This historical novel offers a smorgasbord that includes Freemasonry, aborted revolutions, slavers, family dynasties, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the Enlightenment—while also telling a tale of a far-ranging treasure hunt.
The engine of the plot in Dennis’ tale is a search for the “crimson heirlooms”: the Cross of Nantes, an almost mystically stunning creation that makes its bearer “merchant royalty,” and a “less tangible” heirloom: “the words of the devil’s song, as he danced across the blood-drenched hills of the Vendée Militaire.” Whoever finds these heirlooms will inherit the holdings of the wealthy Traversier family and be rich as Croesus. There are several pivotal characters and forces in this densely packed novel that’s set in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and chief among them is Xavier Traversier, the heir to his family’s mercantile enterprise in the city of Nantes in western France. The business is in decline during his childhood, but by book’s end he will have taken the Traversier fortunes to incredible heights. Jake Loring is an American student in 1832 Paris and a budding revolutionary who’s forced by a man named Monsieur Tyran into searching for the heirlooms. By a circuitous route, the story arrives in 1783 Saint-Domingue (later known as Haiti), which brings in the Guerrier clan, including father Feroce, mother Seonaidh, and the children, Guillaume and Estelle; the kids, when grown up, figure in the story at crucial junctures. Freemasonry also undergirds the intellectual history of the era along with the ideas of philosophers Rousseau and Montesquieu. Revolution is in the air as the story alternates between different time periods. The end presents a semiconclusion to the action followed by the phrase “To Be Continued.”
Dennis knows how to spin a yarn, although the reader may be forgiven for not keeping all the characters straight over 400-plus pages; indeed, an initial list of the various players might have been helpful. The intellectual discussions sometimes make things drag a bit unless one is already a keen student of political and intellectual history, but when Dennis is good, he’s very good—especially when it comes to description. The details of Traversier’s first voyage as captain of his slave ship are particularly horrifying. Likewise, the particulars of Jake’s frontline actions as a revolutionary and Guillaume’s earlier exploits, also as a revolutionary (Plus ça change…), are well-handled. One curious chapter, “Jérémie,” stands out as an eloquent testimony on the plight of the country peasants of the time; revolution should come as no surprise at all, even if it does start in the cities. Dennis has certainly immersed himself in the era of his novel, and he has clearly done his homework. The result is a book in which readers can certainly lose themselves, in the best sense of the term. And although it would be a long stretch to compare this novel to those of Leo Tolstoy or Victor Hugo, the flavor of their works is certainly present.
A formidable, ambitious debut novel with the tantalizing promise of a follow-up.
The Crimson Heirlooms by Hunter Dennis tells the story of an American student studying abroad in France in 1832. The student is involved in a secret society determined to start a revolution, but the student soon finds himself choosing to be blackmailed by a millionaire over losing his life. The millionaire is looking for two heirlooms: a necklace, the Cross of Nantes, and the lyrics to a song "the devil sang as he danced across the blood-drenched hills of the Vendée Militaire." However, before the student can start his search for the missing heirlooms, the author takes us back in time to show us how they were lost in the first place.
The Crimson Heirlooms is one of the best-written historical novels I've ever read. The time leaps between 1832 and the mid- to late-1700s showed the reader two completely different French landscapes. Dennis obviously has done his research, gently introducing background information and history to readers without overwhelming them, guiding them through historical events with a firm hand on their backs, making them feel as if they had been there themselves and were just reading another person's view on things.
My knowledge of French history extends to Les Misérables and the little bits of high school Literature and History classes that I can actually remember. Despite that, I had no trouble at all immersing myself in the world that Dennis created, slipping into the time periods like I was slipping on silk gloves. Every new town thrilled me, every new character spilled their secrets and inner thoughts little by little, pulling me into their secret societies and making me feel like their closest confidant. The entire time I was reading, I kept wondering if this was a lost classical manuscript. I had a hard time believing that Dennis could emulate authors from decades and even centuries before his time with such consistency.
I caught just a handful of typos throughout the entire novel, things like "arouse" versus "arose." Overall the editing was superb. Dennis can be wordy at times, making me grateful for the ability to look up words with a single touch on my Kindle, but it suits the style of the book. The book was so well-rounded that I wouldn't be able to think of any suggestions even if I tried.
Overall, I would give The Crimson Heirlooms a hearty 4 out of 4 stars. It could easily become one of my favorite historical series. When I reached the cliffhanger at the end of the book, I almost screamed out of frustration. I am highly looking forward to the next installation in the series, to see where the heirlooms will find themselves next, and whether the student being blackmailed will be able to out-trick his blackmailer as he gets closer to finding the mysterious heirlooms. I would highly recommend this book to historical fiction fans, especially those who enjoyed Les Misérables, who are looking for an intelligent and complicated but satisfying story. Once you start reading, I doubt you'll be able to put it down.
The Crimson Heirlooms by Hunter Dennis is set in France from 1776–1832, and in the West Indies. The story centres on two characters, Xavier and Jake, born at different times but loosely connected through their heritage. Xavier Traversier’s family had once been the most important in Nantes, but had since fallen on hard times. His mother had become a recluse and Xavier’s first venture into high society was a disaster. From that moment on, he vowed to rebuild their fortunes and, through sheer hard work and an excellent brain, he succeeded. However, one of the ways he achieved this was by transporting slaves. Jake was at school when he first took part in the riots in Paris and was only released from prison on the promise of finding the Crimson Heirlooms, one a valuable cross called the Cross of Nantes and the other the words to the devil’s song as he danced across the hills of France.
When I chose to read and review The Crimson Heirlooms by Hunter Dennis, I was expecting a historical tale of finding hidden treasure, but this is a completely different book. Firstly, I needed to brush up on the gaps in my French history as it’s not a straightforward account of the usual storming of the Bastille and Madame Guillotine. Both major characters, Xavier and Jake, become involved with the Freemasons and much is described about their organization and outlook. There are extensive discussions of philosophers, especially Rousseau and Montesquieu, and the ideas which underpinned the newly liberated American constitution. Part of the story takes place in the West Indies as the thread of the whereabouts of the Cross of Nantes is transported across the Atlantic. Jake also visits Northern Ireland and learns the history of those who were persecuted by the occupying English forces.
This book is literary, thought-provoking and covers the major social issues of the times, especially pertaining to the French clergy who paid no taxes yet received huge payments from a variety of tolls levied on the poor and middle classes, which were often gambled away at the tables in the chateaux owned by the noble ruling class. I was getting worried as I approached the end of the book as to how all the characters would tie up, and if the cross was found and with what ramifications... The quality of the writing, the excellent characterization, the food for thought, the extensive research and the informative and helpful maps throughout won’t allow me to give it anything else but 5 stars.