Series: Chicago Fire Trilogy
Author: Susan Wiggs
Read copy: Mass Market Paperback
Published: June 29, 2010
October 8, 1871 -- One small spark ignites the entire city of Chicago, sending its residents into panic. But amid the chaos, a chance encounter leads to an unexpected new love.
Unaware of the fire sweeping toward them, Deborah Sinclair confronts her wealthy, powerful father, determined to refuse the society marriage he has arranged for her. Suddenly, out of the smoke and flames, a stranger appears -- gun in hand, intent on avenging an unforgivable crime. As fire consumes the elegant mansion, the ruthless man takes the fragile, sheltered heiress hostage.
Swept off to mist-shrouded Isle Royale, Deborah finds herself the pawn in Tom Silver's dangerous game of revenge. Despite her horror at being kidnapped, she finds herself drawn to the people of the close-knit community and to the startling beauty of the island. As she engages in a battle of wits with her brooding captor, she begins to understand the injustice that fuels his anger, an injustice wrought by her own family. And as winter imprisons the isolated land, she realizes she's a hostage of her own heart. . .
Not many books leave me speechless, especially not books by authors I've never read before, but Susan Wiggs succeeded with this first book in her Chicago Fire Trilogy.
It started so slow I was convinced I'd be bored to tears only a few chapters in, but that's when things picked up pace and I was riveted until the very end. As a fellow reader mentioned in her review, this is a story you cannot help but call sweeping and majestic. Sure, it spanned only a few months, but it read more like a saga, due to so much going on.
It started with a chilling description of the Great Chicago Fire, the embers carried on the wind, the flames slowly licking at straw and wooden buildings, the fire slowly, inexorably picking up speed, the wind howling, carrying the golden devastation across the river into "rich" territory...The big fire made no exceptions, it didn't care about rank, wealth, family, it ate everything that crossed its path, gobbled up houses, mansions, earthly possessions of both rich and the poor, wiping out everything, creating a clean slate. Tabula rasa.
In the middle of the carnage we get to meet a pampered "Princess", a sheltered, naive, silly heiress with not much on her mind, besides trying to convince her father not to let her marry her fiancé. Apparently something happened between them the night before, something that shattered Deborah's (skewered) view of the world, though we don't exactly know what that was.
Of course, her father doesn't listen, what does a girl know of what is best for her. She would marry Philip Ascot and that's that.
Then, the fire intrudes on them, bringing with it a huge, wild man determined to kill Deborah's father, but who ends up taking Deborah hostage instead. Even though she escapes him in the melee of fleeing bodies, he manages to find her, snatches her from her fiancé's arms and carries her aboard his boat, heading for north...
Tom Silver wants revenge on the man whose mining enterprise resulted in fifteen dead, his foster son among them. When he fails to kill the man responsible, he decides to take his daughter hostage, holding her for ransom as retribution for all the grief the man has caused their community. Unfortunately, Tom's haphazard scheme doesn't go according to plan and...
That's as much as I'm going to say for fear of venturing too much into spoiler territory. Let me just say this book is comprised of four parts. Part one recounts the initial fire, Deborah's kidnapping, and the journey north to Isle Royale, Tom Silver's home. Part two tell the story of Deborah's sojourn on Isle Royale, her slow change from the sheltered, silly and pampered heiress, the slow change of her view on her life and one life and world in general. Part three is the best part, IMO, because in those few chapters the book takes a turn from historical fiction into historical romance, starting with a wild, gruff man crossing an iced-over lake in a blizzard to go rescue the damsel in distress (whom, according to him, he doesn't even like). And part four brings the story to full circle with Deborah's "rescue" and small rebellion against the "norms".
This book truly was a sweeping and majestic tale of a natural disaster creating a blank slate for people to create a new life or get a new and different view of the world and life. In the beginning of the story, as Deborah stands on the shore of the lake with Chicago burning behind her, she's thinking right along those lines. What would it feel like to disappear and be reborn someone else, to experience life as it was meant to be experienced...And her wish comes true in the form of a captivity that slowly, but surely reshapes her into a woman she could be proud of being.
She went slightly on my nerves in the beginning, due to her selfish, spoiled way of thinking, but she wasn't annoying as other heroines tend to be, because the author made it clear it was all due to Deborah's upbringing and Deborah herself admitted it repeatedly throughout the story and was determined to change. And change she did, but not so much as to seem out of character. She still retained some of her posh behavior, admitted to being a coward, tried her best to survive while admitting she had no idea what to do. The author didn't change her overnight into a fearless, capable Amazon, so thus retaining that much-needed sense of realism. Deborah was still Deborah, just a stronger, wiser, more capable version of the pampered heiress from the beginning of the story.
I was a bit sad not to get more glimpses into Tom Silver, though, but since this was mostly Deborah's story that was to be expected. He didn't need to change, he was perfect as he was (crossing the ice in a blizzard, hello!), but it was Deborah's view of him that needed to change for her (and for the reader) to see under his gruff, wild man facade.
Well, I veered pretty off course with my rant, so I'll just keep it short and simple.
This was by far one of the best historical romances I've read in a while. Intelligent, deep, and insightful, it built its momentum slowly, but surely, brining the reader closer to the characters as their stories and psyches unfolded before us, as they get to know themselves and one another...
A beautiful, poignant story with wonderful imagery and characters. Unforgettable.