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Sovay, Sovay all on a day
She dressed herself in man's array
With a brace of pistols all by her side
To meet her true love, to meet her true love, away she'd ride.

This is the first verse of a traditional ballad that served as Celia Rees's inspiration for her new novel. Set at the close of the 18th century, when revolutionary activities in America and France incited a similar fervor in England, SOVAY introduces another of Rees's captivating, independent, postmodern heroines, interacting with the events of history with a mind of her own.

When we first meet 17-year-old Sovay Middleton, she seems more or less like a typical, slightly bored, wealthy 18th-century young woman. Growing restless while posing for a formal portrait, Sovay escapes into the garden to meet her betrothed. But when she begins to suspect that his intentions are not entirely honorable, she soon shows her fierce, brave, independent streak, one that her father fostered in the absence of her late mother and that will stand her in good stead during the events to come.

Sovay's career as a highwayman (during which she disguises herself as a young man and gains the moniker Captain Blaze) begins on a whim, with designs of revenge on her former lover, but soon deepens into something much more dangerous when she intercepts a packet of letters and documents that possess vital information. Sovay suspects that these documents, some of which are in code, hold clues to the whereabouts and activities of her father and her older brother, Hugh, both of whom have disappeared --- perhaps to Revolutionary France --- amid accusations of sedition and treason.

Sovay, who soon realizes she might be in over her head, attempts to set things rights while still pursuing her father and brother's whereabouts. Before long, however, news of her activities falls into dangerous hands indeed. Her liberty and perhaps her life are in desperate danger.

It's really not too much of a stretch to imagine SOVAY playing out on the big screen, starring someone like Keira Knightley. Like Knightley, Rees has based her career on beautiful, smart, independent postmodern heroines from an earlier age. In the novel, the heroine's swashbuckling escapades play out in true cinematic style, complete with seemingly dozens of prospective suitors, countless spies and counterspies, a gritty (and sometimes distasteful) portrayal of London in 1794, and one of the most over-the-top Gothic villains in recent memory.

Sovay even caps off her adventures with a climactic escape to France, the hotbed of the revolutionary fervor that has caused her so many problems at home. Some readers may feel that this ending seems rushed and even a bit frantic, with too many complications introduced and resolved too quickly, and a rather unexpected hero finally having what it takes to capture Sovay's rebellious heart. For others, however, this conclusion will merely feel like an extension of Sovay's remarkable story, which plays out --- like her highwayman career --- at the speed of a galloping horse.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 19, 2008

by Celia Rees

  • Publication Date: August 19, 2008
  • Genres: Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Childrens
  • ISBN-10: 1599902036
  • ISBN-13: 9781599902036