Even when I picked this book up, it looked promising. I absolutely love historical fiction and False Lights looked like it was going to tick all the boxes. Set in the Georgian era, with some daring heroes and heroines… and in an alternative reality where Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo and conquered England? Hell yes! Count me in.
I’m happy to say that False Lights more than lived up to my expectations: I loved it. Witty, exciting and heartfelt, the book had me hooked, from the minute I picked it up until I put it down at four o’clock in the morning.
The book begins with a bang: Hester Harewood, the mixed-race daughter of a sea captain, is taken captive by the invading French forces; at the same time, Lord Jack ‘Crow’ Lowlas is trying to orchestrate a rebellion against them by playing a very dangerous game that threatens to undo him. When he rescues Hester, sparks fly- and as events heat up and the threat of rebellion grows ever larger, things suddenly become very dangerous indeed. The book is meticulously plotted, and gallops along at a breakneck pace: things that other authors would often save for the ending, like a happy marriage between the two protagonists, are addressed in the middle of the book and make it all the better, especially as Whittaker acknowledges that ‘happy marriages’, though ideal, don’t exist.
Indeed, the way in which Whittaker explores human nature is probably what I liked best about the novel. She has a very sure touch when it comes to creating believable, likeable characters that are flawed, complex and make you root for them. From Hester to the damaged Kitto, Crow’s younger brother, she doesn’t put a foot wrong and dives into the character’s heads. More impressively, each of them have a fully rounded personality; no boring people here! Everybody from Kitto to Empress Josephine, Napoleon’s disgraced ex-wife, is given a voice, and makes the book much richer for it.
Hats off to Whittaker’s world-building skills, too: the way in which she combines historical fact (life in Georgian London, complete with racism, snobbish ladies and society balls) with fiction (Napoleon’s invasion; Wellington’s imprisonment in Cornwall is masterful and creates a world that I wanted to dive into, from Cornwall (getting undertones of Poldark there) and the Cornish resistance to London, where French occupation has left the citizens starving and angry. It’s a world you can happily get lost in, and the story makes the most of it, too, from Cornish culture (and language- as a Welsh person myself, any book with Cornish in is a plus for me!) to the elegance of London.
So, what to make of it? All in all, this is an exciting ride of a novel that balances historical figures and events neatly with characters that you care about, offering heartfelt emotions, adventure and romance in spades. It’s the best book I’ve read in a while; K.J Whittaker has an excellent touch and I think she’s going to go places. Read it!
Book cover taken from Goodreads.