Loyalties are tested in Woods’ (Never Trust a Hero, 2011, etc.) novel, set in Civil War–era Washington, D.C.
In 1863, the nation’s capital is a hotbed of both political and romantic intrigue. Gerard Chantier, a wealthy Southerner who left New Orleans for the North, is living in the city with his daughter, Thérèse, and his old, loyal friend James, an ex-slave whom he freed as soon as his father died. But unbeknownst to both of them, Gerard hasn’t given up his Southern ties: he’s a Confederate spy, gathering information from cabinet members and engaging in suspicious business dealings that could make him an even wealthier man after the war is over. Meanwhile, Thérèse and her rebellious, inscrutable older friend, Rachel, become acquainted with young, disgraced Union Maj. Russell Johns, whose hotheaded letters to his father, a long-serving congressman, have moved him from the battlefield to behind a desk. Thérèse has long been engaged to a wealthy English lord of her father’s choosing, but something about Russell appeals to her. However, Rachel has her eye on him, too, and not for the reasons one might expect. It’s unsurprising that intrigue of all kinds abounds and that all the various plotlines wind up being connected in one way or another. Woods’ third novel has some promising elements: Thérèse’s budding romance with Russell is modestly enjoyable, and Rachel is a spry, sarcastic character. But it’s crippled by the plot’s ultimate failure to resolve in a sensible or satisfying way. Multiple characters behave irrationally in order to move the narrative forward, and the story fails to truly grasp the period; although the plot is superficially connected to the Civil War, the setting never feels truly lived-in. Crucially, the depiction of slavery seems badly skewed: James, for example, is a woefully outdated character, and of Gerard, the narration states, “Like Lincoln…[he] knew that slavery was doomed to extinction by the combined forces of the industrial revolution, changing economics and the tide of history.” This is patently untrue, and suggesting otherwise does a disservice to Lincoln, who dedicated his life to the monumental task of abolishing it.
A moderately entertaining but wrongheaded Civil War thriller.