After two very different novels set in 16th century England, Maria McCann has something different again with her third; a gripping story of secrets and lies, set some years later, in the 17th century.
It tells of two very different women.
Sophia Buller was the only child of a country gentleman. Her parents were eager to see her married, but they knew that their daughter was plain, they knew that she had an unfortunate ‘little weakness, and so they knew it wouldn’t be easy. But the handsome, charming Edward Zeeland began to pay court to Sophia; and when he proposed she was utterly thrilled. Married life was not what Sophie had hoped it would be. She found herself in a shabby house in an unfashionable district; her husband was away for most of time, leaving her stranded at home with uncommunicative servants; and when he was home Edward wasn’t the husband she had hoped her would be, expected he would be, at all.
Betsy-Ann Blore had a very different life. She had been a prostitute, but she had managed to establish herself as a buyer and seller of …. well lets say second-hand good. Sam, her husband, was a cardsharp, but he had run into trouble, and so he joined up with Betsy-Ann’s brother, Harry, and his crew of resurrectionists. He hated it; he drank and he sank into depression. She hated it too and, though she could see no way out of their situation, she held on to hope; she practiced the skills of a cardsharp, and she dreamed of Ned Hartry, the handsome, charming scourge of the card-tables, and the greatest love of her life.
The two stories are very different, and the differing styles, the differing use of language – as different as the two women – is very, very effective. Two lives, lived very differently, in the same time, in the same time came to life, and the world about them, rich with detail, was so wonderfully. Everything lived and breathed, it really did.
At first I found it easier to empathise with Sophia, who was so naïve in so many ways, and who was so very unprepared for what was to happen, but the more I read the more I warmed to Betsy-Ann, who had such spirit, who did everything she could to improve her situation. Sophia did learn along the way, and that was lovely to watch. It wasn’t easy, and the difficulties, the restrictions, faced by women in the 17th century were clearly illuminated.
There was a moment when Sophia compared her situation to that of Clarissa Harlowe – and she was right, though I should say that this is a very different story,
The plot was very cleverly constructed, and it moved apace – everything I learned about Sophia and about Betsy-Anne I learned on the fly – and that kept the focus on the story and not the period details, wonderful though they were.
The two stories are linked – of course they are – and they come together beautifully in the latter part of the book. And there’s another strand too, the story of Fortunate, a young slave in the Zedland household. There he’s renamed Lucius, and later in the story he is known as Lucky. His different names – and his descriptive names for others around him – highlight the themes of identity, disguise and self-determination that underpin the story. And, though his story is a little underdeveloped her has a significant part to play.
Though the story had weaknesses – the pace dipped in one or two places, Sophia’s ‘little weakness’ was a needless distraction, and the ending was a little too neat – it was compelling, it was vivid, and I was swept along.
And I’d say that ‘Ace, King, Knave’ worked as a historical entertainment, and it worked as a thought-provoking, serious study of the period too.
I wonder what Maria McCann will write next …