In Lucienne Boyce’s historical fiction novel, To the Fair Land, Ben Dearlove has been given the gift of 2 years in London by his apothecary father to make his mark as an author. The Muse has been largely absent and time is running out. Six months remain of his agreed upon sabbatical.
He has promised he will return home to Bristol and join his father as an apothecary if he does not attain success as an author. The thought of Bristol and his father’s business is unsavoury, to say the least.
It’s 1789 and Ben is attending the play, The Life and Death of Captain Cook, with a friend. A woman seated to his right is making a spectacle of herself denouncing Cook, which is not well received by the audience. Fellow playgoers begin to threaten her and pelt her with fruit. Ben manages to drag her out of the playhouse and takes the distraught woman home to her foreign servant. Prior to fainting, she mumbles “Miranda” and “I don’t know where she is.”
Before he takes leave of the woman, he notices drawings of an exotic bird and expensive natural history books. Writing a restorative recipe for the servant to give the woman, he departs.
The following Sunday he receives a dinner invitation from Mr. Dowling, a bookseller of note, who regularly invites literary members to his home. It is an eclectic gathering united in one purpose: to gain a publishing agreement from Mr. Dowling for oneself. Mr. Dowling and company this evening, however, are focussed on his literary sensation. It’s a book entitled “An Account of a Voyage to Fair Land”, complete with illustrations, and is proclaimed as the “book of the century”. Much excitement and speculation ensues about the identity of the anonymous author.
Ben, curious about this sensation, visits Mr. Dowling’s bookshop and manages to snatch a copy. The bookshop is in an uproar with customers clamoring for copies. Ben, who is struck by the strange appearances of 2 men who look out of place in a bookshop, restores order and begins to read the opening chapter.
A sentence catches his attention:
Such were the men who, many years ago but still in living memory, set sail from England in the Miranda.
The name, Miranda, brings the woman from the playhouse back to mind. Ben flips through the pages to examine the illustrations of fantastical creatures and is brought up short when he recognizes an illustration of a wading bird. The woman he rescued had the exact drawing on her table.
Ben excitedly concludes the author and the woman know each other. He calculates that, if he can discover who the author is from the woman, Mr. Dowling will pay a fortune for the next book. Ben foresees an opportunity to reap a monetary reward from Mr. Dowling; an award that will permit him to stay in London and save him from the fate of being an apothecary.
Alas, Ben’s dream of instant financial freedom is doused when the woman disappears and he discovers the 2 oddball men from the bookshop ransacking her rooms. He overhears one say:
Back to the office to see if His Lordship’s got any more orders for us.
Obviously he’s not the only one seeking the woman. But who is “His Lordship” and why are the henchmen looking for the woman? A little more digging uncovers the men are possibly from the Admiralty. The question still remains why the Admiralty is involved. Ben conjectures the Admiralty and the ship Miranda must be somehow connected.
Thus begins Ben’s quest to discover the whereabouts of the woman and the reason for the Admiralty’s interest in her. The trail leads him back to Bristol. The road to easy money is riddled with many potholes, some deeper than others. Ben’s pursuit of the woman takes a sinister turn. Someone is willing to take any risk and commit atrocious acts to find the mysterious artistic woman.
Ben will question whether the fantastical is actually reality and, if so, does he want to be responsible for the repercussions that will inevitably ensue?
To the Fair Land was a thoroughly enjoyable read. Boyce takes the reader on an adventurous journey with Ben, an extremely likeable character. Mysterious abound, calumnies are committed, lives are forever changed and one young man must make a momentous decision.
MY RATING: 4/5*
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