The Chase by Cheryl Sawyer
(Signet Eclipse, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-21566-4
****
This is a richly textured, complex book layered with historical detail and period flavor. Its power, however, does not extend itself to the love story, which is only one, relatively small part of the complex narrative.

As the story begins, Lady Sophia Hamilton and her four-year-old son, Harry, have just returned to England from Australia, where her father, an admiral in the English navy, was stationed. Sophia is still mourning her husband, killed in the war against Napoleon, but she is disturbed to discover that he may not have been a battlefield casualty as she had been led to believe but, in fact, executed as a spy.

In Australia, Sophia encountered a French soldier, Jacques Decernay, serving with the Chasseurs Britanniques, He warned her away from a supposedly dangerous stretch of road, telling her that the footing was too treacherous for her horse, but his actual goal was to prevent her from discovering three of his compatriots in the act of deserting.

Now that the war is supposedly over (no one yet knows of Napoleon’s escape from Elba), Jacques travels to England to find Sophia, only to be arrested and charged with desertion the moment he arrives. It seems the deserters were captured, and implicated Jacques in their plot before they were put to death. Jacques has an exemplary record with the Chasseurs, but it is all too easy for the Court Martial to believe that a Frenchman in the British army might actually be engaged in espionage or worse.

Sophia’s father learns of Jacques’ situation, and together they write a letter saying that, when Sophia encountered him, it certainly did not seem as though he was involved in anything nefarious. The court cannot ignore their evidence, and Jacques’ sentence is commuted from death to 300 lashes, after which he is discharged from the army.

Having done her duty, Sophia travels with Harry to a house she owns in Sussex where she hopes to raise horses. Nearby is her husband’s estate, where her husband’s cousin, Sebastian Coole, as the senior male family member, is currently in residence and will manage the estate until Harry is of age to inherit.

Sebastian, an army colonel and well-mannered English gentleman, makes no secret of his interest in Sophia, but the situation is complicated when Jacques Decernay – who was the Vicomte de Cernay in France – takes a nearby manor house. Sophia likes and respects Sebastian, but the enigmatic Jacques arouses feelings in her that even her dear husband did not inspire.

This is a big book. The author is clearly both enamored of and knowledgeable about the time, and she sweeps the reader seamlessly from the extravagant entertainments of the shallow Prince Regent to the English countryside to pre-Waterloo Brussels.

It’s all handsomely rendered with just the right amount of vivid detail. Readers who want a Regency-era epic that allows them to positively soak in the essence of the period will be lavishly rewarded.

Because the story is so rich, and so romantic in the old-fashioned sense of the word, many happy readers will undoubtedly forgive the fact that the hero and heroine don’t actually spend a lot of time together. I understood Jacques and Sophia’s attraction, but found it a little harder to credit that they could develop a powerful emotional bond when their time together was so limited, and so fraught with doubt and suspicion on the part of the heroine.

As well, I have to say I’m one of those readers who read romance for the romance, and I personally would have preferred a little less scope and a little more focus on the relationship. In fact, although Jacques and Sophia are the raison d’etre of the story, their characters are not especially well developed.

The other side of this coin, of course, is that the vividness of the large cast of secondary characters is one of the things that makes the entire book resonate so intensely.

In the final analysis, I’d say this: it’s big, it’s beautifully written and it has a marvelous authenticity. But it’s not quite a romance. How much you enjoy the book will depend on how much you care.

-- Judi McKee


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