The backstory: Tides of War, the first novel by historian Stella Tillyard, is on the 2012 Orange Prize longlist.
The basics: Set in 1812-1814 against the Peninsular War, Tides of War jumps back and forth between the battle lines and the lives of three women in London who cope with their husband's absences in different ways.
My thoughts: Had I not known Tillyard was a historian, I think I would have figured it out quite quickly. The opening scene of Tides of War is a delight: the reader meets Harriet, the somewhat precocious new wife of James, who is about to depart for war. Harriet is more concerned with science and experimenting, both of which her father introduced her to, than with domestic details. I was utterly engaged with Harriet and was excited to see her grow and develop. Far too soon, however, the action shifted to new characters and details. Tillyard introduces a plethora of characters quickly, and coupled with the excessive detail, the characters and plot get somewhat muddled. There was a map at the beginning of the novel, but as it simply covered major cities in Portugal and Spain, it wasn't terribly illuminating if you're aware of where their major cities are located.
In many ways, Tides of War is two different books. At times it reads like a novel, but at times it read more like straight history. I tend to gravitate toward historical fiction that explores a time period through the actions of its characters, and in Tides of War, I don't think the characters were always the focus. Granted, I knew little about the Peninsular War, so I did learn a lot and found much of it to be fascinating. Still, I wished the three women had been more of the story's focus. While I enjoyed glimpses into the battlefield, I didn't enjoy them as much. At the end of the novel, Tillyard included a list of characters based on real people. Seeing how much Tillyard used reality to shape her story was impressive, but I wished she would have included this list at the beginning to help me get to know all of these characters.
Favorite passage: "The English rated politeness far too highly; any man could bend and produce a smile."
The verdict: Tides of War has an extensive cast of characters, both those based on real figures and those from Tillyard's imagination, but ultimately, I appreciated the effort of Tillyard more than her novel. There were glimpses of greatness, but the scope of this novel was its downfall. Readers who appreciate historical detail and lots of characters will adore it, but those of us who prefer a character or plot driven narrative will likely only enjoy parts of it.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 346 pages
Publication date: October 25, 2011
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