by Philippa Gregory
‘He heard the clink of chains from the bones hanging at the gibbet …. and thought how hateful this place was. He hated Alys with a hot murderous fury, and for a moment, he even hated Alinor too. She had been his inferior in every way, his for the taking, but somehow she had slipped away from him, like a mermaid in dark tides ….’
Readers of Philippa Gregory’s 2019 novel Tidelands will already be familiar with the main characters in this one.
Twenty-one years after he abandoned Alinor Reekie and her unborn child, James Summer (now Sir James Avery) returns to London to make restitution. King Charles II is on the throne and England is now Protestant. Alinor, still practising as a midwife, and her daughter Alys run a respectable but poor warehousing business on the Thames; Alinor’s brother Ned has emigrated to New England for a new life. Alys’s children (but are they both her children?) are apprenticed, Sarah as a milliner and Johnnie as a clerk.
Alinor and Alys reject Sir James’s advances. They have just received news that Rob, Alinor’s son is dead, drowned at Venice where he has been practising as a doctor. Now, into their lives comes Livia, Rob’s widow, with her infant boy, apparently seeking a home but with very different motives – to sell the antique treasures of her first Venetian husband to the rich nobles of London. Alinor, gifted with ‘the sight’, cannot believe Rob is dead and, whether we believe in such gifts or not, it becomes clear that something is not quite right about Livia, her past and her agenda.
‘Sarah froze and gently replaced the head that she thought was stone back in its place …. Staring, her eyes widened in horror, she could now make out the jumbled goods piled on the open shelves. They were bodies, human bodies ….’
While despising the poverty of the warehouse – and its honesty, Livia convinces Alys of her good faith and love, and sets out to trap the newly-widowed Sir James as accomplice in her questionable business. She persuades Alys to fund the shipment of her artifacts and leads the family into financial difficulty.
Meanwhile, in New England, Ned is torn between loyalty to his Roundhead and Puritan past, and his new friends among the native Americans. With open war looming, he must decide whether to obey the call to arms or become a traitor to his fellow settlers.
‘The winter was coming surely onward. Ned felt as if it were coming just for him, like a private enemy. Every day was shorter, every night was colder …. Darkness held the sky from afternoon till mid-morning, ice held the lakes and ponds, snow held Ned’s door closed so that every morning he had to break out like a man under seige.’
Finally, Alinor takes drastic steps to discover the truth about her son’s supposed death, leading to a horrific and suspenseful climax in Venice.
Philippa Gregory is a great storyteller. With her background as an historian, she is able to create a credible narrative of a turbulent age in British and world history. Dark Tides shows us the two faces of London, the glamour of Venice and the harshness of settler life in the New World, all in a fast-paced novel of the Restoration years.
Although the plot of Dark Tides resolves after a fashion at the end, I was left with some questions about the novel’s mysteries and characterisation.
Maybe James Avery gets what he deserves – that is arguable – but two decades seem to have changed him from a cautious royal spy into a naive fool, a soft touch for a sob story and a pretty face. Sarah (it turns out) is a really feisty heroine, but not an entirely credible one for her time and background. And the twins? I know what we are told, but is it true?
As a fan of historical fiction, I especially enjoyed the passages set in New England for their realism and inclusion of true historical characters.
And despite minor negatives, Dark Tides is a superb page-turner.