My affinity for historic fiction tends to seek out an inordinate number of books set during the American Civil War. Spy of Richmond by Jocelyn Green will be the fourth in her Heroines Behind the Lines series, focusing on the extraordinary lives of women during the Civil War. The books do not need to be read in any order, as there is only a little overlap between the stories (Spy of Richmond is the first I’ve read of the series, but I understand several of the characters first appeared in the second of the series, Widow of Gettysburg).
Sophie Kent is a daughter of Richmond but her Yankee mother insisted on her receiving an education in the north. In part because of this education, Sophie has expressed many opinions disagreeable to her father and neighbors, particularly after the start of the war. There are many who suspect her of more than simple sympathies but after the death of her mother, Sophie takes steps to actively assist the Union put an end to slavery and the war.
Though the main thrust of the novel centers around Sophie and her actions, there are quite a few supporting characters that are given considerable attention. Some of these make more sense, and are more welcome, than others. Former slave Bella, her born free husband Abraham, and a reporter associate of theirs, Harrison Caldwell, whose stories all began in Widow of Gettysburg, are most directly related to Sophie and the central plot. Their activities in the early half of the novel set an agreeable pace and the shifting of perspectives works. As the novel progresses and further perspectives are added, the pacing begins to feel strained. Incidents, particularly those dealing with Sophie’s estranged sister, begin to feel added for the sole purpose of stretching the narrative. The drama is too melodramatic and forced at a point in the novel that should be building steadily and carefully. By the final few chapters the sudden twists and threats to the central characters become almost comical in their frequency. There is simply too much crammed into too few pages for it to carry any sort of lasting impact. Once again, the adage ‘less is more’ comes to mind.
On a similar note, the resolutions for all the characters involved are too neat and too nice, especially for a novel about war. Some of this felt intentional and tied to religious underpinnings that run through the novel but it also felt less than genuine. It was a resolution I could see coming for almost a hundred pages and made those last curveballs feel that much more contrived. The book reminded me of a series I very much enjoyed when I was in middle school, the Hearts and Dreams Series by Cameron Dokey (which is now almost twenty years old and out of print). They’re entertaining for a younger audience and while they do include a great many details about another time and a harsher way of living, most of the roughest edges are worn smooth leaving them remarkably sensitized for the subject matter at hand.
Spy of Richmond will be available for purchase March 1, 2015.