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The Winter Sea, by Susanna Kearsley

Updated on August 18, 2015

Before Reading

I have no idea if I will like this book or not. There is a good chance that I will like it, since the synopsis sounds interesting and the book was recommended by (and the copy I am reading is the property of) a coworker who has reading tastes very similar to mine. We first bonded over the Wheel of Time books, and have since talked about other books that we both liked.

My coworker told me that she cried at the end, which makes me kind of leery (I don't like sad books), but she was also eight and a half months pregnant at the time and admitted that she couldn't tell whether it was the book or the hormones. So I guess it's my time to figure out which it was . . .

And the verdict is that it is likely that her tears were the hormones, though others may find it more tearjerking than I did. I really did love the book and it was definitely moving, but I didn't actually cry.

"The Winter Sea" is the tale of Carrie McLelland, a historical fiction novelist. As the book begins, Carrie is in the process of writing a book on the Jacobite Risings set in 1708. King James II of England, (and James VII of Scotland), had been driven from England and the throne passed to his daughter, Mary, and her husband, William. Until his death in 1701, James II/VII made several attempts to regain his throne. After this, his son, who considered himself to be King James III/VIII, made several more. The most famous attempt, with the "Bonnie Prince Charlie" thing and the Battle of Culloden, was the Jacobite Rising of 1745. There had been a previous attempt in 1715, and a planned invasion, which never came off, in 1708. Carrie's novel concerns James's attempt to return to Scotland and reclaim his throne in 1708.

Carrie had decided to make her central character Nathaniel Hooke and she moved to France to do her research. On her way to be godmother for her literary agent's new baby, however, she went off the beaten path and ended up near Slains Castle, which, as she finds out later, has its own connection to the planned invasion of 1708. She feels drawn to the castle and decides to move her base of operations to the nearby town of Cruden Bay. Bram Stoker also lived in Cruden Bay while he wrote "Dracula," a fact that is mentioned in the book.

Carrie decides to make her own Scottish ancestor, Sophia Paterson, her viewpoint character, despite Sophia not coming from that part of Scotland at all. Soon Carrie finds the book surprisingly easy to write. It is almost like it writes itself. And the more research she does, the more facts line up with the novel she is writing, starting with finding that a diagram of the castle matched up exactly with the sketch she made of where she thought the different rooms ought to be. It later turns out that her ancestor did spend time at Slains Castle under the same circumstances as in her story. The comings and goings of the various characters match up with what she later finds in her research, even when she attempts to direct the characters to do something different.

Carrie's own story intertwines with the tale she is writing (fortunately for the reader, Carrie's story is in the first person and the novel is in the third) in new and unusual ways, and events in her real life sometimes end up mirroring the events of the novel. "The Winter Sea" is a very complex tale of romance and intrigue with large helpings of history and geography thrown in.

Much of the history in "The Winter Sea" matches up to real-life history. Anne Drummond, the Countess of Errol, truly was central to the espionage involved in the failed invasion. And many of the characters of the novel including Nathaniel Hooke and John Gordon, are historical figures. Even the romantic lead of the novel, John Moray, is a real historical figure -- Kearnsley has copies of several of Moray's letters to his family in her collection.

One of the things I noticed on my reread is the use of Doric in the novel. Doric is a dialect of Scots English that is spoken in the rural Lowlands. Before she even begins to write, Carrie has her first inkling that something is different about her relationship to the area. She finds that she naturally understands Doric. At one point during the writing of the novel, Carrie also notes that some of her characters are speaking Doric, but that she automatically translates it into something more approaching standard English. And yet, in my reread, I noticed that one of the characters of the novel, and one of the things closest to a villain the book has, speaks Doric in the text of the novel. I am uncertain why Kearsley made that stylistic choice. Or was it a choice at all? Perhaps she and her editor missed that somehow.

Overall, I found "The Winter Sea" (which is also available under the title "Sophia's Secret") to be a wonderfully written, moving story of romance and history.


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