Reviewed by Chris
TITLE: Seven Summer Nights
AUTHOR: Harper Fox
LENGTH: 388 pages
RELEASE DATE: November 30, 2016
It’s 1946, and the dust of World War Two has just begun to settle. When famous archaeologist Rufus Denby returns to London, his life and reputation are as devastated as the city around him.
He’s used to the most glamorous of excavations, but can’t turn down the offer of a job in rural Sussex. It’s a refuge, and the only means left to him of scraping a living. With nothing but his satchel and a mongrel dog he’s rescued from a bomb site, he sets out to investigate an ancient church in the sleepy village of Droyton Parva.
It’s an ordinary task, but Droyton is in the hands of a most extraordinary vicar. The Reverend Archie Thorne has tasted action too, as a motorcycle-riding army chaplain, and is struggling to readjust to the little world around him. He’s a lonely man, and Rufus’s arrival soon sparks off in him a lifetime of repressed desires.
Rufus is a combat case, amnesiac and shellshocked. As he and Archie begin to unfold the archaeological mystery of Droyton, their growing friendship makes Rufus believe he might one day recapture his lost memories of the war, and find his way back from the edge of insanity to love.
It’s summer on the South Downs, the air full of sunshine and enchantment. And Rufus and Archie’s seven summer nights have just begun…
“Do you think we can go back to it?”
Archie frowned in concern. Rufus had retained a bright lucidity since their departure from Farley Cross, his ease and confidence growing with every mile they put behind them, but his damage was still done, incontrovertibly written into the scars on his brow. “We’re on our way. You don’t have to worry anymore.”
“Not like that. I mean… if you’ve been in a perfect place for a perfect time, can you return to that perfection? Or will it be different, like two photographic exposures of the same view?”
“I don’t know.”
Seven Summer Nights came out about a year ago, but I completely missed it due to the fact that November last year was a bit of a shit show and I was barely even sleepwalking thru everyday life in order to just function. So a lot of books slipped thru the cracks and I’ve been trying my best to go back and catch up on what I missed.
Here we get the story of Rufus Denby, an archaeologist who after the end of the war is on a small Mediterranean island for an archaeological dig, hoping to find out more about the temple they have recently uncovered. He, however, in the ruins, suffers a flashback and attacks one of his partners. Sent back to England in disgrace (though, luckily, not under arrest) he loses his job with the British Museum. A friend, in an effort to help, alerts him to the need of an archaeologist at a small church in Sussex, where interesting murals have been uncovered during the restoration. Rufus is by no means the right man for the job, but he is also broke, homeless, and on the brink of collapse. He can’t really say no.
Droyton is just about everything you think of when you envision a small English town. It is also nothing like what you’d expect. The vicar is a motorbike-riding agnostic (if not an out-right atheist), there is mad woman who runs naked thru the woods (who may or may not be linked to the old gods), and nearly everyone has deep-dark-secrets hidden behind their calm English exteriors. All in all, Rufus might actually fit in there better than anywhere else in the world. Even more so when he finds himself falling for the town’s quite unusual vicar, Reverend Archie Thorne.
But what little peace can be found in the small town is never quite enough to fight off the world and the past that won’t stay dead and buried. Especially for a man whose whole job revolves around digging up those things long hidden underground.
I find it kinda interesting that in about the span of a week–with no fore-planning on my part–I not only read two book about archaeologist’s (the previous book being K.J. Charles’ new story, Spectred Isle), but both are set in England following the two World Wars (Charles’ book taking place in the aftermath of World War I, and Fox’s after the second). They are also both paranormals–though Seven Summer Nights is by far the lighter on this topic–and tackle the issue of what it is like to be a soldier come home from war and finding that home is not nearly as you expect it to be. And both stories do a splendid job of it…just in very different ways.
Seven Summer Nights is by far much more grounded than Spectred Isle was, though. Here the magic is much more obscure, almost unsure, and has a tendency to leave a lot open to the reader’s interpretation. What happens in the various labyrinths is never outright stated as one thing or another. I really liked this ambiguity. Sometimes I like no knowing if the magic is real or all in the heads of the characters. It makes all the actions, reactions, and choices all the more interesting. Here, for most of the story, we can’t really be sure if the crazy lady is indeed crazy…or some kind of thwarted priestess desperate to reclaim her place. Or if Archie and Rufus are affected because they went down into the labyrinth, or if the very act of going into the place that scared them somehow made them better. Like confronting their fears, and all that jazz. And I think this worked because the story really wasn’t, at its core, about the reality of the magic at all. It was about the characters and how they grow and heal throughout the course of the story.
And boy is there a lot to heal from. Not only with Rufus–who has PTSD (or shell-shock, as they call it), but who was wounded in battle and has a chunk of his memories missing–but also Archie, who is also dealing with his own case of PTSD–though nowhere near as volatile as Rufus’. And both of them are having do deal with the consequences of being gay in a world where that can get you killed. So neither of them are having an easy time of it. It is definitely more Rufus’ story, though, with us following his journey from broken man to someone who not only can trust Archie to have his back, but for Rufus to be able to trust himself again.
For the most part I really like this part of the story. Both their struggles were very well written, and even though I swear there were times I wanted to reach thru the kindle and strangle Rufus for being such a doormat, I think his actions were very much in line with his character at those parts of the story. I will say though that there are descriptions (though nothing too graphic) about some period-typical “therapy” experiments that I found hard to read. We don’t see anything on page, but it doesn’t make you hurt any less for the character.
While I wouldn’t call this romance a slow-burn, it was hardly a wildfire either. I enjoyed it, but there is no denying that at times it felt a bit hurry-up-and-wait. Which, for the time period, makes sense, since they could hardly conduct their lover affair under open air. Didn’t make me want to shove them in a closest, so they could just make out already, any less. The time it does take them to get their HEA does mean that you really buy their love for each other, though. I’m kinda built for these kinds of romances so I really enjoyed it.
However, the reason this is not quite as high of a rating as it could have gotten is that this story had a way of talking itself in circles around the actual plot. The characters had a tendency to dither and stall whenever a new plot point tried to push the story on, and boy did it get tiresome after a while. It happening a few times I can understand, but it really started to stall out as the story went on, and I actually found myself saying, out loud, “get on with it already,” at the climax of this book. Not a good sign. The slow pace worked in some places–it lended itself very nicely to giving Droyton a very small-town feel–but in others it was out of place and more than a little frustrating.
I also had a hard time with the forgiving nature of the MCs in regards to several characters and their actions. Archie and Rufus were just so damn nice to everyone. It annoyed me to no end. Which I think says a lot more about myself than it does about the book or the characters. I just wanted them to stop forgiving all these asshats. Especially the repeat offenders. But I do get that it was not in the nature of the MCs…but that didn’t make it any less vexing.
Despite the slow-ish pace in some parts, and the doormat tendencies of some of the characters, I did end up really liking this story. All faults aside, this is very well written, and brings this time and place to life in such a way that you can easily buy almost everything about it. The magical aspects–be they real or imagined–lend a mysterious air to the story, and you can’t help but find yourself not wanting to put down the book till you find out exactly what is going on. If you like historicals set in the WWII era, I think you will really enjoy this–though it does focus more on what comes after the war than what goes on during it.