For anyone whose impressions of those settings in that period have been largely drawn (as I confess have mine) by the dictionary episode of Blackadder the Third, To the Fair Land effortlessly supplants them with a more accurate, richer understanding of the age.
Many different strands make this book fascinating:
- The characters are well drawn, making the reader sympathetic to the obsessions that trigger the dangerous quest of the hero, Ben Dearlove.
- The writing is masterful, weaving a multi-sensory experience of the many settings described. The reader is right there with the characters, immersed in the action like an invisible fly on the wall.
- The settings are especially fascinating to anyone who has associations with London’s theatre land or the historic maritime city of Bristol and its environs or who is interested in England’s seafaring heritage. If this book is not already on sale in maritime museums in Bristol, London and beyond, it jolly well should be: it provides a vivid education in what it was like to voyage in an 18th century ship.
- Aspiring or established authors will find the bookselling and book production and distribution themes eye-opening – and it will make them thankful to live in in the age of digital printing and publishing!
But you don’t need to love any of its settings or themes to enjoy what is as thrilling and startling as any good detective story with deep human topics and values at its core. It put me in mind of Conan Doyle in this respect: a stimulating chase that leaves you pondering on the human condition long after you’ve finished the final page.
The clever graphic design of the book adds extra atmosphere. I was reading the paperback, kindly given to me as a review copy by the author, and it was the first novel that I’ve read for a while in print rather than in e-book form. I was very glad to do so, because the graphic design of the print book played an important part in creating the atmosphere. First of all, the cover design has a parchment style colour scheme with sepia maps and other period images superimposed over it, that I saw every time I picked the book up to read it. These served as a drum-roll the late eighteenth century setting – an angle that would be lost if going back to my Kindle which bypasses the cover to open at the page I last read.
A little further in lies a frontispiece in the style of a period theatre playbill, important in setting the scene as the first chapter of the book unfolds in a Covent Garden playhouse. The choice of typeface and the layout of every page, while being totally legible and easy on the modern eye, is laid out in a slightly old-fashioned font (Baskerville) that also sets the period tone.
I always think that the graphic design of a book acts like its body language – or at least has the potential to do so, when well chosen, as here. Any publisher that doesn’t take advantage of this subtle extra layer of quality is missing a trick, and it was good to see that Lucienne Boyce’s publisher, SilverWood Books, has milked the book’s graphic design to full advantage. (I shuddered recently when I heard of a historical novel that had been typeset, unthinkably, in Comic Sans. That publishing house, not surprisingly, is no longer in business!)
Although this book was darker than my usual reading matter (and quite rightly so: there are too many serious issues involved for it to be any less dark), I really enjoyed it and will definitely be recommending it to others, as well as looking out for other books by Lucienne Boyce.
And don’t worry, it won’t make Blackadder the Third any less enjoyable! (By the way, did you know there is a typeface called Blackadder? One look at it and you’ll start humming the theme tune, I promise!)
Lucienne Boyce’s author website is at: www.lucienneboyce.com.