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*Sovay* by Celia Rees- young adult book review
by Celia Rees
Grades 7+ 416 pages Bloomsbury USA August 2008 Hardcover    

Readers familiar with Celia Rees’s Pirates! will be happy to hear that she has tackled yet another historical subject in her latest novel, Sovay. This time, Rees examines the story of Sovay, a female highwayman. The elements of the story are recognizable, but there is a definite Rees twist to the story of Sovay as told in the traditional ballad about a young lady dressed “in man’s array/with a brace of pistols all by her side.” As usual, the writer chooses to tackle female stereotypes and turn them upside-down.

Our heroine, the seventeen-year-old daughter of an aristocrat in late 18th-century England, is the beautiful but willful Sovay Middleton. Her fiancé, James Gilmore, has betrayed her with a chamber maid, and she decides to find out if he really loves her by disguising herself as the highwayman Captain Blaze. Eventually, Sovay confronts James with the evidence of his betrayal. Instead of begging her forgiveness, James accuses her father of being a traitor to the king. Needless to say, they do not part on the best of terms.

With her father and brother mysteriously absent from home, Sovay must prove that they are not guilty of treason. If her father is convicted as a traitor, he will be hanged and his property confiscated by Sir Royston, her former fiancé’s father.

In her quest to exonerate her family, she is aided by Virgil Barrett, an adventurous American; Gabriel Stanhope, the Steward’s son; Captain Greenwood, a highwayman; Mr. Oldfield, her family’s respected solicitor; and Léon, the dashing captain and hero of the French Revolution. All of them work together to defeat the evil Sir Robert Dysart, the spymaster who is trying to overthrow the lawful government of England. After a shocking series of plot twists involving the mysterious group called the Illuminati, Sovay and her father are sentenced to die on the guillotine in Paris during the last days of Robespierre. Will she survive?

Rees transforms a rather simple ballad into a saga of spies, mad scientists, and bloodthirsty revolutionaries - those looking for a straightforward version of the female highwayman story will definitely not find it here. Sovay is a complex character who steals from the rich only to give to the poor. She is often left to her own devices while her father and brother pursue their political agendas and desperately misses her mother, who has been dead for twelve years.

Perhaps then, it is not surprising that she lives a rather unconventional life for a young lady at the end of the 18th century. She feels just as comfortable disguised as a man in her Captain Blaze persona as she does attending Sir Robert Dysart’s high society parties at his extravagant home of Thursley. Her courage is obvious while working to free her ailing father from Luxembourg Palace where he is being held prisoner, even at the cost of her own safety.

Sovay will appeal to older teenage readers – and to adults. The novel examines the complex issues of English and French society and politics in the late eighteenth century. The sadistic torture techniques and schemes of Sir Robert Dysart will shock even the most hardened reader. This evil genius values the rule of science above all, and at one point, he declares that
“My rule would have ushered in a golden age of science unfettered by matters of conscience and paltry consideration of ethics. Human life is nothing! Knowledge is everything!”(p. 294)
This intriguing, fast-paced story will both shock and entertain readers as they experience the events of the French Revolution through the eyes of the memorable heroine Sovay.
Young adult book reviews for ages 12 and up - middle school and high school students

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