Stella Tillyard is a seasoned and respected historian with a number of acclaimed nonfiction works under her belt, so it makes sense that she would pour her expertise and historical passions into her debut novel. Tides of War, a sweeping story of aristocrats and soldiers, artists and scientists, generals and lovers, is rich with historical details of Regency England and the final years of the Napoleonic Wars. But it’s much more than a catalog of famous faces. In her first fiction effort, Tillyard has crafted an epic tale that rides the line between romance and adventure, filled with gripping characters and gorgeous descriptions.
Tillyard takes the classic scenario of the young man leaving his wife to go to war as her novel’s starting point, but Tides of War goes on to defy all predictability. Tillyard builds her plot in slow layers, introducing a massive cast of characters—among them the Duke of Wellington and the legendary Spanish painter Goya—in chapters that traverse the parlors of London and the battlefields of Spain. Her focus is on James and Harriet Raven, newlyweds who part ways in London when he goes off to battle. The two spend the rest of the novel fighting the temptations of the modern world and the passions—the tides, as it were—of war. While Harriet is swept up in the heady discoveries and wealth of the home front, James is enchanted by Spain. This is only one of the contrasts Tillyard explores throughout the novel: war and love, practicality and reckless emotion, reason and impulse.
The result is a book meant to be savored; Tides of War is a work of often staggering richness that begs its reader to be patient and dig deep. Fans of novelists like Cecelia Holland and Philippa Gregory will delight in the romance and immersive language of Tillyard’s work. Tides of War is a rewarding, engrossing debut from a bright new force in historical fiction.