This historical novel offers a smorgasbord that includes Freemasonry, aborted revolutions, slavers, family dynasties, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the Enlightenment—while also telling a tale of a far-ranging treasure hunt.
The engine of the plot in Dennis’ tale is a search for the “crimson heirlooms”: the Cross of Nantes, an almost mystically stunning creation that makes its bearer “merchant royalty,” and a “less tangible” heirloom: “the words of the devil’s song, as he danced across the blood-drenched hills of the Vendée Militaire.” Whoever finds these heirlooms will inherit the holdings of the wealthy Traversier family and be rich as Croesus. There are several pivotal characters and forces in this densely packed novel that’s set in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and chief among them is Xavier Traversier, the heir to his family’s mercantile enterprise in the city of Nantes in western France. The business is in decline during his childhood, but by book’s end he will have taken the Traversier fortunes to incredible heights. Jake Loring is an American student in 1832 Paris and a budding revolutionary who’s forced by a man named Monsieur Tyran into searching for the heirlooms. By a circuitous route, the story arrives in 1783 Saint-Domingue (later known as Haiti), which brings in the Guerrier clan, including father Feroce, mother Seonaidh, and the children, Guillaume and Estelle; the kids, when grown up, figure in the story at crucial junctures. Freemasonry also undergirds the intellectual history of the era along with the ideas of philosophers Rousseau and Montesquieu. Revolution is in the air as the story alternates between different time periods. The end presents a semiconclusion to the action followed by the phrase “To Be Continued.”
Dennis knows how to spin a yarn, although the reader may be forgiven for not keeping all the characters straight over 400-plus pages; indeed, an initial list of the various players might have been helpful. The intellectual discussions sometimes make things drag a bit unless one is already a keen student of political and intellectual history, but when Dennis is good, he’s very good—especially when it comes to description. The details of Traversier’s first voyage as captain of his slave ship are particularly horrifying. Likewise, the particulars of Jake’s frontline actions as a revolutionary and Guillaume’s earlier exploits, also as a revolutionary (Plus ça change…), are well-handled. One curious chapter, “Jérémie,” stands out as an eloquent testimony on the plight of the country peasants of the time; revolution should come as no surprise at all, even if it does start in the cities. Dennis has certainly immersed himself in the era of his novel, and he has clearly done his homework. The result is a book in which readers can certainly lose themselves, in the best sense of the term. And although it would be a long stretch to compare this novel to those of Leo Tolstoy or Victor Hugo, the flavor of their works is certainly present.
A formidable, ambitious debut novel with the tantalizing promise of a follow-up.