Star rating - 8/10
It's hard to get historical fiction just right - it's often over romanticised or over elaborated with too much detail to allow a story to flow naturally. But Hawaiian author Kiana Davenport has achieved a wonderfully informative and gripping novel about the American Civil war in her latest book The Spy Lover. And interestingly it takes an unusual angle, the contribution and experience of Chinese immigrants in the conflict.
Drawn from the author's own ancestral history, it tells the story of Era Tom, a young woman acting as a nurse for the Confederate soldiers, whilst at the same time spying for the Union. Her motivation is to find word of her father, Johnny, who is fighting for the Unionists far away. And during the course of her dangerous duties she falls in love with a wounded Confederate soldier, Warren, to whom she cannot reveal her double life.
The perils and horrors of the Civil War are brought out in devastating descriptions of the various battles and field hospitals of the war years. And the scars that it left on all who participated, as well on the country as a whole, are evident and painful. The experience of and discrimination against Chinese people is a subject not often related in Civil War literature or history, and it serves as a very useful device to show how conflicted and torn both sides must have been in having to perform some of the actions they did during this bloody episode in American history.
The desperate and doomed love that develops between Era and Warren is beautifully and hauntingly recounted, but equally as moving is the love and devotion between Johnny and some of the young black soldiers under his command. Davenport crams in much rich and moving detail of the horror and tragedy of the war in telling these people's intertwining war experiences. For the most part she does stay on the right side of putting in just enough detail to let the story flow. Only in a few places does it feel a touch over-educational, such as when she is describing the process the southern women followed for growing poppies to make opium to keep the weary Confederate soldiers going through the harsh realities of battle. But overall this is a touching, engrossing and very readable Civil War novel.