Standing on the edge of the Peninsular War and the true beginning of her adult life, newly married Harriet Raven moves to London, restless and discontented. Her husband, James, is posted to Spain as a Captain of the 9th Regiment, under the command of Lord Wellington. While Harriet befriends Lady Wellington in London, witnessing progress firsthand and trying to work out what she should do with herself, James is thrust for the most part into the thick of battle. Over the course of three years, lives change, and married couples form in isolation of each other, unprepared for what life intends to throw at them.
This is a complicated story that is incredibly difficult to describe. There is a host of historical characters, from Lord and Lady Wellington to the Prince Regent and Frederick Winsor, the man who introduced gas lighting to Britain. Harriet, her husband, and most of the people we are more closely involved with are fictional, seemingly designed to set in contrast the difference between war and home and as always the way society changes. There are many threads to this novel, from the enticing prospect of blood transfusions, to marital infidelity, to war and the endless human need to wage war with one another. Painters, writers, businessmen, scientists, doctors; we get a huge swathe of society in just over 350 pages.
As you might expect, then, this book is something of a challenge; the third person narration switches between characters who are together sometimes within the same paragraph, leaving me feeling somewhat on edge and careful to check that I understood what was happening. The Peninsular War is a conflict that was new to me and in this case Tillyard’s view as a historian ensures that the book contains all the small details that make such a war fleshed out and understandable for her readers. There are many historical events taking place here, changing the very face of London with gas lighting, changing healthcare with experiments on blood transfusion, changing the lives of workers with the introductions of mills and factories.
It’s perhaps too many issues for a single book, and the large cast of characters and huge number of causes limits the author’s ability to simply tell a good story. It’s beautifully written with a number of passages that caught my attention, but there is almost too much happening for any single focus, which means that the book isn’t really all that compelling. It never called to me from its place on the bedside table, although I certainly felt that it should. I just never particularly liked any of the characters, barring perhaps one, but he doesn’t really appear in the narrative quite often enough to draw me in, and I didn’t feel that there was anything about the plot (if there really was one) to keep me going.
Ultimately, I found Tides of War disappointing, even as someone who loves history.
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