Macdonald (Goldeneye, Abigail, Sons of Fortune) has been losing some of his strength and sparkle as he turns out fat Victorian chronicles--and this new pageant, though palatable enough, is more strained and sprawling than his earlier efforts. The central protagonists are boyhood chums Clive Mortimer (a Squire's son) and Freddy Oxley (offspring of a local workman). Clive's family disapproves of the friendship, of course--especially when young Freddy's mechanical skill and insatiable curiosity produce an explosion that splits aparts the Squire's prized marble stairs. But the boys remain pals as teenagers: Clive brings his Eton cronies down to see the latest wonder--a flying machine!--that Freddy (now a metal-works apprentice) has concocted. And both lads inevitably wind up loving the same girl: beautiful upstairs maid Ann Howard, who helps Freddy with his machinery but gets pregnant by Clive. So opportunistic Freddy makes a deal to marry Ann (if Clive's mum pays for his scientific education)--while Clive sets out for South Africa to make his fortune, returning home with a successful hydraulics business, wife Eleanor. . . and an ambition to enter Parliament. Meanwhile: are Freddy and Ann happy in their marriage-of-convenience? Not really: after the birth of son Lawrence (Clive's byblow, remember), Ann dabbles in adultery with Eton grad Tony Knox-Ridell--leading to the embarrassing birth of baby Angelica . . . whom Ann places in a foundling home! (First, however, she bites a hole in the infant's ear--so she'll always recognize Angelica in years to come!!) Things soon get even more implausible: Ann, hoaxed into a white slayer's plot, escapes to Barbados, becoming part of a popular women's singing group; Freddy, in South America to dig for gold, finds Ann--only to discover she's ""utterly unrepentant,"" not eager to return. And finally Freddy will get a title and a soulmate, the Clive/Freddy love-hate relationship will be smoothed. . . but, as always in such sagas, there's a half-incest panic when Lawrence (Clive's secret illegitimate son) intends to wed Clive's legitimate daughter. Professionally assembled and pleasantly lulling--but more farfetched and predictable than previous Macdonald sagas.