Monday, 18 May 2015

Review: Liberty's Fire by Lydia Syson

Publication Date: May 7th 2015
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Length: 348 pages

Huge thanks to Hot Key Books for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review

Paris, 1871. Four young people will rewrite their destinies. Paris is in revolt. After months of siege at the hands of the Prussians, a wind of change is blowing through the city, bringing with it murmurs of a new revolution. Alone and poverty-stricken, sixteen-year-old Zephyrine is quickly lured in by the ideals of the city's radical new government, and she finds herself swept away by its promises of freedom, hope, equality and rights for women. But she is about to fall in love for a second time, following a fateful encounter with a young violinist. Anatole's passion for his music is soon swiftly matched only by his passion for this fierce and magnificent girl. He comes to believe in Zephyrine's new politics - but his friends are not so sure. Opera-singer Marie and photographer Jules have desires of their own, and the harsh reality of life under the Commune is not quite as enticing for them as it seems to be for Anatole and Zephyrine. And when the violent reality of revolution comes crashing down at all their feet, can they face the danger together - or will they be forced to choose where their hearts really lie?

Ever since I moved to France I have been reading more books set in France. It’s such a wonderful step away from the usual UK and US YA fiction we see so much of, and I’ve been loving seeing so much more of the culture and history I’ve been thrust into. The history is something that particularly fascinates me as my knowledge of French History is woefully inadequate and I’m working hard to try and rectify it. So over the last few weeks I have slipped into 1910 (‘The Confectioner’s Wife’ by Laura Madeleine) and 1814 (‘A School for Unusual Girls by Kathleen Baldwin’) so I had a little idea of what might be happening in 1871 but it was incredible to step into ‘Liberty’s Fire’ and have Lydia Syson bring this fascinating period to roaring life.

Syson offers four distinct views into the events of the novel from four very different backgrounds. Jules the American photographer who has no lack of money and has been able to survive the events with very little issue. Anatole his friend, a boy from the country recently moved to Paris who plays violin for the theatre. Zephyrine, whose Grandmother passes away at the start and is at the lowest rung of the ladder – destitute and desperate for the equality the commune can provide her with she throws herself into it without a backward glance, taking Anatole with her. And Marie, an opera singer in the same company as Anatole. Her brother is in the French army and she doesn’t understand or embrace the idea of the commune, in fact she appears downright terrified of it for the most part. Each of these characters with their entangled stories and relationships offer insights into every aspect of the revolution and the commune created in Paris. You see it from both sides, those for and against. Those with money and a way to live and those with nothing who are desperate for some equality. I loved seeing how each of them reacted to the events that unfold, and how they each scramble to try and survive.

The events of this period are absolutely devastating, and Syson has captured that feeling of jubilation followed by horror and devastation perfectly. It is brutal and horrific at points, painted with such vividness with Syson’s beautiful prose. I felt as if I were living it myself, shown these tangled threads of stories and following each character through their struggles. It was heartbreaking but also uplifting and Syson perfectly combines her research and historical pin points so that you come away knowing more about these three months – a period of history I was sadly ignorant of before. But it isn’t just a history lesson, she weaves a compelling tale of love and friendship and survival with a wonderful cast of characters.

I only had two issues with the story. The first being the pacing. Whilst I loved all the details and the measured pace so that we really got to know the characters and their relationships with one another, the pacing did become a little slow at points, almost to the point where I wondered if there would actually be a climax. It didn’t feel so much like a slow build to a pinnacle of tension where everything exploded, it felt more like a meandering build which worked in some places and frustrated me in others. However when events finally come to a head it is action packed, tense and utterly gripping and enthralling. I could not put the book down until I had learned what had happened to each of the characters.

My second problem was with the relationship. I wasn’t sold on the relationship between Anatole and Zephryine. It was very sudden and I didn’t connect with it in the same way as I did with the relationship between Anatole and Jules. As a result I became more invested in their side moments than the majority of the scenes that occurred between Anatole and Zephryine.

However these were only minor quibbles in a truly extraordinary book. Syson brings this pivotal moment of French history into glorious life and explores it from four unique view-points and I loved these characters and their stories as much as I loved finding out more about the history of France. Syson sets up a vivid peek into this world and then builds into a staggering conclusion with a truly incredible tale.

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