Title: Children of Liberty
Author: Paullina Simons
Prequels to beloved series are tricky things: they come weighted with so many expectations from fans it can be difficult for the story to live up to them. Could Children of Liberty, Paullina Simons’ new novel and prequel to the epic historical romance trilogy The Bronze Horseman, overcome this and shine as a story in its own right?
The book centres on the early life of the parents of The Bronze Horseman hero Alexander. Harry Barrington comes from a world of Boston privilege, education and wealth. He couldn’t be more different from young Gina Attaviano, the spirited, enterprising and beautiful 14-year-old Sicilian immigrant who first captures his best friend Ben’s heart. But Gina only has eyes for Harry, even though her initial school girl crush goes unrequited.
Skip five years on and Gina – now known as the more Americanised Jane - is a refined beauty and Radcliffe educated woman with a gaggle of male admirers. Harry meanwhile is engaged to his long-time sweetheart, the exceedingly forgiving Alice, and planning their wedding – billed as Boston’s society event of the year. He’s struggling to complete his doctorate at Harvard and advance his stymied academic teaching career while under pressure to join the family business – or at the very least make a decent career for himself and his soon-to-be bride. But a chance meeting with Jane changes everything and the two embark on a tumultuous secret affair that will forever change the course of both their lives.
The ending, which to be honest leaves the future looking pretty bleak for the two fated lovers, clearly paves the way for another prequel - which thankfully Simons is already writing. It will be titled Bellagrand and along with it she plans to write a Great Depression trilogy which also predates The Bronze Horseman.
So, did Children of Liberty meet this fan girl’s prequel expectations? The answer is yes and no.
For me, the big stumbling block was Harry – he just wasn't all that likeable and at times I wondered what the delightful Gina or the very patient Alice saw in him. Forced into action only through complete inaction, he came across as weak, indecisive and not really worthy of Gina's long burning passion. I did however adore the initial slow, smouldering build up of her crush on him and I could completely relate to it. This is what Paullina Simons does best – writing romantic tension that squeezes your own heart with the same fierce longing that fuels her characters desires.
And it’s not hard to see why Harry falls for Gina: she is a complete breath of fresh air to his stuffy, staid life. In many ways she reminded me of a young Tatiana from The Bronze Horseman, with her charming naivety, steely determination and sunny optimism. I loved how she almost single-handedly propels her family towards success while pulling herself up from humble Italian immigrant to respectable, educated and worldly woman.
Then there is the clever weaving of historical fact into the narrative: Simons has clearly done her homework and there were many nods to important people, events and political movements of the times without bogging the story down.
So for me, the novel does suffer from comparisons to the beautiful Bronze Horseman it predates. It’s not the same intensely passionate saga but nonetheless, it is an absorbing read in it’s own right about turn-of-the-century America, overcoming social divides and the consequences, both terrific and tragic, of following your heart.
And in case you were wondering, yes I will be reading the next instalment of Harry and Jane’s lives: I look forward to learning all that comes next in their story including that seemingly unfathomable decision to turn their back on the United States for Communist Russia.