The Winter Sea or Sophia’s Secret

21 November 2011

I have just finished the first book that I started reading on my new Kindle and enjoyed it so much that I just had to hasten straight here to tell you all about it. Although, of course, I have a feeling that you’ve all already read it!

Sophia’s Secret (known as The Winter Sea in the US) is a sort of time slippy (my computer keeps wanting to autocorrect that to ‘time sloppy’) romance set in the present day and also eighteenth century Aberdeenshire. Unlike other books of its ilk, this one doesn’t have actual visits to the past but instead uses the conceit of a writer with terrible block (Oh, I know the feeling very well) who happens to visit Slains Castle on the Aberdeenshire coast and finds herself inspired anew with a tale of romance, betrayal and tragedy during one of the various Jacobite risings so she moves into a cottage there that has the most illegal sounding and ropey electricity meter I have ever heard of.

However, Carrie, the writer in question isn’t just inspired by the past – she’s somehow channelling it as she writes about her ancestress, the winsomely lovely Sophia, who seems to be a bit of a man magnet. Carrie finds herself writing about the past in a feverish trance like state and then discovering that everything she wrote about is in fact TRUE, which at first freaks her out but then she chats to a nice doctor who has a theory about memories being genetic so that makes it all okay again.

It does sound a bit woo but believe me, this is an extremely entertaining and often moving read that kept me thoroughly GRIPPED for the last couple of days. Some other reviewers have mentioned that they didn’t like Sophia’s ending and I have to sort of agree – on one hand it was predictably bittersweet and lovely but on the other, something about the um proposed domestic arrangement (look, I’m trying not to spoil things here but those of you who have read it will probably know what I mean) didn’t ring true to me at all although I understood that it had to be that way to set up the final twist in the tale in Carrie’s ending. Even so though, it left me feeling very very sad indeed.

The history and background of this book are pretty flawless – I come from an old Scottish family that was very loyal to the Jacobite cause (at least one ancestor went into exile with Bonnie Prince Charlie after Culloden) grew up on the outskirts of Aberdeen and know Slains Castle and nearby Dunottar Castle (the aforementioned ancestor was actually knighted there by his Prince) very well indeed. I was often taken to both as a little girl and left to run around the imposing ruins that look out across the dark, crashing North Sea. Oh there is something about those castles that brings out the poet in us all and I loved the way that Slains was as much the star of the show here as Sophia and the hero.

Speaking of the 18th century hero, I thought he was simply lovely. Oh la la. *fans self* I was born in the 1970s and so associate bearded men with The Joy of Sex, Peter Sutcliff and Cupid Stunt, which means that I am somewhat prejudiced when it comes to our bearded fellows and it takes a LOT to make me think a bearded hero is hot stuff. Actually, did he have a beard? In my mind’s eye he looked exactly like Michael Fassbender in The Devil’s Whore, which is quite similar actually in a lot of ways…

Various other reviewers have likened this to those books by Diana Gabaldon, but I think that is very unfair as there seemed to be zilch similarity to me. However, what would I know as I have failed several times to get beyond the first chapter of the first one whereas this held me entranced from the start. If anything it reminded me more of the brilliant Green Darkness by Anya Seton.

In summary – an excellent read if you like hot Jacobites, ruined Scottish castles and a bit of time travel in your historical fiction. Definitely don’t read if you’re like the reviewer on Goodreads who gave it one star because it has ‘too much Scottish stuff’.

(I really liked looking through the author’s own photographs of the locations in her books – I may have to steal this idea for myself.)