Rose of Sebastapol

The Rose of Sebastopol

by Katharine McMahon

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation, with smart reviews for modern readers on Sirius XM Book Radio. The book is The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon.

Pop quiz: What do you know about the Crimean War? Maybe Florence Nightingale? Maybe a horrible bloody, dirty siege? This is a sliver of history that’s been visited by novelists many times and for good reason: it was in many ways the first modern war — they even had battlefield correspondents. The Crimea also lies in an irresistible place — balanced between the East and West — capital E, capital W, and the war took place in the 1850s — at the height of the Victorian Era, which makes it both accessible and exotic.

In The Rose of Sebastopol, we meet Rosa, brave and beautiful, who longs to break free of her provincial English life and follow her passion to help those less fortunate. She’s a riveting presence. She’s not the heroine. That task falls to her shy, domestically inclined cousin Mariella. The scenes set in England, as the two young women fret over their mutual acquaintance, the somewhat less than dashing Henry, made me realize again that I was not cut out for country life. Forced by custom to behave, sit quietly, not make a fuss, and never ever say what you think, I’d have gone nuts and flung myself into the river.

It’s when the action moves to the Crimea, as Mariella goes off (without permission!) in search of her missing friends that this book picks up steam, as she finds her spine and makes herself useful, despite blood, rats, madness, and the ever present threat of cholera. (Wash your hands, people.)

The Rose of Sebastopol makes for a fascinating mystery: puzzling out who feels what towards whom becomes as interesting as battle statistics and social and gender politics, which are already pretty compelling.

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