4 out of 4 stars
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The Devil Take Tomorrow may be as close to perfect as a "historical romance" novel can get. I had been seeking just this sort of novel, one set during the occupation of Philadelphia during the American Revolutionary War. Gretchen Jeannette delivered exactly what I wanted: a lush, vivid romance that immerses the reader in the period.
Ethan Matlock is an officer in the Continental Army who gains the confidence of Robert Sinclair, a prominent Loyalist, in order to offer his services as a mercenary rebel spy catcher to a British general. Of course, Matlock is a spy himself, on a mission to find a British mole within the Continental Army who is plotting to assassinate George Washington. Once in Sinclair's household, Matlock endures shifting loyalties within the British command where he is embedded, as well as other fortunes of war, as he pursues "Captain Parker". Love for Sinclair's niece, who is a spirited young Patriot woman, as well as unlikely friendships with redcoats develop along the way.
I loved the vivid, romantic tone of this novel. The characters were fully rounded, even the British mole to a surprising degree. They also carried the mindsets of the era. I loved the nuanced relationships between the characters -- readers are given ample view of Matlock's dark impulses, as well as sympathetic or ambiguous portrayals of several of the British officers. Everyone's motivations are keenly written. I was often left wondering why Hollywood has not chosen to adapt this novel for the screen, since it is of far better quality than almost any existing film about the American Revolutionary War. Ethan Matlock remains the certain hero, but cartoon villainy is basically restricted to the portrayal of the British mole, and even there other characters remark that he is "mad". Jeannette captures a crucial dynamic of the American Revolution: how much of the conflict was between American Loyalists and the Patriots. Sinclair is Matlock's direct foe, and through him readers see how much the war was a struggle between an aristocratic vision of America as opposed to a democratic one. I also felt the two main female characters were well-developed in a way that balanced the norms and attitudes of the late 18th century with the recognition of their capable nature that modern readers would expect. Finally, I loved the dense level of historical detail. Jeannette pulled her research into intricate descriptions of everything from ships to dresses to taverns. It could be a bit overwhelming in places, but for someone who had wanted to be steeped in fiction about this era it was a joy to read overall.
I found few flaws in this novel. They mostly came down to taste. Jeannette is an American author writing primarily for an American audience, and that probably explains why she decided to spell out the British pronunciation of the military rank usually written lieutenant. She probably wanted to provide the period atmosphere of that pronunciation, so she gave her audience the clue with an altered spelling. The choice was distracting at first, but it is done consistently throughout the novel. Besides that issue, there were only about three missing or repeated word typos. Some readers might feel that the author sometimes fails to smoothly incorporate her overview narration of the broader historical events into the novel's direct narrative. Sometimes when the narrative focus broadened into a sequence of events happening elsewhere in the war it felt like the reader was being given a minor "info dump". All historical fiction is at risk for this. This reader thought that the historical context was woven into support of the novel's story very well most of the time. Likewise, I thought the use of real historical figures was done well. They were used to advance and deepen the story and were written in a manner consistent with what primary sources tell us about their characters. Some historical fiction fans are skeptical of authors who use so-called "historical domain characters", so for them, I give fair warning that this novel uses them. What I did not like much was the turn towards a strident and stereotypical portrayal of the British mole towards the novel's climax. Characters on both sides were prone to give speeches about their cause that seemed unnatural.
All in all, I think The Devil Take Tomorrow is a wonderful historical novel. I rate it 4 out of 4 stars for its great characters, vivid descriptions, and thrilling plot, while lacking significant typos. Its flaws are, as I said, a matter of personal preference, especially for historical fiction fans. I would advise anyone considering this novel that there are graphic descriptions of violence, torture, and wounds, as well as some mildly explicit descriptions of sex. It isn't appropriate for those under sixteen. Fans of historical fiction should definitely check it out.
The Devil Take Tomorrow
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