Two years ago, Kathleen Kent’s debut novel, The Heretic’s Daughter, seemed to be everywhere—and everyone who read it seemed to love it. Personally, I wasn’t all that interested in it. The Salem witch trials just seemed at the time like ground that was too well-trod. Plus, U.S. Colonial history is just not my thing. I may take a slightly stronger interest in Colonial fiction set in Virginia, because I went to school in Virginia’s version of Colonial History Land (aka Williamsburg), but mostly it’s not an era that calls out to me.
I say all that to explain why I probably wasn’t the ideal audience for The Wolves of Andover, Kent’s prequel to her best-selling debut. I hadn’t read the first book, I’m not that interested in the period, and, as regular Shelf Love readers will know, I can be crotchety about wildly popular books. Why did I even bother with this book? Well, the Little, Brown representative at the ALA conference gave it a strong recommendation and handed me an advance copy. So many people loved Kent’s previous book that I figured I ought to give it a fair chance. After all, sometimes the masses are absolutely right!
Most of the novel is set in mid-17th-century Massachusetts. Nineteen-year-old Martha Allen has come to work at her pregnant cousin’s home. She quickly establishes that she is not to be a mere servant but that she expects to have some authority over the running of the house. The work is hard, and it becomes harder when a pack of wolves move into the area. The hired man Thomas Carrier takes charge of capturing the wolves, but Martha finds Thomas’s attitude and actions inexplicably exasperating. Meanwhile, in England, a group of assassins is preparing to journey to Massachusetts to find Thomas Morgan, one of the men purportedly responsible for the execution of Charles I during the English Civil War.
The story itself had some potential, but it’s not an area of obvious interest for me. Therefore, the characters or the writing needed to really draw me in, and they just didn’t. The characters are not exactly types, which is good, but they also don’t have much personality. There are some attempts to flesh Martha out, with her worries about her future as an unmarried woman and her push to establish authority, but the attempt feels half-hearted. Perhaps people who’ve read the first book, about Martha’s later life, will already have a stake in her situation, but encountering her for the first time, I just couldn’t summon up a reason to care. The English assassins are given a bit more life, but there are too many of them. If, as I suspect, this is really Martha and Thomas’s story, I’m not sure why we need to meet all six assassins, the man who hired them, the man who hired him, the woman who tried to work the situation to her advantage, and the king himself.
As for the writing, Kent attempts to use a sort of watered-down Colonial speech, and is reasonably successful. I say it’s watered down, not because it’s badly done, but because it isn’t precisely true to period. That was not a bad choice because authentic language would be difficult for the modern reader to understand. Unfortunately, Kent also has a tendency to overwrite. There are just too many metaphors and descriptive details—they end up getting in the way of plot and character development, and the language is not lovely enough to be a pleasure in itself.
And in a related note, has anyone else noticed how many historical fiction authors are obsessed with bodily fluids and offal? I realize that some of this is to give modern readers a sense of the nasty sights and smells of the time, but I’m not sure the people of the time would always be thinking about it. Wouldn’t it just be part of the background after a while and not worthy of much thought?
Anyway, after 85 of 300 pages, I found I didn’t care enough to read further. Given the reaction to The Heretic’s Daughter, I imagine lots of people will love it (although the few reviews I’ve seen indicate that this is not quite as good as Kent’s earlier effort). As for me, I’m reminded that sometimes I just need to listen to my gut and not let people talk me into books I don’t think are quite right for me.
Other Bloggers’ Views
Amy Reads: “Overall, a great read, though I still recommend that you read The Heretic’s Daughter first!”
Devourer of Books: “Ultimately I can recommend The Wolves of Andover to those with an interest in this historical period, but I do not believe it is as strongly plotted as The Heretic’s Daughter.