Typically, World History is not my thing. So when I saw that my latest book to review was set during the French Revolution I expected to be indifferent (or maybe even bored), but soon found myself pleasantly swept along by this story of love, betrayal, and jealousy. Nemesis and the Swan is an excellent introduction to the root causes of the French Revolution and its ties to the American Revolution, while also offering up a satisfying amount of fictional mystery and romance.
The story is told through the eyes of the main character, Helene, who is noble by birth, but in love with a commoner. As the reader, you are transported back and forth between Helene’s current situation of imprisonment for unspecified crimes, and her past as a French aristocrat turned bookshop-keeper and revolutionary. It is clear from the beginning of the story that Helene finds the idea of arranged marriage due to her duties as a member of the nobility as distasteful, and that she believes (at least to some extent) in the idea of equality among the classes, and perhaps the sexes. The book does a good job of showing her increasing acceptance of these ideas as she begins to experience more of the world, and as she meets more common people who are both warm and intelligent…a combination she has not seen much of in her gilded world. One word of caution: one of the main antagonists in the story comes close to sexually assaulting Helene, and he continues to threaten and bully her for the rest of the book, which may be triggering for some readers.
The mystery of the story revolves around Helene’s true identity, making her out to be a Helen of Troy like character for her nemesis…which could be her mother, or the wife of the man who loves her. Nemesis and the Swan is full of mythological references, romantic intrigue, and perhaps even murder. The characters love art, music, and philosophy, focusing extensively on the themes of optimism and realism, and whether or not they can complement each other. This is a book that can easily be consumed in a day; the story flows quickly, and seamlessly weaves the historical references with the fictional story and characters. I can see it being a hit with high school students as extra credit or supplementary reading to a unit on the French Revolution, or with adults who love a good historical fiction romance.
In our current world of pandemic driven lock-downs, social distancing, and the accompanying feelings of anxiety and loneliness, Helene’s realization that she is worthy of retaining hope, and of feeling joy, is a welcome reminder that there is always a source of light to drive back the darkness. We just have to be patient enough to allow the light to find us.