Set against the dramatic backdrop of America's second war for independence, Beverly Swerling's gripping and intricately plotted sequel to the much-loved City of Dreams plunges deep into the crowded streets of old New York.
Poised between the Manhattan woods and the sea that is her gateway to the world, the city of 1812 is vibrant but raw, a cauldron where the French accents of Creole pirates mingle with the brogues of Irish seamen, and shipments of rare teas and silks from Canton are sold at raucous Pearl Street auctions. Allegiances are more changeable than the tides, love and lust often indistinguishable, the bonds of country weak compared to the temptation of fabulous riches from the East, and only a few farseeing patriots recognize the need not only to protect the city from the redcoats, but to preserve the fragile Constitutional union forged in 1787.
Joyful Patrick Turner, dashing war hero and brilliant surgeon, loses his hand to a British shell, retreats to private life, and hopes to make his fortune in the China trade. To succeed he must run the British blockade; if he fails, he will lose not only a livelihood, but the beautiful Manon, daughter of a Huguenot jeweler who will not accept a pauper as a son-in-law. When stories of a lost treasure and a mysterious diamond draw him into a treacherous maze of deceit and double-cross, and the British set Washington ablaze, Joyful realizes that more than his personal future is at stake. His adversary, Gornt Blakeman, has a lust for power that will not be sated until he claims Joyful's fiancée as his wife and half a nation as his personal fiefdom. Like the Turners before him, Joyful must choose: his dreams or his country.
Swerling's vividly drawn characters illuminate every aspect of the teeming metropolis: John Jacob Astor, the wealthiest man in America, brings the city's first Chinese to staff his palatial Broadway mansion; Lucretia Carter, wife of a respectable craftsman, makes ends meet as an abortionist serving New York's brothels; Thumbless Wu, a mysterious Cantonese stowaway, slinks about on a secret mission; and the bewitching Delight Higgins, proprietress of the town's finest gambling club, lives in terror of the blackbirding gangs who prey on runaway slaves. They are all here, the butchers and shipwrights, the doctors and scriveners, the slum dwellers of Five Points and the money men of the infant stock exchange...conspiring by day and carousing by night, while the women must hide their loyalties and ambitions, their very wills, behind pretty sighs and silken skirts.
Bearing in mind that I read this, the third book in the series, second, I can't tell you how pleased I was that the author didn't try to fit another 100 years of history into one book. In fact, in this book the time frame of the novel is tightened down yet again, and instead of covering a period of over 100 years (as we were in City of Dreams) or even a handful of years (Shadowbrook), we are treated to the stories of what happened to a group of characters, some imagined and some real, over the period of 10 days or so (with a few flashbacks here and there). And what a tumultuous ten days they were in 1814. The British were advancing on Washington, and everywhere there was fear, distrust and temptation.
The main character of this book is Joyful Patrick Turner. He is a surgeon until he is forced to look for a new line of work due to the fact that his hand is blown off by a British cannon ball during the blockade. Joyful as a character has an intriguing past, having spent many years in China as a young man, and his ability to understand the Chinese way of business as well as to speak the language are very handy skills to have, as he tried to work his way up to being one of the most influential people in the world of New York trade, and if that influence comes to the detriment of his estranged cousins, then so be it.
Along the way Joyful rubs shoulders with many real life characters including the Astors, and some significant events such as the meeting of businessmen in Wall Street (the basis of the Stock Exchange) and the burning of Washington amongst others events.
If I was asked to provide a summary of the events in this books there is no way that you could think that such a variety of plot lines could possibly work, and yet it does. There is opium trading, pirates, love, lust, prostitution, bribery, kidnapping, betrayal, magnificent jewels, talk of secession, battles, blackbirders (people who capture blacks, who may or may not have the necessary documentation, and sell them off to slavers). Whew...there's a lot going on, but Swerling does manage to keep hold of all the various threads of storyline and bring it all to a surprising, if a little fantastical, conclusion.
I have really enjoyed each of the Swerling books that I have read. If I had to pick a favourite though, it would definitely be a toss up between City of Glory and this one.
Now, I need to wait for the next book in the series to come out. According to her website, Beverly Swerling is working on it now. I am looking forward to seeing what period of American history the author wants to show us next.