The Lady of Bolton Hill (by Elizabeth Camden)

Three years ago, I downloaded a lot of free books for my Kindle. So long as they looked interesting and had some reasonable reviews, I was willing to try anything. I’d never heard of Elizabeth Camden, but her novel was listed as Christian historical fiction and - at the time - it was free. Since that time, I’ve read through several of the books I found. Some are mediocre, some are good, and occasionally I find a gem.

I thought, at first, that ‘The Lady of Bolton Hill’ was firmly in the last category. The prologue, set in 1867, is dramatic and very well-written. It introduces Daniel Tremain, a sixteen-year-old boy in the United States who has been working in a steel mill, but wants the chance of college. He’s taking an important exam when he’s called away to an emergency - a potential and disastrous explosion in the factory.

As Daniel’s dreams are destroyed, we meet his best friend, Clara. She comes from a clerical family, higher in class and also in income. She’s gentle, and loving; different from Daniel in almost every respect. What they have in common is a passion for music. They meet to play the classics together, and to experiment with writing new pieces. Their friendship has been entirely platonic for some years, but it’s evident that this might be about to change…

The rest of the story takes place twelve years later, after Clara has become a journalist. She’s a strong heroine for the late nineteenth century, determined to right some of society’s ills. She’s been in trouble for highlighting the way children were treated in the mines in the UK, and when she returns to her father’s home she decides to write about some of the problems besetting local workers.

In the meantime, Daniel has managed to patent several inventions and is head of his company… but refuses to do business with a man who, he believes, was responsible for the tragedy of his teenage years. Daniel and Clara find that sparks fly when they meet: both sparks of attraction, and of disagreement, as Clara wants Daniel to forgive the wrongs of his past.

The historical settings felt real to me - the author is, apparently, a historian - and although I’m no expert, the dialogue came across as authentic too. I liked Clara very much, and found Daniel believable too, if rather hard-headed and materialistic. I was less convinced by her brother Clyde, who appears in the prologue as rather annoying, but has turned into a missionary doctor by the time the rest of the book starts. Nor did I think much of their father; he doesn’t appear directly very much, but his character isn’t consistent when he does.

However my biggest problem with the book was the sudden development of a completely different sub-plot, part way through. It involves some opium dealers, and a particularly nasty teenage boy known as Bane. He appears to be entirely amoral, and has no qualms about destroying the lives of millions. Bane is given an assignment which evidently involves Daniel, but I couldn’t quite believe the motivation for this, nor why their story was relevant to the plot.

And, indeed, when the two story-lines combine, it descends into melodrama… oddly mixed with evangelism. To say more would give away too much… and yet, in my view, it simply didn’t work. It’s not that I think anyone is beyond salvation, or that God can’t keep people safe; nor did I have any problem with Clara wanting Daniel to share her faith.

But the resolution of the story’s climax feels bizarre, with no motivation for the sudden change that happens, and a feeling of being cheated. I say that from the perspective of Christian who certainly believes in God’s ability to change people’s hearts; for those approaching this as a historical fiction book without any faith, the ending would seem impossibly unrealistic, contrived in a ‘deus ex machina’ style.

So I can’t give this my whole-hearted recommendation, despite being very well-written and with a great sense of the historical context. Worth reading, certainly, and very interesting in places, but I’d have liked it a lot better (and believed in it more) if the story involving Bane had not been there at all.

This is available in paperback as well as electronic form, and the links reflect the printed version. The Kindle edition is no longer free, although it's relatively inexpensive.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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