Book Review: False Lights by K. J. Whittaker

FalseLightsAbout the Book

What if your worst mistake changed the course of history?

Cornwall, 1817 – Napoleon has crushed the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, and his ex-wife Josephine presides over French-occupied England.  Cornwall erupts into open rebellion, and young heiress Hester escapes with Crow, Wellington’s former intelligence officer, a half-French aristocrat haunted by his part in the catastrophic defeat. Together, they become embroiled in a web of treachery and espionage as plans are laid to free Wellington from secret captivity in the Scilly Isles and lead an uprising against the French occupation.  In a country rife with traitors, Hester and Crow know it is impossible to play such a game as this for long…

Format: Hardcover, ebook, paperback (382 pp.)    Publisher: Head of Zeus
Published: 7th Sep 2017 (hardcover), 8th Feb 2018 (paperback)
Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

False Lights was one of the books I read whilst on a recent Autumn break in Cornwall and that appeared on my list of historical fiction novels set in Cornwall.  You can read the full list here.

The book’s central premise is that Wellington was defeated, not victorious, at the Battle of Waterloo and this defeat resulted in the removal of the English Royal Family and the occupation of England by the French.  It’s territory that’s been explored (albeit in a different period and with an occupying force of a different nationality) by Robert Harris in Fatherland and Len Deighton in SS-GB.  In False Lights, the occupation follows similar lines to an imagined Nazi occupation of Britain: blockades, food shortages, curfews and cruel reprisals visited on the population for any act of resistance.  Having witnessed firsthand the dreadful results of such repressive measures, the book’s heroine, Hester, observes, ‘This wasn’t just an occupation.  It was a tyranny.’

The book is notable for its strong female characters.  There’s the aforementioned Hester – feisty, independent minded and courageous – who nevertheless finds herself alone and defenceless following the dramatic events of the book’s opening scenes. (Chapter one of the book has a literally killer first line, by the way.) The daughter of a black sea captain who distinguished himself in battle, Hester faces discrimination because of her skin colour and heritage in a society where gaining and maintaining a position is difficult enough as it is.  ‘She must be twice as gracious, twice as accomplished and twice as well-mannered as any young white woman, or she would be seen as less than human before they saw her as a girl.’ There’s also Catlin, Hester’s close companion, who plays a vital role in events towards the end of the book including actions referenced in the book’s title.

Crow (or Lord Lamorna to give him his proper title) makes a fantastically flawed Byronic hero.  With his dark hair and piercing eyes, I’ll admit even this happily married lady got a bit hot under the collar when reading passages like the following: ‘He’d crouched at the water’s edge to shave himself with a cut-throat razor, stripped to the waist, revealing the extraordinary collection of tattoos on his back, writhing blue-black patterns that ran from shoulder to shoulder, from neck to lower spine.’   

Consumed by guilt at his perceived part in Wellington’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, Crow is haunted by traumatic memories of the sights he witnessed and his own actions on the battlefield.   He experiences a form of PTSD involving waking nightmares and dreadful visions.  Perhaps the love of a good woman might help to make him whole again…?  (Form an orderly queue, ladies.)   Crow also feels a responsibility for the safety of his younger brother, Kitto, who seems to court danger at every turn.   There’s political intrigue aplenty and all the characters in the book face difficult moral choices although, in the end, it’s a case of kill or be killed.

I loved the book’s setting in Cornwall and the Scilly Isles and the inclusion of the Cornish language into the story line.  I also liked the book’s ending with perhaps just a hint that we might hear more about  some of the characters in future…?  I do hope so.

In her Acknowledgements, the author describes her book as ‘a Regency novel with a difference’ and I think that’s a perfect description. False Lights is a fascinating historical fiction novel constructed around an interesting premise and populated with a host of colourful, if not necessarily likeable, characters.  It will appeal to those who like their historical fiction full of period detail (but aren’t averse to an author playing with actual historical events for the sake of a good story) and to those who enjoy losing themselves in a romantic story line.   You can read an extract from the book here.

I received a review copy courtesy of publishers, Head of Zeus.

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K J Whittaker (1)About the Author

K.J. Whittaker first fell in love with the Regency when she unearthed an old Georgette Heyer novel in her parents’ house, but soon discovered the dark side to this charismatic period of superficial splendour. It was a time of progress, discovery, glittering ballrooms and wild excess. It was also a time when a starving six-year-old child could be hanged for stealing bread.

In 2015, she visited the battle site of Waterloo itself with archaeologists from Waterloo Uncovered, many of whom are also veterans, and has been fascinated by the Isles of Scilly since reading Michael Morpurgo’s When the Whales Came as a child.

K.J. Whittaker is the Carnegie-nominated author of six YA novels published by Walker Books under the name Katy Moran. She worked as a bookseller and in publishing for many years before becoming an author. She still works part-time in a bookshop and lives in Shropshire with her family.

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