Ria was devastated by the news that Chas had fathered a child with a French woman, especially after the crushing loss of their own baby and her subsequent inability to have more children. Uncertain if her love for him could withstand this betrayal and unwilling to sit in Britain away from the horrors that drove Chas into this other woman's arms, at the start of Elusive Dawn, Ria has enlisted in the WATS (Women's Ambulance and Transport Services) and is about to leave for France and the indescribable hell of wounded and dying men. She learns to drive an ambulance and gives comfort to the soldiers who find themselves in her presence, racing through bombing raids, dire weather, and the blackest nights to transport the wounded to hospitals. It is dangerous, grinding, and exhausting work but Ria rises to it, growing close to her fellow WATS and to some of the men posted nearby, especially to cavalry Major Lance Chadwick. Chas meanwhile is desperate to repair the damage to their marriage that his infidelity has caused and he writes honestly and openly to Ria of their shared past, his love for her, and his hopes and dreams for the future.
This novel is no superficial look at war. It doesn't spare the appalling and gruesome details and it presents the incongruities of a continued veneer of civilization (soldiers invited to tea, a convalescent hospital with staff in evening gowns) juxtaposed with horrific brutalities and senseless loss. There are marriages, deaths, and maimings and Wills captures very well the desperate gaiety of a period when the very existence of a tomorrow was in question. The devastation and toll of war was not just in the physical but in the emotional as well and the Canadian characters experience the full range of this terrible legacy as they each privately wonder if the war will ever end and if it does, if any of their generation will make it out alive.
There are portions of this epic set back at Muskoka but by and large the majority of it is not, allowing Muskoka to invoke the ideal setting in contrast to the reality of the war. The memories of the last summer before the war acts as a talisman for many of the characters, even ones who have never been there. It is the symbol of a happier, more peaceful time. And although there was roiling and rumbling under the surface of that ideal, it still emits a siren call of innocence and unsullied love. The characters, although much easier to follow in this sequel given the reader's familiarity with them by now, are also getting older and maturing much faster than their years because of what they have all seen and experienced in the war. Life gets much more complicated for many of them and they have to move out of the mindset of being solely concerned with their own lives and join the worry and strife of the adult world. The action is continuous and yet, like the war years for those that lived them, it also feels never ending, as if placid normalcy will never again return. Because the characters feel like old friends, the reader feels their losses and crushing devastations deeply. The whole is well researched and the historical information is not only fascinating in and of itself but it is seamlessly integrated into the plot as well. Book Two of this trilogy is gripping and I can't wait to read the conclusion to this big and ambitious saga.
For more about Gabriele Wills or the book, check out her Facebook page, follow her on Twitter, or view the book trailer. You can follow the rest of the book tour or see what others have had to say about the book here and you can purchase the entire trilogy at Mindshadows.