Seattle Times review

It’s a good one. Here’s the link, and the review too:

Great news for Sara Donati fans: It is time once more to immerse yourself in her richly imagined world. It’s been two long years since “Lake in the Clouds,” the third novel in her Wilderness series about frontier life in upstate New York (beginning with “Into the Wilderness”). Now the fourth book, “Fire Along the Sky,” advances the fortunes and trials of the Bonner family and their friends — and enemies — as the War of 1812 threatens all they hold dear.

In the new book by Donati (the pen name of Bellingham resident Rosina Lippi), the focus shifts from the heads of the Bonner clan (Nathaniel, a famous hunter, and his strong-willed wife, Elizabeth, a teacher) to the younger generation. It’s a complicated cast of characters. Nathaniel has fathered five children by three women; the youngest three of the five children are Elizabeth’s. Then there are all the subsidiary characters, most of them familiar from previous novels in the series (Donati gives a two-page list of the primary characters as a preface).

Do you need to know the previous books in order to enjoy “Fire Along the Sky”? It’s probably not necessary — but the more you know about Donati’s world, the better you understand the complicated motivation, history and interaction of these well-drawn characters. References to earlier betrayals, romances, disagreements and disasters will strike a chord in the longtime Donati fan that may be less resonant in first-timers.

There’s a lot to enjoy here. Donati keeps the plot moving at a terrific pace; there are deadly dangers, harrowing journeys, tense confrontations, life-and-death struggles. The day-to-day minutiae of frontier housekeeping and provisioning are regularly jolted with shocks of all kinds: warfare, abduction, drowning, unexpected pregnancy, violent death.

Her characters compel the reader’s attention. In the opening pages, the newly widowed Scottish noblewomen Lady Jennet voyages to Montreal in quest of young Luke Bonner, the man she originally wanted to marry. Then Luke’s half-sister (and half-Mohawk) Hannah returns after a long absence — without her husband or her son. It takes most of the book to discover what has happened to them, and why Hannah, a talented healer, is unable to speak about the tragedies that have befallen her family.

Then there are the Bonner twins, Daniel and Lily, who spend much of the novel estranged from each other: Daniel wants to go off to war but is seriously wounded and imprisoned in a Canadian stockade. Lily is a gifted artist who doesn’t always make wise personal choices; she is in love with a married man who is unworthy of her.

And there are fascinating villains. Jemima Kuick, a viciously amoral woman who wreaked considerable havoc in earlier books, returns for a stunning blow against the little society of Paradise. This character just might be Donati’s argument for the existence of absolute evil; Jemima is so willfully horrible that she’s too good to kill off (and Donati seems to be positioning her for a return in a subsequent installment of this saga).

Donati’s strong women characters are the heart of her books. They don’t just sit around and stir the gruel or knit the socks. They go charging off to infiltrate an enemy camp, operate on wounded soldiers, rescue kidnapped hostages. They speak their mind, often so bluntly that it’s a wonder there wasn’t more warfare on the frontier. Young girls or wise octogenarians, these are characters that tug at the reader’s imagination. After four “Wilderness” books, these women seem as real as your own neighbors.

Melinda Bargreen is The Seattle Times’ classical-music critic.

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