REVIEW: SUMERFORD'S AUTUMN BY BARBARA GASKELL DENVIL

SUMERFORD’S AUTUMN

Author: Barbara Gaskell Denvil
Simon & Schuster RRP $24.99
Review: Monique Mulligan 

Sumerford's AutumnSet in the turbulent Tudor era, Sumerford’s Autumn is a richly-drawn piece of historical fiction with romantic elements. My interest in historical fiction is relatively new, but this book has added to my growing interest in the genre and that particular period. Sumerford’s Autumn delves into the challenges of early Tudor times, giving the reader glimpses into medieval life in all its glory, political intrigue, hardship and brutality.

Ludovic, the Earl of Sumerford’s youngest son, is a slave to his station in life. As the youngest of four sons, there is little chance he will inherit; disinterested in politics, war or power, he has settled to a life of secret smuggling. He’s not the only one with secrets – his brothers live secret lives with their own agendas, as does his father, mother and unsettling new sister-in-law. This distant and dysfunctional family sets the scene for a brooding, dark story, complete with mental instability, domestic violence cover-ups and treachery.

Into this complicated and almost disturbing mix comes Alysson, a breath of fresh air, particularly for Ludovic. The sister of a stable apprentice killed accidentally, Alysson is living in poverty when Ludovic meets her; she makes it clear that she has no love for his family, but ends up accepting an offer of employment at his home – as companion/lady’s maid to Lady Jennine, his brother’s wife. The fair lady has her own plans for Alysson, including tutoring Alysson in how to be Ludovic’s mistress, but is there a more sinister motive? In one respect, Alysson can’t deny her growing attraction for Ludovic, but she can’t shake the increasing feeling that Jennine is not to be trusted.

Then everything changes. Henry VII is on the throne, but other claimants to the throne have surfaced. One names himself Richard Plantagenet, son of the Yorkist king Edward IV and presumed dead since childhood. Henry and his supporters dub this “imposter” Perkin Warbeck, however, others, including Ludovic’s brother Gerald, are convinced that Richard is the rightful king. Behind the scenes, Gerald is working with others to overthrown Henry and restore Richard to the throne and Ludovic finds himself reluctantly drawn into the conspiracy. But danger, always lurking in the background, finds Ludovic and Gerald and they are arrested, imprisoned and thrown into the forbidding Tower of London. Here torture and almost certain death awaits them if they don’t confess to treason … will they find a way out of this? Will Ludovic find his way back to Alysson? And what has become of her while he languishes in prison?

Sumerford’s Autumn is not a romance – it’s more of a historical with romantic elements; if you’re after a romance, this may not be for you. The awakening romance between Ludovic and Alysson is a ray of light in an otherwise dark, at times gruesome, novel, but it’s not the dominant element. Instead, the spotlight is on the continuing turmoil in the Tudor court, the mystery of the Princes in the Tower, and dangerous times this instability bred for Britain. In other words, a perfect book for lovers of historical fiction, especially those with an interest in the Tudor era, as I am. Denvill successfully brings to life a long-gone era, delivering a book rich in detail, description and interest, showing painstaking research and a passion for this period of history.

Her writing skills are not restricted to setting – Sumerford’s Autumn is chock-full of interesting, disturbing and sometimes, revolting, characters. In fact, there were more unlikable characters than likable ones! Some made me cringe, others made me shake my head with disgust – such as the creepy Humphrey and Jennine. For most of the book it was hard to feel sympathy for many of the Sumerfords – now there’s a family I’d steer clear of – with the exception of Ludovic (I wasn’t even sure of him at first) and Gerald. The earl, contemptuous and arrogant, is hard to like for much of the book, but redeems himself a little later (I did have a little trouble accepting such a great change given his behaviour in much of the novel). As for Alysson, she was naive to start, but matured significantly through the course of the novel, as did Ludovic. Despite the proportion of unsympathetic characters, the characterisation is believable.

I really enjoyed this novel. I don’t think it’s for everyone, because it can be slow and arguably too heavy on detail and light on action at times, but my interest was maintained throughout thanks to plenty of tension and intrigue. In the end, I had to know what happened. Probably the only element that didn’t work for me was the paranormal aspect involving Ludovic and a spirit voice – I didn’t feel that it was necessary or added anything to the already chilling atmosphere.

I would highly recommend Sumerford’s Autumn for historical fiction lovers. It’s available from good bookstores. This copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Bookish treat: A hearty bowl of vegetable soup is what I need to warm me up after this book … and there just happens to be some on my stove.