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Celia Rees – Sovay

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Sometimes an author’s light fades miserably. And sometimes it’s their fault entirely.

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 404
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-0-7475-9808-4
First Published: 2008
Date Reviewed: 28th February 2010
Rating: 2/5

Sovay finds that her family are more caught up in the political turmoil than she thought. She assumes the role of highwayman to steal documents that incriminate her family and won’t rest until her father and brother are safe. The country is on the brink of civil war and the male members of the family are high up in the ranks of the revolt for freedom.

The subtitle on the front of the book and the blurb on the back suggest that the story revolves around highway robbery. This is not the case. Sovay robs for love for all of 5 minutes and only robs otherwise a handful of times. The book is far more about politics and struggle than adventure and scandal. It’s also a very slow read; towards the last quarter the story picks up significantly, but it remains easy to put down.

There are many main male characters in this book who enter at different stages of the story and remembering them all can be challenging, but the upshot is that Sovay is strong enough a character herself, even in her weaker moments. In her Rees has created a perfect example of the balance between strength and courage and the expected hesitations and thoughts of a teenage girl. Sovay is forward thinking and would be fine as a character in a present-day novel, while retaining her historic features.

Rees’ previous novel, Pirates!, dealt with the concept of rape and if you’ve read my review of the book you’ll remember that I discussed the fact that it went too far for the teenage target audience. Sovay goes further and it is incomprehensible why the publishers thought it could be categorised as a book for children. Sovay becomes friends with a boy who lives in a brothel. The boy is a prostitute and he and other boys dress up in drag for their older male clients. The idea of prostitution is bad in itself for a children’s novel, but to include such perversion and deprivation of young people is incredibly worrying. Rees doesn’t describe what goes on in detail but she drops big obvious hints of it, and although the characters aren’t happy with their lives they are content enough. There isn’t the big escape or lesson for the brothel owner or clients and the whole subplot is very disturbing. There’s the definite sense that Rees wants to write more freely – so she should try adult literature instead where her stories would be acceptable. If the style of adult literature and forming appropriate characters is difficult then maybe she should realise that children need to be protected from such ideas until they are old enough to understand; and if she can’t perhaps she should stop writing altogether.

The book takes an abrupt turn about two thirds of the way through, first sending Sovay to a scientist’s home and then packing her off to France. Although France is referenced several times it isn’t implied that she’ll go there at any point and the whole thing feels forced, as though Rees wanted to add more adventure to it. This doesn’t work when you’ve set your story in a hideous period of history and the seriousness of events that follow, in this book, swing back and forth between coming across as not so bad and being horrific in nature. Rees should also have spent more time on the ending as there are threads left loose.

For a long while there are a possible two or three men that Sovay could end up with. The final result could prove a shock; it comes out of nowhere but is treated as something you knew all along. Badly handled would be the right phrase here as anyone harbouring notions of Sovay becoming attached to one of the other men will be bitterly disappointed, it’s rather like someone entering an auction just as it finishes and taking the item from the auctioneer’s table.

One thing stands out and is exquisite, so it’s a pity it’s contained within only several pages and that at the end. The revolution in France causes all the main characters to be suspected of being against the changes and Sovay ends up in prison. Rees makes the poignant observation that the revolution itself had failed in it’s promise to make everyone equal, condemning anyone who was so much as in the wrong place at the wrong time without a proper jury or any defence – and that it’s ironic that it was on those journeys of people from court to the guillotine that class and wealth lost importance and everyone sort to give solace to each other. We then experience this court and the prison to which the condemned spend their last night for ourselves. We share in the knowledge that those who first sort equality had images of domination, and rejoice when those who killed thousands for no reason are brought to justice.

Sovay had potential, but it was not realised. The book would be a good basic, and I stress basic, introduction of the French revolution – for adults – but it is not appropriate for the target audience and definitely not recommended for any children who are of a nervous disposition, especially if the parents or guardians are uncomfortable with the idea of a discussion that will compromise their innocence at such an age.

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May 9, 2010, 4:20 pm

Wow, I think I will steer clear of this book. I also think it’s hard to include such subjects in a children’s book. I also wonder why books set in this era (assuming it’s late 18th/early 19th century) seem to often gravitate towards the highwayman thing. I mean… there must have been other ways to get back documents!

Charlie: I guess the idea of a highwayman is exciting for children, and indeed it drew me to the book, but then I’ve not come across other books with highwaymen, I’m intrigued about this now :)

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