After reading Mr. Conroy’s extremely entertaining alternative history book 1920: America’s Great War, I had high hopes for this novel. Not only did it seem to have an interesting premise regarding "what if" the British had won the American Revolution, but it also promised to delve into the idea of how would liberty survive in a conquered country that has lost its greatest leaders. This intriguing alternative world coupled with the author’s proven ability to write an easily digested, fast-paced, and exciting narrative seemed to make this book a can’t miss for me. However, for reasons I will outline later, Liberty: 1784 was a disappointment.
The whole concept of this book revolves around one simple change in history, specifically who won the Battle of the Capes in 1781. In real history, the French fleet won said naval battle, turning back the British relief ships sent to aid General Cornwallis. As Michael Lewis, the author of The History of the British Navy, puts it: "The Battle of Chesapeake Bay [alternately known as the Battle of the Capes] was one of the decisive battles of the world. Before it, the creation of the United States of America was possible; after it, it was certain." However, in Liberty: 1784, history has been turned upside down, and the victorious British navy brings relief to Cornwallis’ army, allowing him to win the Battle of Yorktown and thus the war.
From this starting point, Mr. Conroy crafts an eerily similar but far different America. One in which the colonies’ unconditionally surrender to Britain. The people are adrift, bereft of their leaders, as the Founding Fathers are either imprisoned or sent to London to be beheaded before a vengeful King George. From northern Massachusetts to Georgia, the land is an occupied territory, governed by General Cornwallis and the cities controlled by his victorious army. Freedom is something that is not openly spoken of, for fear of being further tormented by loyalist cronies of the Crown. In fact, things are so bleak that people begin to abandon their homes and farms to disappear into the west. Rumors say these travelers are heading to sanctuary. A place where the few remaining American leaders have fled into exile with a remnant of the Continental Army, there to create a new country in the continental interior. A land of freedom that is known only as Liberty!
At first, the British care little if American malcontents vanish into the endless forests of the interior. Good riddance! But then a European spark ignites the powder keg that the American peace rests upon: the French Revolution. This savage uprising against the French monarchy sends King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette fleeing to England, where King George grants them refuge and determines to put an end to the revolutionary spirit that is spreading across the world like a plague. Thus, the enraged monarch sends an army to France but also dispatches another to America; the western force tasked with finding and destroying the final bastion of liberty on the North American continent!
The story that follows is interesting enough, especially how Mr. Conroy gives a reader numerous viewpoint characters - both historically significant and totally fictional - to see all sides of the conflict. Everyday men and women play major roles in the action along side famous names such as Benjamin Franklin, Lord Cornwallis, Benedict Arnold, and the villainous Banastre Tarleton (most well known for his role as Mel Gibson’s adversary in the movie The Patriot.) Each character’s story blends with the others to form a top to bottom picture of this desperate battle for liberty. Yet, even with this said, there were major problems with Liberty:1784 that I will briefly touch upon.
1) Too much sex. I am not a prude. I’m fine with sex that moves the story along. I realize that hundred of years ago people had sex. However, in this book, it seemed like all the female characters were either being forced to perform sexual acts, getting raped or pulling up their skirts and mounting their men quite a lot. So much so that it detracted from the main story, which was a desperate struggle for survival and the future of the American colonies.
2) Too modern in tone. After reading 1920: America’s Great War, I knew that this novel would not accurately reflect the language, culture and social norms of eighteenth century America and Britain, so it did not surprise me when the characters spoke in a modern, twenty-first century voice. However, the language was so modern in this novel that it became totally unbelievable. We have women saying things like "Fairer and weaker sex my ass." We have men and women talking about social issues like they are drinking coffee in a local Starbucks. Honestly, it was hard to maintain the belief that these people were living in the 1700s with the language being so modern and their outlook on life so present day in tone.
3) Farfetched history. Even though Mr. Conroy’s alternate world was somewhat plausible, it took too many leaps of faith to believe this type of story would have ever happened. I’ll try to point out a few without ruining the book for anyone.
A) Conroy has a trickle of American revolutionaries setting up a new country in the heart of Native American country without any alliance with or problems from the tribes. It would seem that the natives should play a huge role in the story, but they are only minimally involved.
B) The French Revolution erupts earlier than in our real history and occurs even though the democratic movement of the time has been dealt a huge defeat by the British winning the American Revolution.
C) When the revolution breaks out, Louis XVI takes refuge in England? It doesn’t make much sense, since in real world history the French royals attempted to escape to the Queen’s family in Austria.
D) After taking in the French monarchy, King George decides to join an alliance of the European aristocracy to retaking France, but he then immediately decides to split his forces, because he has to destroy a small frontier town in America that is hoping to "hide" from the British military? Just cannot see where Britain would be concerned enough to send an army.
All in all, Liberty: 1784 was an okay read; it was well-paced, fun in many parts and had enough twists and turns to keep a reader from focusing on the fact that you know the good guys (Americans) are going to win no matter what happens. Mr. Conroy also must be given credit for going out of his way to focus on several female characters and give women the page time that they deserve in this type of novel. However, this book just did not live up to my high expectations for it, so for that reason, it was a disappointment to me. Do not take this to mean I am abandoning any further reading of Mr. Conroy though, because nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I look forward to enjoying more from him in the future and would encourage you to give him a try as well.
The publisher provided this book to me for free in return for an honest review. The review above was not paid for or influenced in any way by any person, entity or organization, but is my own personal opinions.