Pamela Belle’s name first came to my attention two or three years ago when I was looking for lists of novels about Richard III and saw a mention of one of her books, The Lodestar. After discovering that it was out of print, I never actually got round to looking for a copy and forgot about it…until a few weeks ago when I came across one of her other novels, The Moon in the Water. Not the one I had originally wanted to read – and set in an entirely different period – but it sounded good so I decided to try it anyway. And I can’t say that I regret reading this one instead of The Lodestar, as I loved it from the first page to the last!
First published in 1983, The Moon in the Water is the kind of historical family saga I used to love reading – books like Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, Susan Howatch’s Penmarric or John Jakes’ North and South trilogy come to mind – but haven’t read very often in recent years. It was a joy to discover this one and to know that I have many more Pamela Belle books still to look forward to. The Moon in the Water is the first of her Heron series, following the story of Thomazine Heron and her family, and is set during the English Civil War.
When Thomazine, our narrator, is orphaned at the age of ten, her father’s cousin, Sir Simon Heron, becomes her guardian. Arriving at Sir Simon’s estate of Goldhayes in Suffolk, Thomazine settles into her new life and gets to know the other Heron children – Simon, the eldest and the heir; Edward, who wants to become a soldier; the rebellious, quick-witted Francis; Lucy, an avid reader of stage plays; and six year-old Jamie, the baby of the family. Thomazine soon forms friendships with each of her five cousins, but it’s Francis with whom she feels the closest connection. When a marriage is arranged between Thomazine and another cousin, Dominic Drakelon, Thomazine is horrified but consoles herself with the knowledge that the wedding won’t take place until she is sixteen and a lot can happen in six years.
As time passes and the Heron children grow up, Thomazine discovers that she has fallen in love – not with Dominic, but with her cousin Francis. With Sir Simon now dead, his eldest son, Simon, has become head of the family, but unfortunately he distrusts and disapproves of his younger brother; if Thomazine is to have any chance of escaping from her betrothal to Dominic, she must first find a way to repair the relationship between Simon and Francis. Meanwhile, tensions between King Charles I and his Parliament intensify and the Herons, who choose to support the King, find themselves facing a host of new challenges as civil war breaks out in England.
The Moon in the Water is a romance, but not a silly, bodice-ripping one. There is so much more to this book than just the central love story. Music and poetry are shared interests of several of the characters and we are given fragments of song and verse. The historical background is well researched and there are descriptions of battles, sieges and the ways in which civil war affects not just the people at the heart of the action but also those who have stayed at home. And while it’s sometimes too easy to predict what is going to happen, the story is gripping enough to make this a difficult book to put down.
But going back to that central love story, it’s a great one. Rather than coming out of nowhere, the relationship between Thomazine and Francis develops slowly from friendship to romantic love and it feels believable – although it’s obvious to the reader long before the characters themselves start to become aware of how they feel! It also helps that they are both such great characters. I had a look at some of the other reviews on Goodreads after finishing the book and was intrigued by the fact that several reviewers mentioned that Francis Heron is very like Francis Crawford of Lymond from Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, which is exactly what I kept thinking too, to the point where I started to find it distracting and wished the author had chosen a different name! The intelligent, imaginative young Francis Heron is very much as I would imagine Francis Crawford as a child and as an adult his relationship with his brother Simon is similar in some ways to Lymond’s relationship with his brother Richard.
I also loved Thomazine, which is fortunate as this is really her story, narrated in the first person, which means her personality comes through on every page. Another favourite character was Grainne, the Irish girl who marries a friend of the Herons and becomes almost one of the family. The villains were maybe a bit disappointing – and it was easy to guess who they were going to be, even before they committed any villainous acts – but that’s just a small criticism of such an enjoyable book.
It’s frustrating that these books and so many others that I want to read are out of print, but at least in this age of the internet it’s a lot easier to find copies of them than it used to be! I’m very excited about reading Pamela Belle’s other novels, beginning with the next in the Heron series, The Chains of Fate. With this one ending on a big cliffhanger, I can’t wait to see what the future holds for the Heron family – although I’m sure things aren’t going to go smoothly for them!