Review: Victoria Holmes

Victoria Holmes: Heart of Fire
HarperCollins, 2006

Victoria Holmes: Riders in the Dark
HarperCollins, 2004

Neither book published in the UK but readily available from the usual sources.

I am a big fan of historical fiction: probably because I am nosy, and like to know how people thought and lived. Having lived in a succession of more or less old houses, I spend a lot of time wondering about those who came before me - did the monks who built our house have their garden where I have mine? Did they grow some of the things I do if they did? Did they struggle with bindweed too?  Historical fiction which sits characters in a real time and place should go some way towards answering the question of what it was like for people who lived in a different time.    When it's good (and I give you Sarah Dunant's Sacred Hearts as an example) you simply do not question the time or place:  you are there with the characters.

It is a tricky tightrope to walk to get the characters right in an historical story.  There's what style of language to use for a start:  too much of the period and it might be incomprehensible, and too modern and idiomatic and you lose all sense of the period. Victoria Holmes, a British author who has written three historical horse stories, falls firmly on the too modern side in Heart of Fire. Set in the 1920s, it is the story of orphan Maddie, who lives with her grandparents, Sir Wilfrid and Lady Ella, and her sister. Her long lost brother Theo turns up with a horse, Firebird. Theo manages to teach Maddie to overcome her fear of riding, and the two plan to enter Firebird in the King George V cup; at least until another Theo turns up.

The 1920s background failed to convince: the relationship between the older grandchildren (albeit grown up) and grandparents is far too casual. I can't believe that Madeleine's sister and brother would have called their grandparents Ella and Wilfrid. I can't believe that members of the aristocracy would have approved most of people who had respectable jobs in the city as well as private fortunes, as Maddie's grandparents do of her sister's friends. That certainly didn't help Diana Mitford, daughter of Lord Redesdale, when she fell in love with brewing heir Bryan Guinness some 10 years later than this novel is set.

Granted, it's difficult to edit all modern forms of speech from your writing, but the speech, to my ear, is too casual and anachronistic: "figure out", "horse riding" "I guess", "Hey Maddie!" :  pin prick after pin prick, dragging you away from the flow of the plot.  That said, I suppose I should be grateful that the main plot device in this book returned me to one of my favourite reads. Theo, Maddie's brother, suddenly returns, having not been home in years after fighting in the First World War and then going off to mine in Namibia. Another Theo then turns up. No one seems to have even the flicker of a doubt that Theo 1 is not who he says he is, despite his acquiring a Welsh accent.

The return of the long lost was done so very much better by Josephine Tey in Brat Farrar. Heart of Fire has none of the subtlety of response in Brat Farrar when "Patrick" turns up; Theo is accepted by all and that's that. Reading Brat Farrar again reinforced how very much I like Josephine Tey (I can heartily recommend her The Franchise Affair as well). In Brat Farrar, you see how the whole family reacts.  They don't react as a uniform body, but individuals. There is doubt, holding back and there is loyalty towards the person who has been displaced.   There's no subtlety in Heart of Fire.  Even the horses are better done in Josephine Tey: Timber is a marvellous portrait of a rogue, Firebird, the horse Theo brings back from Namibia, is just a horse; a device to move the plot on.

The book only came alive for me at the end, which deals with Firebird taking part in one of the earliest show jumping competitions, the King George V cup. I enjoyed the historical detail and the look at the genesis of showjumping, but it wasn't enough to overcome the wave of disbelief that had built up by that point.

Rider in the Dark, set in the 1700s, was a better read. Again, there are historical bloopers: as far as I know, Helena, as the daughter of a Lord and Lady would have been an Hon, and therefore not referred to as "My Lady". Helena's governess is Pippa (had that derivative appeared in the 1700s?) and Helena refers to her by her first name. I don't have a lot of contemporary literature with which to compare, but Jane Austen's Emma, around 50 years later, referred to her erstwhile governess as Mrs Weston. "Pippa" seems strangely informal: it's as if the author is apologising for her heroine having staff by making her relationship with them terribly matey. Staff are ok, because we're all friends really. Hmm.

The story is relatively gripping. Helena, the heroine of Rider in the Dark, is the daughter of Lord Roseby, a local magistrate. Her best friend is Jamie, the stable boy, and with his help, she is able to kick over the traces and ride astride rather than side saddle. Helena's father wins a stallion in a game of cards: he is of course, a bit of a rogue, but Helena falls for him and is determined to prove he is a good horse. All this is complicated by the arrival of a Riding Officer, with the news that a gang of wreckers is at work on the coast. Helena finds out that just about everyone she knows is a smuggler, though they are "good" smugglers who never carry arms and who are simply evading unfair tax duties.

Some bad smugglers do turn up, though none of them are in Helena's immediate circle, alas. It would have made Helena's reactions rather more interesting to have her in a situation which wasn't so obviously black and white, but this isn't a book with much psychological subtlety: people are either good or bad. In some ways the book is strangely conventional: although Jamie and Helena are best friends, there's no chance of any deeper relationship between the two (see Christina and Dick's relationship in K M Peyton's Flambards series for a fine picture of how this can be treated). Here, Helena's life "had always been following a different path from his, and there was no escaping that." Pity.

Despite that, the plot moves along fast; the horse Oriel's rehabilitation is reasonably believable, and if what you're after is a story of a brave girl, a horse who needs saving and a dollop of adventure then this book fits the bill.

A word on the cover: it's terrible. The heroine appears to be riding in a headcollar with a strange floating bit.


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