Vanished, and I think Sovay is even better. With a large cast of characters, it must be difficult to give a distinctive voice to each one, but she manages to pull it off. And Sovay herself is a gem. Bold, adventurous, strong-willed, she is the embodiment of what we women would all like to be, if we only had the nerve.
Most of the book is set in England, in 1794. Sovay, betrayed by her first love, decides to re-invent herself as a highwayman. As it turns out, she robs a coach carrying the lover who spurned her. He then takes his revenge by reporting her father as a traitor.
Sovay goes to London to try to warn her father, who has been away from Compton, their country home, for some time. The housekeeper informs her that her father is no longer there. Meanwhile, Gabriel, son of the Compton steward, checks on Sovay’s brother Hugh at Oxford. He discovers that Hugh was “sent down” because he wrote a seditions pamphlet. He has fled to France.
While in London, Sovay meets the spymaster Robert Dysart. As it turns out, he’s the one orchestrating the campaign against Sovay’s father, and countless others. A high official in the British government, he obsesses about the English rebelling, as the French did. He has taken matters into his own hands and is the epitome of evil.
Sovay is surrounded by men: Gabriel Stanhope; Virgil Barrett, an American who has taken on the job of warning people about Dysart; Captain Greenwood, a highwayman Sovay meets in her escapades; her brother Hugh, who finally makes an appearance in London; Mr. Oldfield, family friend and solicitor who is also working against Dysart. Eventually, in the last third of the book, Sovay, Hugh, and Virgil end up fleeing to France because they’re wanted for treason in England. There, Sovay meets the dashing Captain Leon, a passionate believer in the French cause. The two fall in love.
The French Revolution has devolved into chaos, with Robespierre at the helm, executing citizens by the hundreds. Sovay’s father is in prison, dangerously ill and awaiting execution. Although Virgil and Leon both try to save her, Sovay herself ends up in prison with her father.
I don’t want to reveal the ending, but it seemed a bit too easy. My only other criticism of the book is that all the men–Gabriel, Virgil, Greenwood, and Leon–are in love with Sovay. Beautiful, clever, and daring, Sovay is undoubetedly appealing, but isn’t it a bit unrealistic that every man she meets immediately falls for her?
But these are minor flaws in an otherwise captivating and wonderfully written book. Sovay is a great read, with danger coming at a furious pace. The political intrigue seems real and always threatening. Thoroughly grounded in her research, Rees made this frightening time come alive for me.
Have you read it, or any of Rees’s other books? What did you think?