This book has one of the most heart-rending first chapters that I ever remember reading. After a bitter battle, Seth Llyr, a young Union solder, suffering from minor wounds and trying to make his way back to the Union lines, finds a badly wounded Confederate drummer boy. The kid, who is only 10-12 years old, is terrified of being left alone to die. (Yes, the wound is fatal, but it is one of those wounds that take a while to get there.) Seth cannot bring himself to leave the kid, although he knows that every minute he spends here behind enemy lines brings the possibility of capture or being shot on sight. But, the boy reminds him of his little brother...
So, at the end of the chapter, after the child dies, it is no surprise that Seth is captured by Confederates...captured, not shot, since he helped one of their own.
The book became so intense that, after reading about a third of the way through, I had to set aside the book for awhile because I got so emotionally involved with the story. But. any story that would engage me that fully is an excellent story!
Now, Seth's two sisters, Kathryn, a Union field nurse, and Bronwyn, a spy for the Union, must find a way to free their brother from Libby Prison before he is excecuted under the false conviction of being a spy. (Even though the officers who arrested submitted sworn written testimony saying that it appeared that and they believed that Seth had only been trying to help the drummer boy, the Confederate Powers That Be who wanted to draw out Bronwyn, who really was a spy, twisted his comfort of the child into an "interrogation".)
As usual, Monfredo's main characters were deeply complex, approachable, and human. (I especially liked the secondary character of the young tough-acting-with-a-heart-of-gold street urchin who has attatched himself to Kathryn, and then Browyn and who plays a strong part in Seth's rescue.) Her descriptions of the field hospitals and battlefield aftermath really drew me into the picture. They were at times very painful as well.
I did have a couple of problems with the story. For the most part, I generally don't like stories involving spies. So, while I liked Bronwyn's character, I didn't like many of her actions as a spy as well as I could have.
Also, in some ways, I didn't like the insane villainess.
But, what I found the most annoying was the descriptions of spiders. Okay, I understand that the villainess was arachnidphobic to the extreme, but the spiders in this story acted more like ants or other social insects, not like any spider I have ever seen. Spiders are solitary little preditors here on the west coast!
But, these are minor flaws. In general, this book provided a great, thought-provoking read.
Miriam Monfredo ranks as one of my three favorite historical mystery authors. (The other two are Anne Perry and Victoria Thompson.) I have read every single book of hers except for the last three. That situation will be rapidly solved in a month or so!
There are many reasons why I like her novels so much. Her stories and deep and extremely intense but without overworking details and characters, and, most importantly, not relying on the gross overuse of blood, guts, gore, sex, violence, swearing, and whathaveyou, despite the subject matters of her books. The intensity is felt through the scenes, her character's actions, reactions, emotions, conflicts, and thoughts, brought together in a tight writing style.
I really get a feel for the characters and situations. Her characters are well drawn, complex, and human. She is expecially good at sharing her characters's feelings and thoughts. Her descriptions are so detailed (without overdoing it) that it would be difficult to read her books quickly, but her books are quite readable.
She really does her research, too. She not only includes an extensive glossery, biography, and notes at the end of each of her books, but she also begins each of the chapters with a historical quote. She weaves in the issues (often women's issues) of the day (although many of the basic themes are applicable for the present day.)
It is too bad that she has not published anything for about three to four years. I wonder what happened to her?