Friday, 28 August 2015

Guest Book Review: Kate Williams - The Storms of War

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

In the idyllic early summer of 1914, life is good for the de Witt family. German Rudolf and his aristocratic English wife Verena are planning the wedding of their daughter, Emmeline, while their eldest son Arthur is studying in Paris and Michael is just back from his first term at Cambridge. Celia, the youngest of the de Witt children, is on the brink of adulthood, and secretly dreams of escaping her carefully mapped out future and exploring the world.

But with the onslaught of war, the de Witts find themselves in danger of losing everything they hold dear. As Celia struggles to make sense of the changing world around her, she lies about her age to join the war effort and finds herself embroiled in a complex plot that puts her and those she loves in danger.

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The Storms of War is the first in a planned trilogy by Kate Williams following the De Witt family during the period 1914-1918 as World War One alters their lives forever. This book has such a beautiful cover that captures the pre war era perfectly and sums up those carefree days before the outbreak of an event which once finally over after four hard years leaves the world a changed place for all who remain. For some reason I thought all three volumes in the trilogy would focus on WW1 and I did think what could the author possibly talk about over three books especially as this book was well over 500 pages? But the book concludes with the end of WW1 after what proved to be an excellent story. I will readily admit I came very very close to giving up on this book, normally I will always keep going with a book until the bitter end but here this was very very slow to get going. At almost 250 pages in still nothing had really happened and I began to think was this really for me? But once the outbreak of WW1 was announced this book took on a whole other level and I was rapidly tuning the pages to see how the De Witt family would weather everything that these catastrophic events would throw at them. I am so glad I persisted with this one as if I had not I would have missed out on a superb story extremely well written and researched which deserves to stand out amongst all the books written about WW1. This is a real family saga book which I love and fans of early books by Judith Lennox and Sarah Harrison will adore it.

Before the book begins there is a page with a list of characters and how they are connected to each other and how they feature in the story. This always makes me nervous because I feel why does an author need to do this? Is there so many characters in the story that the reader is in danger of losing track and becoming confused? I did find myself for the first few chapters referring back to this list until I became familiar with everybody so in the end it did prove useful. The prologue proved tension filled as it is 1916 and Michael De Wit is paralysed with fear in the trenches of France while his men wait for the order to move and attack. This set us up nicely for what was to come and the scenes written in France are some of the best and most powerful throughout the book. We then move back in time to pre war Engalnd and the early summer of 1914.Things are beginning to happen on the continent but for the residents of Callerton Manor the annual party for the village children is the most pressing thing on their minds. That and the imminent marriage of eldest daughter Emmeline to Lord Bradshaw.

What sets this family apart from any other I have read in a family saga is that the father Rudolf is German. His wife Verena was born in England and so to were his children Michael, Arthur, Emmeline and Celia. But still they are classed as German when war breaks out. It was refreshing to read something out of the ordinary as normally the family in these sort of books are rich and lord above most people. Here the De Witt fortune (if you could call it that) has been self made as Rudolf is an owner of factories which produce tinned meat. For once their money had not been inherited and their German connections make life very difficult for them once war breaks out. To make one of the principal characters German was brave considering what was to come with the war and  I was very keen to see how the family would be treated during the preceding years. Prejudice and injustice were felt straight away when nobody shows up for the carefully planned party. This was the beginning of difficult and harroing times for the family.

There are too many characters to mention here but I will give a brief intro to just the main players. Rudolf as I have said is the head of the family who with his heritage only has horror in store for him. Verena his wife is vain and selfish and just totally falls apart when she feels all her family are abandoning her during the war years. She needed to step into Rudolf's place and show women are strong especially at this time women were also fighting for the right to vote. Arthur doesn't feature much at all in this book. He is away in Paris but I hope book two will  focus more on him as there was obviously something he was hiding as life couldn't have been all fine and dandy in wartime Paris. Emmeline is beautiful and she knows it. She believes her life is all mapped out with this advantageous marriage but once again her heritage puts paid to that. Over the course of the book she goes through quite an awful lot of changes and was a far more likeable character in the end than the one we first encountered. Michael enlists for the army against his families wishes. He was a deep and complex character and you could sense there were many layers to him. His storyline was excellent and held so many twists and turns even right until that shocker of an epilogue. The main character we follow is Celia and to me this was really her story one where she comes of age against the backdrop of such a tumultuous time.

At the beginning of the war Celia is at that difficult stage not quite a woman still a teenager and wanting freedom freedom freedom. Her greatest fear is having to be presented at court and to find a man to marry. Her time spent in the garden away from everything going on is her sanctuary. But over the next four years she grows up and meets the big wide world head on. Slowly suffocating at home all alone with Verena. She leaves for London and soon lies about her age and enlists as an ambulance driver in France. She feels this has two advantages – she will be doing her bit for the war and hopefully she will be closer to Michael and former grooms man Tom. Once Celia joins the war this is where the book really took off and we flit back and forth between both Michael and Celia's experiences. Both so different but equally as devastating and I really couldn't put the book down. So much was packed into the last 250 pages that I wish the entire book had been like this instead of the languid pace I endured for the first half. Kate writes so vividly of the horrors experienced by Michael and Celia. For Michael the devastation of no mans land and the rat infested trenches. The loneliness, the death of so many men in the most unspeakable of ways and the sheer brutality that war brings. Michael had a very interesting storyline here and all I will say is fair play Kate Williams again a refreshing change to read of something not often mentioned. Also the detailed description of Celia's first experience driving an ambulance was fantastic. I felt I was with her sitting in the front seat as she did her best to navigate pot holed bomb strewn roads in the dark to bring injured men to the hospital. It showed such a stark contrast to the comfy, cushy lifestyles women had in England and by god were they brave to sacrifice their lives for the good of others.

There are so many story lines running concurrently alongside each other and the author does well to keep everything going. There were several shocks and surprises I didn't see coming and just when you think it is all resolved she leaves us hanging right at the very last page. Yes it does set us up nicely for what is to come but some readers may be annoyed at some unresolved issues.  I have fallen in love with the De Witt family, each character so different and all with their own story and secrets to tell. Celia was a brilliant stand out character who goes for what she wants with love ultimately at her heart. I want to see her happy but will she achieve this in future books? 

The Storms of War is a true saga where Kate Williams is at the top of her game. Get past the first half and you are in for one hell of a story with a family who will find a firm place in your heart. Book two The Edge of the Fall will take us to the roaring twenties and I can only imagine what trials and tribulations await the De Wit Family. Book one comes highly recommended now I'm eagerly awaiting book two.

I'd like thank Emma for reviewing The Storms of War from her own copy of the book.  Emma will also be reviewing The Edge of the Fall in November which we've received from the publisher via NetGalley.

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