Book Review: Queen of Swords

Queen of Swords by Sara Donati. Reviewed by Kris Harding.

I found this book when I was helping a patron find a Louisiana fiction title. Donati is not from Louisiana, but we also shelve books set in our state in that section. The book does concern the portion of the War of 1812 that occurred in Louisiana, but it is part of Donati’s Wilderness series. I loved her first book in this series, Into the Wilderness (1998). I compared that book to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series although there’s no time travel or men in kilts; it was more the tone, the well-researched history, the well-drawn characters, the passion of the love story. I also read the next one, Dawn on the Distant Shore (2000) but while I wasn’t looking (so many books, so little time) she did four more–Lake in the Clouds (2002); Fire Along  the Sky (2004); Queen of Swords (2006) and The Endless Forest (2009). They are all big books so I have some reading cut out for me to catch up.

I also learned from the website that Donati is a pen name for Rosina Lippi who has written five other books under her real name. The library owns Pajama Girls of Lambert Square, Tied to the Tracks, and Homestead, which won the 1999 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Uh-oh, more reading to do. From the titles and covers shown online they seem to be contemporaries. The Donati persona was invented specifically for this series or as Lippi says “Sara lives only to write the Wilderness novels.” Lippi was born and raised in Chicago, but she has lived in the Austrian alps, on the East coast (where she earned a PhD in linguistics from Princeton) and Michigan. She taught Linguistics for many years before turning to writing full time.

The Wilderness series borrows a literary character, Hawkeye from James Fennimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans and Donati follows his descendants starting in the first book with an English spinster settling in the New York Wilderness in 1792, determined to set up a school for all the children (white, black and red) of the fictional settlement of Paradise, who meets Nathaniel Bonner, son of Hawkeye. You really must read this if you like good historical fiction. Anyway Queen of Swords continues the Bonner family saga focusing on Hannah, who is part Mohican, and her half brother Luke.

The story opens with this pair closing in on the pirate who kidnapped Luke’s love, Jennet. (I knew right away I had missed the beginning of this tale, though it’s a fine read even without having read the two books before.) They find Jennet on an island and slay the evil kidnapper, but in the year they’ve been searching the Caribbean for her, she has borne Luke a son, whom she sent to Pensacola for his safety. Travel is perilous as the British mass in preparation for attacking New Orleans. As Americans the Bonners are the enemy, but Luke is passing himself off as a Canadian businessman (he does have interest in a shipping business there) and dropping mention of his relationship to a Scottish Earl. Everything conspires against them from their ship being stolen in Pensacola to finding that the man who promised to keep her child safe is now claiming Jennet as his wife and the child as his own.

He’s from a powerful Creole family, and the child is in New Orleans with his formidable mother. Jennet finds allies among the free women of color related to the family; the deceased patriarch’s daughter by his octoroon mistress (who was turned out of her cottage when the man died) accompanies Jennet to New Orleans where she tries to ingratiate herself to the woman who is holding her child while Luke tries to find what legal recourse they have to retrieve the child. Luke and Hannah become separated in their journey and arrive in the city at different times with no knowledge of the other’s whereabouts. Each of the three must cope alone for a greater part of the book before they are rejoined just in time to experience the Battle of New Orleans (which as we all know actually took place after the treaty ending the war had been signed, but such was the state of communications in that day.)

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