Way back in the dim and distant past when I was a teenager, one of the many historical novels I devoured was a book by Ira J Morris called The Fortune Hunter. I borrowed it from the library and loved it to bits. It was a bit like Georgette Heyer set in Russia, sparkling with wit and fun and eccentric and lovable characters. I couldn’t tell you much else about it now, except that I worked out it was the sequel to another book called The Troika Belle which for some time, I searched for in vain. My reading habits and I moved on over more years than I care to remember and then, out of the blue a few weeks ago, I came across The Troika Belle in a second hand book shop!
It was a fading 1960s paperback with a not totally inspiring cover featuring a couple in a sledge – the eponymous troika! – against a snowy background. But I grabbed it anyway, instantly reminded of the fun I’d had with its sequel when I was sixteen. Being much more mature and critical these days, I knew it was unlikely to have the same effect, but guess what? It did .
Set in Russia in 1812 and moving on to London, Paris and Vienna, The Troika Belle tells the adventures of Sasha, the illegitimate son of a Russian nobleman close to the Tsar, and the leader of the wilder army officer set in St Petersburg. During one wild night’s drinking, he shoots an important foreign visitor to prevent said visitor killing his gypsy mistress, and is instantly banished to his country estate. Furious at this unfair fall from grace, constantly drunk and dreading boredom, he can’t decide whether to take with him his gypsy mistress or the eager princess he’s expected to marry. Instead, he finds himself travelling with Lisa, his step-mother’s sixteen year old, well-born companion who adores him. And so the adventures begin.
I won’t spoil the story by outlining it all here, but it is well worth the read to everyone who enjoys adventurous historical romance in the old-fashioned style. I don’t think anyone writes in this vein anymore, which is a real shame. Light and witty like Georgette Heyer, with an innocent but feisty young heroine and a lovable, rakish hero, peppered with larger than life secondary characters, both humorous and big-hearted, like Aunt Hon and the General, to say nothing of a young nobleman turned bandit and a shy English duke struggling to live up to the reputation of his wild and popular late brother.
The book is pure, sparkling fun, full of adventures, sub-plots and misunderstandings and an excellent happily ever after. More than this, it also evokes the unusual historical setting just as wonderfully as Ms Heyer managed hers. We have lush costumes and period balls, historic events and conferences, and characters who’re very much part of their time, class and country.
The story isn’t all froth, however. We have the awful war of 1812. Plus, Sasha is genuinely dangerous. Through Lise’s eyes, we see the unsavoury threat presented by an indulged young rake on an extended selfish, self-pitying bender. And although he is basically a good-hearted man and does his best to save Lisa’s reputation once he sobers up, his dark side does re-emerge later in the story. All the same, we do love him as the archetypal wild and brooding hero, with a genius for military tactics which stands everyone in good stead during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. He does grow as a character too, accepting responsibility, and learning the value of love as opposed to the somewhat careless lusts he indulges with his sophisticated, married princess. And he does genuinely take care of Lisa to the best of his ability.
Some of the sweetest parts of the story are the quiet times on Sasha’s estate when Lisa and Sasha are so comfortable together and it becomes clear to the reader, if not immediately to Sasha, that the two really do belong together.
But Lisa is very young at the start of the story and has to grow up. Mostly through her obsession with Sasha, she does behave badly occasionally, and knows it, which again makes her believable and real. But as she matures so do her feelings for Sasha. Adolescent infatuation develops into equally believable, lasting love.
It all makes for a rollicking and adventurous yarn across war-torn Europe. And the ending, when it finally comes, is totally satisfying. You don’t get the impression that Lisa and Sasha will ever be a boring, settled married couple, but they will be a happy and fun married couple! That works for me