When James “Jem” Bradley decides to sell himself into indentured servitude in order to save his sister and brother-in-law from destitution, he has no idea how his life will change. Jem knows he’s trading in teaching for hard labor, but not much else. And when he attracts the eye of a powerful landowner, Jem finds himself in an impossible situation: compromise his morals or risk endangering his family. A near fatal beating from the same landowner leaves Jem dependent upon the kindness of local blacksmith, William Middleton.
Middleton has no use for bullies and there’s no doubt Tanner is one of those. The man owns half the land around town and throws his weight around as a result. When Jem comes to him broken and bleeding, William is determined to free Jem from his indenture. But when Tanner turns up dead, Jem becomes suspect number one. With his life in shambles and the town turned against him, Jem has to decide if he will stand and fight, or be forced to flee the place he’s come to call home.
I decided to read Solemn Contract for our 2020 Reading Challenge Month as the author, Morgan Cheshire was new to me. The overall plot was intriguing because it deals with indentures and that just isn’t something that pops often in historical fiction. Unfortunately, the book was rather uneven and, while the basic storyline was intact, a lot of Solemn Contract felt jumbled and chaotic.
William and Jem are sympathetic characters, especially Jem, who suffers on more than one occasion for simply trying to do a good deed. There is a romance here, but it isn’t well developed. It comes out of nowhere for the most part and while Jem and William are a good fit for one another, I didn’t feel as though we got much relationship building.
The first and last third of Solemn Contract have noticeable pacing issues. Events happen either too quickly or too chaotically, leaving them no time to really develop. There’s just no breathing room for things to evolve or occur within a believable frame of reference. Time passes quickly, sometimes during the jump from one paragraph to another, but this only adds to the chaotic nature of the of plot and how events unfold. There are times when it seems the author is rushing through this or that to get the next major story point, but in doing so, readers get dragged along rather than being allowed to immerse themselves in the journey.
The antagonist is pretty much a one note thug. While there is technically a scene of non-con on page, I would say it was subtle, however be aware if that is a trigger. The real threat to Jem and William comes from the vicious court of public opinion and I thought this aspect of the book was good. It was painful to see Jem treated as a pariah time and time again, but it strengthened his bond to William and was really the only time we see relationship development between the two of them.
Solemn Contract is an interesting historical and had plenty of potential, but ended up hampered by problematic pacing and a plot line that fails to slow down long enough to let readers catch up. There are some positives though, and Solemn Contract isn’t without moments of enjoyment. If you adore historicals, there might be enough good to balance out the bad for you overall.
This review is part of our Reading Challenge Month for New-to-Me Author Week! Leave a relevant comment below and you will be entered to win one of FIVE $20 JMS Books bookstore gift cards (you can see the full event prize list here)! Commenters will also be entered to win our amazing grand prize sponsored by NineStar Press: a Kindle Paperwhite loaded with 50 NineStar Press books! You can get more information on our Challenge Month here (including all the contest rules) and more details on New-to-Me Author Week here.