Review of Kate Breslin’s “Not By Sight”

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Synopsis (Taken from IndieBound’s product detail page, for this title)

Gripping Sophomore Novel from a Rising Historical Romance Talent
With Britain caught up in WWI, Jack Benningham, heir to the Earl of Stonebrooke, has declared himself a conscientious objector. Instead, he secretly works for the Crown by tracking down German spies on British soil, his wild reputation and society status serving as a foolproof cover.Blinded by patriotism and concern for her brother on the front lines, wealthy suffragette Grace Mabry will do whatever it takes to assist her country’s cause. When she sneaks into a posh London masquerade ball to hand out white feathers of cowardice, she never imagines the chain of events she’ll set off when she hands a feather to Jack.
And neither of them could anticipate the extent of the danger and betrayal that follows them–or the faith they’ll need to maintain hope.


Early last month, there was quite a spate of controversy surrounding Kate Breslin’s first notable fiction release, the controversial holocaust title For Such a Time. Having read and reviewed it, as you know, I basically echoed some of the concerns that some of the more indignant critics voiced, in that I did feel that the story did contain some anti-semitic elements. And you can read all the details about my thoughts on this divisive first novel here, but it should be noted that my opinion was in no way influenced by my current agnostic status. With the review of this novel Not By Sight, of course, my religious viewpoints remain relatively unchanged since my last review, and I don’t find that very pertinent to a review of any story. For Christian Fiction in particular, I think having more general, non-Christians reviewing this work is very important, as it allows these stories to perhaps be critiqued from a different angle, not a reproachful stance of criticizing every facet of the story that is extremely Christian (as that would be highly ignorant, on my part), but rather speaking as to whether it can stand on its own as a well-conceived fiction story.

The reason I decided to read Kate Breslin’s second novel, released back in August, entitled Not By Sight is because I actually found her prose to be very competent, detailed, without too much superfluity. It had a very nice flow, and allowed for greater immersion into the story, without over-saturation of perhaps too much purple patches of prose that otherwise haunts this genre of fiction. This story appeals to me more from the get-go, as it surrounds a plot involving a plucky suffragette girl, daughter to an Irish business man , who establishes a fairly popular teahouse within London. And the male love interest is every bit as enigmatic, elusive, as you’d expect a WWI spy, hired by the royal government of England, to work in discerning who are treasonous spies. Within the novel’s promotional material, the supposed Scarlet Pimpernel parallels are emphasized for readers that perhaps know nothing of either this author and her past works. For better or worse, many of her new readers may have been those that read the controversial For Such a Time novel ,and had the vaguest curiosity in checking out more of their works, as they were intrigued by the excellent descriptive prose evident within For Such a Time. But I am disappointed, as a big fan of The Scarlet Pimpernel, that the actual spy plot doesn’t have quite the same degree of intelligent machinations and enticing intrigue, or even spot-on riddling humor that made that original story so fascinating, so fiendishly entertaining.

The story is really a fantastically fast-paced page turner as her last book, in many ways. Again, Kate Breslin’s prose is very exacting, without being bloated or turgid in anyways. As with For Such a Time, though, the plot itself continues to suffer from too many easy contrivances,or solutions, and suffers a bit from an easy predictable ending that has become formulaic, for me as a reader that enjoyed both of her books (this doesn’t detract whatsoever from the enjoyment of her stories). I should remark that the journey of the main Suffragette character Grace Mabry is someome who is smart, resourceful, plucky, well-humored; she also has a great talent for utilizing language to describe so perfectly her surroundings for the blind, injured spy whose name is Jack. The romantic dynamics suffer from predictability as well, as both Grace and Jack seem to be the exact same character types from the last novel. Jack is mysterious, temperamental, and strangely domineering, and Grace is obstinate in her virtuous convictions, and everyone seems to learn to greatly love her after awhile, even if they initially hate her, which makes her a questionable Mary Sue figure. Her character reminded me of the same main character from the BBC series The Paradise, but not in a good way, in that both of them seem to be Mary Sue type characters. Other female characters would resent their beauty and the way they seem to attract the attention of the lord of the manor (Not By Sight), or the owner of the shop (The Paradise). Strangely enough, a nineteenth century story, which this book was weakly compared to, The Scarlet Pimpernel has far less Mary Sue-ish elements that otherwise plague a great character, and this makes what could have been a character of depth and interest, just a reluctant female romantic heroine.
And for some reason, the character even has the same green eyes, red hair, as the last female lead from the novel For Such a Time, causing readers of her past novel to question whether there are really any other varieties of hair color besides ruby, enticing red, with some gem-like green eyes.

And Jack could have been perhaps a more complex character, as well as Grace, but he instead becomes the same doubtful, Saul-like character trope used for the last male romantic lead within For Such a Time. Jack suffers from the notorious affliction of deep, tumultuous doubts over his faith convictions,and Grace seems to have been fated to have been the one to bring him hope and optimism to an otherwise terribly morose outlook on his whole life, and his present afflictions. The good thing is that Kate Breslin is far more skilled,than with the last book, with skillfully interweaving her religious viewpoints into the thoughts of her character; they don’t stick out quite as obtrusively like a certain ‘magic bible’ within the previous book, which seemed to detract from the authentic tone of the last book. Meaning, the moments where religion and spirituality are mentioned feel much more sincere as result, more natural. I am glad that Kate Breslin, in this regard, continues to become more confident with really making the religious dimension she wishes to make her tale replete with feel more naturally-occurring, rather than sticking out in such a way that it slackens the pace and flow of the story with a tinge of artificiality. This strength makes this book a much stronger read, as the spiritual undercurrent of the story deals head-on with the universal idea of edification and potential resurrection, in the midst of disillusioning odds. Oddly enough, I have to admit that the religious and spiritual elements of the story, even as an agnostic, actually felt like the strongest part of this story, as it really adds a needed emotional layer and dimension to all the characters and helps bring a certain modicum of spiritual depth to the hard trials many of the characters face.

For instance, with respects to spiritual themes in Not by Sight,the whole aspect of blindness in these sorts of stories is derived from the story of Saul, who temporarily becomes blind, which acts as a metaphor for temporary stubbornness in the face of confronting one’s own deep convictions of faith, or hope in a greater outcome. This soon became an archetypal complex for such characters, plagued with their own internal demons, and unwilling to face the hope and salvation of perhaps journeying beyond the mire of self-loathing. We see this same archetypal complex, a biblical allusion, being used in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, one of my all-time favorite stories, as Mr. Rochester goes blind, after his one wife jumps to her death and brings upon the destruction of Thornfield Manor. That was his self-imposed prison, of sorts, the entrenched guilt over marrying someone only for lust, versus love, and that caused him to be ignorant of his wife’s deeper torments, as when the lust began to vanish, so did any interest in her altogether. Of course, the character of Jack suffers blindness because of endeavoring to seek out a pair of spies, one of whom was dressed as Charlie Chaplin, at the party where the character of Grace first encounters him. He sustains serious injuries due to being caught in a burning ship, where he  finds incriminating documents that actually provide him false leads. Since his work involves much mistrust and false-leads (and subterfuge), the character of Jack becomes tainted by this distrust, and closes himself off, much in the same way Mr. Rochester begins to distrust the yearnings of his own heart, just like the character of Jane herself suffers from her demons as well. And the character of Saul suffers from the same hopelessness in some ways, before becoming Paul in the Bible, as all these characters suffer from spiritual blindness to the type of epiphany awakening that reveals what can be done to perhaps reverse the bad fortune that has waylaid them. Simply put, it is about reawakening our ability to see clearly the boundaries of deeper magic within the world, and thus, rely upon our stronger sense of moral intuition to guide ourselves into the impenetrable darkness of the harrowing challenges before us. This is a recurrent theme throughout this story- the idea of living not only by superficial sight along, but by deeper trust within the spiritual depths that exist within our reality. All of these are things that I really think are themes and ideas that can resonate with any reader Again, this was the strongest part of the story, and Kate Breslin’s manner of incorporating spiritual and religious elements is natural enough to appeal to any readers, who were fine with the same spiritual depth in many of Madeleine L’Engle’s novels.

Another strong element of the story was the development of Grace’s propensity to write, along with her fiery wit, that actually made him a fairly interesting female character. Yes, some of her dilemmas are a bit too Mary-Sueish for me, at times. But there are moment she does defy her Mary-Sue circumstances, and instead, presents herself as a deeply insecure writer, for whom her growing relationship with Jack, throughout the novel, allows herself to find this gift of hers to awaken itself from slumbering, Moreover, it is her intelligence and wit that could be argued as to being the strongest feature of any of the characters in this novel, making it a novel about the strength of wit, versus that of violence. In many ways, I have always admired that kind of characteristic, far more than physical prowess, in characters of either gender.

Yet the weakest part of the novel continues to be too much fidelity to a growing formula for these novels, the same characters repeated characteristics and physical traits as the last romantic leads, some of the same contrivances even though both Kate Breslin’s novel are set in different world wars. This is what prevents an otherwise much stronger novel than her last from being really great, and I think this writer has that potential for she has various strengths as a writer that are not always fully-formed for even the most experience writers, and that is the ability to write in a way that is detailed, while also permitting the story to have a great flow and sense of purposeful pacing. I look forward to see how her next novel potentially evolves beyond red-haired plucky females, and mysterious, brooding black haired male leads, because I think this may be becoming formulaic and it prevents readers of her stories from fully engaging in her work. So if you’re in the mood for something easy, yet somewhat forgettable, but again pretty entertaining, I recommend this book, but don’t expect it to be anything more than a bit of a formulaic dalliance into the world of a trope-infested story-line that has intimations of greater potential. Still, I really enjoyed the read, even with these shortcomings, it was definitely great escapist fiction. I recommend that readers who love historical fiction, or BBC masterpiece theater productions (as I do) check out this book, and evaluate it for themselves.

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