Before long, as readers know, war will be declared, the social order will crumble, and life at Stoneythorpe Hall will be forever changed.
So far, so familiar. The basic scenario has played out in numerous historical novels and at least one iconic TV show. However, this outline omits a few important facts that helps Kate Williams’ The Storms of War carve out an original niche in this well-worn turf. The de Witt family patriarch is a tradesman, and he was born in Germany. The middle-aged Sir Hugh, who takes snobbery to rude extremes, looks past his fiancée’s background because he needs her family’s money, which comes from canned meat production.
Furthermore, the de Witts had purchased Stoneythorpe from an elderly aristocratic lady five years earlier, and their new neighbors resent them. To be more specific, the townspeople hate them, a situation that becomes cruelly obvious after war breaks out and anything (and anyone) German is shunned. Despite their loyalty to England, their connections to Germany affects each of them in ways that are sometimes predictable, sometimes the opposite.
The Storms of War, first in a proposed trilogy about the de Witt family, spans the five years of WWI and narrows its focus to the viewpoints of Celia and Michael, mostly the former. We know from the prologue that Michael will find himself at the Somme, forced to lead his men “over the top” despite shell-shock and crippling anxiety. What he endures overseas is as harrowing as expected but isn't without elements of surprise.
Even more penetrating, though, are Celia’s experiences driving ambulances in France (and yes, she’s underage, so how she achieves this is a story in itself). Basing Celia’s wartime service on primary source accounts, Williams makes readers feel Celia's utter terror as she drives the unfamiliar vehicle in the pitch dark, exhausted, with wounded soldiers wailing at every bump in the road. How she accomplishes Celia’s transformation from naïve adolescent unable to conceive of a servant-free life to disillusioned, war-weary veteran over the course of 500 pages is masterful and convincing.
As several characters relate on occasion, the British royals are also of German origin, but comparisons to their country’s highest-ranking citizens don’t benefit the de Witts in the least. While these reminders provide additional context for the times the characters are living through, the royal genealogy gets a bit garbled (the Kaiser was Queen Victoria’s grandson, not her nephew). It also feels odd for the de Witt children to refer to their parents by their first names at times. Although their perspectives aren’t shown firsthand, the novel shows how Rudolf, Verena, and Emmeline are changed by the war as well.
This is a hefty, epic read, but the confident storytelling makes it easy to get carried into the de Witts’ world. For those who enjoy it and want more, the sequel, The Edge of the Fall, is already out.
In the UK, The Storms of War is published by Orion. In the US, the publisher is Pegasus, and HarperCollins published it in the UK.