I was delighted the other day when Deborah Swift’s new publisher emailed to ask me if I would review her new book – I love Deborah’s work and reading a new novel of hers is always a treat. And, of course, I was not disappointed when a bound proof copy of ‘Shadow On The Highway’ appeared and I got stuck in. It’s a terrific read – the first of a trilogy. It’s aimed largely at the teenage fiction market, but it is nonetheless thoroughly engaging for lovers of historical fiction of any age. (If Deborah’s aim in presenting her story to the teenage market is to capture the next generation of historical fiction lovers, then I reckon she has done a good job here!)
Set in seventeenth century England as the horrors of the Civil War are laying waste to people and land alike, Shadow on the Highway is narrated by Abigail Chaplin, unwillingly posted to Markyate Manor as a servant girl after her family is plunged into reduced circumstances. Abigail is a fascinating first person narrator, for, as well as being inexperienced, shy and diffident, she is also profoundly deaf – a disability the poor girl is convinced must be a divine punishment for something she did in earlier years.
Abigail becomes maidservant to the young and fiery Lady Katherine Fanshawe – a character loosely based on a real historical figure who was known (and depicted on screen as ‘The Wicked Lady’ by such actresses as Margaret Lockwood, if I remember rightly) to be a covert, cross-dressing highway robber. Lady Katherine is no easy mistress, and Abigail struggles both with the outrageous workload she is expected to manage, and with Lady Katherine’s mercurial and often reckless behaviour. Abi’s deafness is both blessing and curse in this situation. I very much enjoyed the contrast between the two characters – Abi’s good sense and tender-heart contrasts well with Katherine’s often unthinking and hot-headed courage. Both girls, in very different ways, have much to overcome in their lives and Deborah Swift explores their responses to their challenges with great energy.
Deborah Swift always Shadow on the Highwaytells a good story: her prose is sure and lyrical, her research is thorough (though always worn lightly) and her characters are convincing and engaging. There’s romance and a satisfying ending here, but also grit and a realistic depiction of poverty and violent struggle. This is – as you would expect for the teen market – an accessible historical read, and one which I’m sure will encourage young hist-fic dabblers into further forays in the genre.

Posted in General | Written By August 13, 2014

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