Review of The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

The Winter Sea popped up on Amazon as a recommendation because I like Diana Gabaldon’s books.  And since I’m always looking for something half as good as Outlander, it was worth a try.  It’s a historical novel, written from the perspective of a modern day writer, Carrie McLelland.  Carrie is writing a novel set in Scotland in 1708 about one of the failed attempts to put James Stewart back on the throne.  She rents a cottage in Cruden Bay, a small seaside town in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, near a ruined castle called Slains.  The story and the setting call to her in a very strong way as she begins writing.

Carrie uses one of her ancestors, Sophie Paterson, as her main character.  This is not a time travel or paranormal book, although Carrie does “see” the past of her main character, which turns out to be completely factual even though Carrie thinks she’s inventing the story.  I really liked how Kearsley incorporates genealogical and historical research into the story.  It’s kind of cool to see how a historical novelist works.  I also liked how Kearsley uses a few genealogical facts to frame the story.  Carrie knows, based on records, that Sophie Paterson will get married in a few years to David McLelland, which puts her whole romantic story in question.  So you know HOW it will end but you have no idea how she’ll get there.

And that work is what really makes this book worth a read.  Carrie may be “channeling” memories of her ancestor as she writes, but Kearsley really goes the extra mile to fill this book with research and detail.  The attempted uprising in 1708 is one I didn’t know much about.  From the Outlander books I know a lot about Charles Stewart and 1745, and I knew there were earlier attempts to put the Stewarts back on the throne.  But this is a new part of the history, told in a really thoughtful, detailed way.

I recently reviewed Under the Same Sky, which was a good historical romance but really lacked the detail I wanted.  This book gives you all that, and it doesn’t stop at the details that directly affect the characters, but really goes into long explanations about the history of England and Scotland.  So whether you like this book will depend on whether that level of detail is what you want.  I loved it.

I also really enjoyed the setting.  Kearsley’s writing is descriptive so you can really see and feel where you are, and I like how she contrasts modern day ruins with the castles and towns of 1708.  The sea may be a bit overused as a metaphor but I can live with it, since I always find views of the sea incredibly powerful.

As with a lot of “back-and-forth” novels (meaning it jumps from future to past), the modern day story is kind of weak and is basically a vehicle to tell the other story.  Carrie becomes involved in a romance that isn’t half as well developed as the romance of her character.  The man in her life seems way too perfect except for his total unwillingness to confront his brother who is also interested in Carrie – in fact, the brother story was completely annoying.  Carrie seems perfectly willing to lead this guy on because she lacks the nerve to actually say “I’m not interested” – then just hooks up with his brother behind his back.  Blech.

But that’s a small thing in an otherwise grand story.  Oh, and you should know that Kearsley skips over all the sexy parts… it’s all smoldering glances, clothes on the floor and then waking up the next morning, smile on face.  I can live with that, but wouldn’t have minded a little more.

Amidst the richly told history, The Winter Sea gives you strong characters and a compelling story. I’ll definitely read more by this author.

  10 comments for “Review of The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

  1. May 26, 2012 at 11:08 am

    I’ve not read any Kearsley books but have seen positive reviews of all of them. Although I don’t think this would be a book for me, I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  2. May 26, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    I don’t know this author at all, but I do find your comment about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two plots really interesting. Last August I lead a Summer School on three books each of which had a modern day plot set against one in the past, and in each case the one in the current setting was by far and away the weaker. I wonder why this should be? Perhaps it is not what the writer is really interested in.

    • May 28, 2012 at 9:53 pm

      Interesting! I keep seeing that in books lately — like People of the Book and Sarah’s Key. I wonder if publishers are telling writers not to write straight historical fiction because readers feel more connected to the modern part? For me the modern day story really takes away from the other story. Thanks for visiting and commenting!

  3. May 28, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    Sounds really good! I liked Outlander but found it a little too romancy, so this could be just my thing.

    • May 28, 2012 at 9:55 pm

      The romance in this book is pretty different from Outlander. I’m not sure if it’s more romancy or less, but if you like reading about history I think you’ll enjoy this book.

  4. May 31, 2012 at 9:20 pm

    Nice blog…I want to read this book. I keep seeing it around the blog world.

    Found you on the Literary Blog Hop List and decided to stop over.

    Stop by my blog if you like. I also have a giveaway going on.


    Silver’s Reviews

  5. June 22, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    The Winter Sea is wonderful. It is exactly the kind of historical fiction that I love reading. The story is about a writer in the present time who travels to Scotland and stays at a cottage in Cruden Bay (between Aberdeen and Edinburgh) near Slain Castle to research materials for her novel about the Jacobite uprising of 1708. (King James (Catholic) was exiled from the English throne to France when Mary and William became King and Queen (Mary was James’ daughter) at the request of the English people. King James died in France in 1700, but his son James (aka The Pretender) with the help of the French King invaded Scotland to try to reclaim the crown.) This was the period of the first Jacobite uprising, historical materials for which are hard to come by, as there were many cover-ups, betrayals, etc. Ms. Kearsley gets better with each book she writes. I was reminded pleasantly of Lady Dorothy Dunnett’s writing style in which fictional characters are interwoven with real people and events. This book was so much like Lady Dunnett’s Checkmate, her six book of the Lymond Chronicles, except that Kearsley is so much easier to read. I loved this book.

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