Book Review: “Forgiven: A Historical Novel” by Geoff Lawson

I picked this book up because it is set during the Boer War. How many books do you hear about set during the Boer War? I mean, of course, this isn’t the only one, but compared to the seemingly-endless army of books set during, say, World War II, it’s a relatively exclusive club. Come to that, how many people today even know what the Boer War was? It’s not something that gets a lot of attention. Maybe people find it, as one of my history teachers never tired of saying, “Boer-ing”?

Well, it was anything but! People lived and died and enjoyed triumphs and tragedies even before 1939, you know. Forgiven is concerned with telling the story of a young man’s experiences of all these. Richard Wilson is his name, a New Zealander who falls in love with the lovely Rachel Purdue. Rachel is a lovely girl who has had her reputation unfairly tarnished by gossip, which has left her without suitors in her hometown. She and Richard soon become engaged, but are forbidden by her family to marry immediately.

While waiting, Richard gets the not-so-bright idea to join up in the British Empire’s fight against the Boers in South Africa. Rachel, who is a bit sensitive and fearful of betrayal, is furious with him, as well she should be, for making this huge decision without consulting her. But, Richard has given his word, and has no choice but to keep it. And so he ships off to the Cape Colony.

In addition to fighting the Boers, he encounters a ruthless Prussian spy and a haughty English aristocrat, Lady Sarah. Initially, he and she despise one another–he sees her as a stuck-up noblewoman, she sees him as an uncouth commoner–but over the course of their time together, they come to have a mutual respect. I really enjoyed the way their relationship evolves.

That said, one aspect of it that did surprise me was the anachronistic language. I just can’t believe that a man of the 19th century, even one as admittedly rough-around-the-edges as Richard is, would refer to a woman the way he does. Oh, he might not like her, to be sure; he might very well resent being ordered about by such a pampered princess; but he wouldn’t express it the way modern folks do. At least, everything I’ve ever read of 19th century literature indicates to me he wouldn’t.

Now, using modern dialogue in historical fiction is a common stylistic choice, and it can work. But at times, the language did seem to be period-correct. And then something modern-sounding would pop-up. It was a bit jarring.

That said, much of the history feels authentic. The author is an expert on the firearms of the era, and gives the lengthy descriptions of the weaponry, which was quite interesting. Numerous historical figures of the period, including Walter Kitchener, Koos de la Rey, and a young Winston Churchill are all referenced throughout the tale.

Overall, it’s a very well-paced story of adventure and romance, and while the author keeps the pace moving briskly, he stops to indulge every now and again in some very evocative imagery. What I like best of all was how well fleshed-out even minor characters are; it made the whole thing feel very immediate and real.

A couple other minor things that didn’t quite work for me: there’s a sub-plot involving Rachel’s ne’er-do-well brother, which not only seemed unnecessary, but was especially jarring because it was told in the third person, when the majority of the book is in the first-person, from Richard’s perspective.

Also, there was at least one thing that seemed to be a stone-cold anachronism: at one point, there is a reference to a Zane Grey novel. As near as I can tell, the earliest of Zane Grey’s work was published in 1903, and the action in Forgiven ends in 1900. It’s hardly a central plot point, but it I noticed it all the same. Given how accurate the novel is in other respects, this was very strange, and made me wonder if I was missing something. If there are any experts on the period–or Zane Grey, for that matter–who can explain what’s going on here, I’d be very grateful.

Despite these minor reservations, I definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good adventure/romance, and wants something in an uncommon setting. Give it a try.


  1. Sometimes it’s hard not to interject today’s language into the past. I hate historical dramas like HBO’s Rome and Star’s Black Sails where they overuse today’s profanity. I’ve read books set in the middle ages eating potatoes and chile peppers. New World foods. Why would he mention Zane Grey? You’re right too early. There were dime novels aplenty back then, but no one of note. When Billy the Kid was killed in a year there were over a hundred dime novels written about him, that’s how he became famous. Okay I’ll get off my soapbox. I’ll need to check this one out. You’re right there’s a lot of history before 1939.

    1. Thanks for confirming my suspicions about Zane Grey. Despite that issue, I think you’ll like this book.

  2. That’s an interesting choice. It’s one we in the UK would probably resonate with because it is part of our history.
    It also is an era when we get conflicted. It is fairly common knowledge the British Authorities used a form of concentration camp and some historians will claim this gave the Nazi a twisted moral high ground to employ them. Then others will point out the Boers were the forebears of the Afrikaners who instituted Apartheid.
    It’s a good point on the howlers which crop up in Historical novels, not just words but also modern concepts (How many stirring speeches have you encountered about freedom by someone who came from a people who historically embraced slavery- and a bit of genocide too).
    This is why I stick with writing Fantasy….you can make your own rules and facts up.

      1. Lovin’ every minute of it.
        Where else could I explain in all seriousness that one woman is the ‘father’ of another woman’s child and no one is particularly surprised that in this couple’s case, it was ‘bound to happen’

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