It’s always considered a great compliment when you can say that a work of nonfiction reads like fiction but when fiction reads like nonfiction? Not so good.
Historian Stella Tillyard has written several acclaimed history books including the bestselling (and excellent) The Aristocrats*. Now she has turned her fascination with the Regency Period into a first novel, Tides of War set during the Peninsula War. This period is well known territory for Georgette Heyer fans. Of course it is also the time of Pride and Prejudice but since Austen didn’t write about the politics of the day these two novels might as well take place on different planets.
Tides of War is the story of newlyweds James and Harriet Raven and their dealings with every other person in Spain and England from 1812 to 1815. True, sort of. The Ravens do interact intimately with: the Duke and Duchess of Wellington, Nathan Rothschild, Fredric Winsor, Goya and then all the various other historical figures who flit in and out in cameo roles, a few mistresses, illegitimate offspring, hundreds of soldiers, politicians, scientists and servants by the score. I estimate that by page 50 you will have been introduced to approximately 40 different characters.
Somewhere in this crush of interesting characters is a terrific historical novel. The problem is that Tillyard was not able to leave out any scrap of research or insightful anecdote she came across in order for the story to come through. It is in there. You get glimpses of it amidst all the facts along with some absolutely gorgeous descriptions of everything from the first days of gaslight to the battlefields in Spain. There is certainly a good novelist in Tillyard and a very good novel buried in Tides of War but unfortunately there wasn’t a good editor bringing them both together.
*Sadly The Aristocrats in out of print in the U.S. at the moment. It is worth trying to find in your library or a used bookstore. It was made into an outstanding miniseries that was every bit as good as the book. You might like that as well. I did.