Friday, 19 April 2019

The Halifax Connection

Though I often talk about fantasy, contemporary politics, science fiction, and movies, I'm also going to review for you book from a genre that is close to my heart. That genre is historical fiction and the book is The Halifax Connection by Marie Jakober.

Set primarily in the city of Halifax, this story stretches from early 1862 to September 1864 and follows a colorful cast of fictional characters from all stations of life. Our main protagonist is Erryn Shaw, a disgraced aristocrat and former theater manager who has fallen on hard times. We also get a look into the life of a domestic servant Slyvie Bowen, with the supporting cast of Matt Claverly and Colonel Hawkins.

The backdrop of the novel of course, is the American Civil War. Not many know this but Canada was prime real-estate for Confederate spies and blockade runners. Halifax especially grew rich off the war as Confederate ships and blockade runners would often seek refuge there. Haloginians themselves came from a society which was fiercely loyal to the Mother Country and felt a certain kinship with the South at the time. To find men of high principles and ideals who would oppose them would have been a rare thing indeed.

That the novel chooses to do just that is very much to its credit.

Our story follows mainly Erryn and Sophie. Erryn is a failed theater manager (well, it burned down) who is falling on hard times while Sophie is a former factory worker emigrating to Canada to find work and a new life away from the horrors she has seen in the mill town of Rochdale.

The story kicks off when Erryn is asked by his best friend Matt, to spy for the Governor General. Halifax is full of Confederate agents and sympathizers, who wish nothing more than to involve Great Britain and her Empire in the war to hopefully tip the scales in favor of the cause of independence for the Southern states and their Confederacy. Sucked in to a vortex of lies, espionage, and mad schemes, Erryn finds himself on a twisting path of conflicting loyalties and friendships while publicly renouncing all his ties to his former life and friends who support the Union.

Slyvie meanwhile, is just crossing the Atlantic on the cheap when her ship is set upon by the Confederate raider Alabama. This gives her a lasting enmity for the Confederacy and all it stands for. However, she finds herself falling for a man she meets in Montreal, and that man is Erryn Shaw, who is playing host to the Confederate agents he can find.

Into this story we get something of a twisting love affair between two people who deeply care for one another, but who, ostensibly are on the opposite sides of an ideological divide.

I will admit that, as the piece goes on, it feels like more of a love story than a spy story. There is (to me at least) a decided effort by historical fiction authors to 'spice up' a piece by including a risque love story. Personally, I've never found that remotely necessary to engage with a piece of historical fiction. However, in this case we do at least get a very well written love story between two well fleshed out characters who portray life in the 1860s in pre-Confederation Canada quite well.

As a spy story I would argue the piece leaves much to be desired. Even though Jakober does her best to keep the spy drama going, I found the plot lacked an overall enemy, villain, or objective. Though it was true to life in the British authorities basically whacking Confederate schemes where they could be found, I might have felt more inclined to be hooked by an overarching adversary for the characters to be confronting. The story certainly had one set up in the person of an old enemy from Erryn's past!

That isn't to say though, that the book doesn't work well on its own merits. It does portray the events from Canada in the Civil War quite well, even making the Chesapeake Affair, a backdrop of one of the most pivotal scenes in the book.

Jakober has done her research, this much is clear. She understands life in Nova Scotia (Halifax specifically) quite well, and does a wonderful job portraying the divided opinions of the Canadian people in the 1860s. That she incorporates a number of real life events into the series is much to her credit, and she does it with a deft hand. Though her characters are fictional, she sets them up in real historical events and plots. She makes a very shocking revelation at the end which I simply cannot spoil for casual students of history or readers. You will be taken aback by it, all the more for that it is based on true events.

I liked the characters and I liked that Jakober did her absolute best to stay true to history. There is no embellishment on the side of action or drama, nothing which would necessarily conflict with history as we know it, and lots of emphasis placed on attitudes and ideals from the 1860s.

As historical fiction, I found this novel first rate. Definitely worth a read from fans of romance, historical fiction and Canadian and Civil War history buffs.

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