Monday, August 15, 2016

Review: The Valley by Helen Bryan

Big, fat books promising a sweeping epic story (and sequels) can be simultaneously intimidating and intriguing. When done well, they leave a reader wanting more: more from the characters, more of the plot, more of everything. When these sorts of books miss the mark though, it's a hard thing, especially after the time commitment that a reader has given to living in the book's world. Helen Bryan's novel, The Valley, the first in a trilogy based on Bryan's own ancestors, starts off with promise but it doesn't quite deliver on that promise.

The Honorable Sophia Grafton is an English lady. As a child she was indulged and allowed to become an ill-mannered, spoiled brat before being bribed to conform to society's strictures and turned over to her straight-laced godmother to be molded into a marriageable miss. When her father dies, leaving behind enormous debts, Sophia's only recourse, since she has resisted marriage, is to travel to the American Colonies and the one estate left to her. Along the way to this unknown plantation, she collects a whole coterie of people: French spies, a deported Englishman and his two sons, slaves she frees, a young Welsh woman and her half Native-American husband. This odd collection of people will create a settlement, adding more people as they trickle past the trading outpost nearby.

The story starts before the American Revolution and ends with the start of the Trail of Tears. Spanning such a long period of time, the novel is necessarily long but it is uneven in emphasis. The structure is most like a backwards telescope with the beginning elaborately detailed but as the narrative continues, it eventually narrows down to brief snapshots which are only tangentially related to what has gone before. Rather than a daily recounting of life, it becomes a time jumping highlights brief. The cast of secondary characters grows and grows as the story continues and they eventually overtake the story entirely. As the main focus throughout the majority of the novel, Sophia feels anachronistic in her attitudes and actions, especially towards the slaves she meets in her journey. Her attraction to Henri, which has roots early on in the story, never quite seems convincing and it feels like he stays at Wildwood simply out of inertia. And unfortunately inertia describes much of the story. Characters were introduced as important but their parts then fizzled out without much development. The narrative tension is definitely uneven and the ending feels like a scene from a different book entirely. Perhaps this is the set-up for book two but its different feel, new characters, and all new conflict leaves it out of place, tacked on. Despite the problems of the novel, there are some interesting themes introduced into the story: the value of all people, acceptance, survival in a hard land, community, and a mystical Native American thread. This had a lot of potential for chunky historical novel fans but it just didn't live up to that potential.

For more information about Helen Bryan and the book, check out the book's Good Reads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

1 comment:

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