Jane strode to the door exclaiming, "If--if--if! I'm sick to death of ifs!" She turned around, her hand on the knob.
"The only 'ifs' in my future, my dear laddie, are going to be: if I like it--I will do it!" (from Island of the Swans, page 496 in the ARC)
Island of the Swans is an ambitious effort by Ciji Ware to tell the story of Jane Maxwell, the 4th Duchess of Gordon, from age 10 to middle age, chronicling the ups and downs of her romantic life and her involvement in politics. The novel opens in 1760 in Edinburgh, with a 10-year-old Jane and her best friend, Thomas Fraser, tearing down proclamations of the coronation of King George III. The free-spirited Jane then decides to have a pig race, leading to the loss of one of her fingers and her first encounter with Alexander, the 4th Duke of Gordon, whose family supported the Crown and retained their lands and titles, whereas Thomas' family lost everything after siding with Bonnie Prince Charlie in the Rebellion/Rising of 1745.
Jane and Thomas are inseparable as kids and fall deeply in love as teenagers -- and much to the dismay of Jane's mother, Lady Maxwell, and Thomas' uncle, Simon, the two decide to get married. Thomas receives his commission as lieutenant serving the Crown, and despite Jane's pleas to elope before he goes off to fight, Thomas thinks it's better for them to marry after he's started his journey to reclaim his family title and lands. When Jane learns that Thomas was killed in a skirmish with Native Americans in the Colonies, she mourns him deeply, to the point where people question her sanity. The Duke of Gordon, long attracted to Jane, understands her grief and befriends her -- but he wants more than a friendship, and after much pressure from her family, Jane marries Alex and becomes a duchess.
However, Thomas survived the attack, but the schemes of Jane's mother and a sultry plantation owner in Maryland prevent Jane from getting the good news in time. In Jane's time, women weren't easily granted divorces, so despite her never-ending love for Thomas, she is destined to live as Alex's wife. Although she loves Alex, she can never love him like she does Thomas, and this reality will plague the House of Gordon for decades.
Island of the Swans tries to be first and foremost a novelization of the life of Jane Maxwell. Ware obviously has done her homework, and the fact that she spent years researching Jane's life and visiting the lands of which she writes shines through. Ware paints Jane as a fascinating woman, a beauty who commands the attention of King George III, the prime minister William Pitt, the poet Robert Burns, and pretty much everyone with whom she has contact. She has interests outside her family and loves to socialize, much to the chagrin of the jealous and obviously troubled Alex. But the novel mainly is a heartbreaking love story. Jane is torn between two men -- one who understands her completely and has forever captured her heart and soul, and one who loves her but is so blinded by jealousy that she can never completely give herself to him.
Ware provides numerous details of Jane's life and the politics of the time, touching on the American Revolution and even King George III's madness. I found the story to be engaging, especially since I know little about this period in English history and hadn't heard of Jane Maxwell before picking up the book. However, I found Island of the Swans to be very long -- nearly 600 pages -- and thought parts of it were tedious. Much of the book can be summed up in this fashion: Thomas leaves, Alex is happy, Thomas comes back, Alex is infuriated, Thomas leaves again, Alex is happy, and the cycle continues. I also felt that the numerous (and sometimes pretty descriptive) sex scenes could have been toned down or even excluded, but at the same time, they sometimes served a purpose in revealing tidbits about Alex's personality and his and Jane's relationship.
Overall, Island of the Swans is a fascinating tale that will keep readers wondering how Jane's story will play out and whether she finds true happiness. From the very beginning, I found myself invested in these characters, and Ware provides enough detail that I didn't feel like anything was missing by the time I reached the last page.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of Island of the Swans from Sourcebooks for review purposes.