book review: the secrets of emberwild by stephenia h. mcgee
Warnings: #1 This is a long review, so pull up a chair and grab a bowl of popcorn. You’ll be here awhile. #2 When I read a review, I want substantial information. So I will not skimp on the details. Which may mean some spoilers, so watch out.#3 Just because I rate a book two stars doesn’t always mean it’s inherently bad. It doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it either. And it certainly doesn’t mean I have any issues with the author or with the book itself. My review is simply a reflection of my reading experience and my thoughts and opinions—nothing else. Thank you.
Synopsis: Nora Fenton wants to race horses and be an independent woman. The rest of her family, however, would much rather tug the puppet strings of her life hither and yon while cowering behind their lies and secrets, preventing her from living her dreams. When a mysterious newcomer is hired on to train Nora’s prized colt, those secrets are slowly unraveled to reveal the lie everything Nora has ever known was founded upon.
Introduction: (Yes, I’m including intros now. Sorry.) Despite common misconception, I do not enjoy being the one-in-a-million reader who gives books low ratings and negative reviews. This is painful, especially considering how excited I was to jump into this novel. Whenever an indie author gets published with a company like Revell or Bethany House, I absolutely want to support them—and Stephenia H. McGee is one such author, not to mention one I’ve been following for a while and have enjoyed a couple of books by already.
My initial thoughts when I picked up The Secrets of Emberwild was that it would be suspenseful, mysterious, sweet, romantic, and unique—and it has lived up to that description for a lot of readers. However, there were some elements I just couldn’t overlook, and after a few chapters, I had to force myself to keep reading.
I highly recommend checking out Joanne’s review here on Goodreads, because she sums up pretty much all of my thoughts without my unnecessary ranting!
What I Loved: Let’s face it, I loved the whole horse theme. I’m not a huge horse girl at all, but horses have been a prevalent part of my life…mainly because of all the horse shows/movies I’ve seen over the years. And also because of where I live in South Georgia, where every other person has a horse in their backyard (or thereabouts) and so many folks are part of the rodeo—like some of my cousins and my dad’s boss’ daughter.
So naturally, even though I’m not crazy about it, I’m attracted to it, and I love how detailed and immersive McGee was into that aspect of the story. She knew what she was talking about, and I appreciated that.
I also found her writing style clear and easy to follow. Not stilted or clunky or too wordy (is there such a thing, though?)—just every smooth and balanced.
Lastly, I liked how some of the initial “bad guys” of the story turned out to be be good! *cheers* I feel like so many stories keep their secondary or minor characters (especially the mean ones) flat and unchanging, so it was nice to see characters like Nora’s mom and even Roger with layers and good intentions.
AND MR. DALE. He was wonderful. I adored him. SUCH refresher from the typical unwanted older suitor—even though he was still unwanted, older, and discriminated against because of his age (and, bless him, his young son). *wraps Georgie in a hug and holds him tight*
What I Didn’t Love: *sighs* I’m sure y’all have guessed by now...I didn’t love Nora. At all. Y’all, as far as feminists go, I can tolerate one that’s actually well-written, authentic, and period-accurate. Nora, however, felt so cliché. She literally just spouted the same stereotypical lines that every feminist character does, and after a while, I felt like this aspect of her character (which was, in all honesty, the entirety of her character) was forced. In fact, I’d hoped her arc would unfold and she would change over the course of the story.
Nope. No growth or change on hers or the hero Silas’ part either.
Usually a feminist heroine is paired with a hero I adore, but not so with The Secrets of Emberwild. Silas had little personality or development—and in the end, his romance with Nora followed in suit, feeling flat and unemotional. There was no real tension or connection between them, sadly. (Besides, once you get into the fundamental beliefs of the third-wave feminism infused into a first-wave-era novel, you see how it’s impossible to have a romantic relationship with a feminist. But that’s a story for another day—or the comments, if you’re interested!)
And even though I think the concept had a lot of potential, it too became rather cliché. I saw through every character, plotline, and secret within a few chapters, and I found myself wishing the characters (specifically Nora) would clue in and figure things out already!
Finally, the faith content. Yes, there were a couple mentions of God, but nothing substantial. Heck, no one even went to church! And y’all know I’m the last one to push that as if it represents salvation, but that’s how lacking this was in the spirituality department. I understand Christians writing “clean” books rather than overtly Christian books (NOT THAT I AGREE IN THE LEAST, mind you), but PLEASE. Let’s acknowledge the single most important aspect of history—God. Whether you’re laying it on thick with sermons and scripture or just mentioning prayers over lunch, it doesn’t matter. Even Margret Mitchell, who was on par with culture today, took the time to represent Christianity as an integral part of pretty much everyone’s lives back in the day.
It’s this lack of Christianity and true faith that makes the feminism stand out even more. Had Nora, as Joanna said in her review, taken her complaints, struggles, and issues to God and relied on Him to carry her through rather than herself, she would’ve been such a loveable heroine. She’d have been kind, thoughtful, and happier, rather than discontent, impolite, and bitter. *sighs* But alas.
The crazy thing, though, is one of the lines in the last couple chapters: “She’d learned that while she didn’t need a man to be complete—only God could touch and heal the places deep within her to make her whole—having him at her side made life more abundant.” I want to love this quote, because it is so powerful, but, y’all. This is such a lie on Nora’s part. She never sought God. He never healed her. He never made her whole. He was never present in her life at all, because she had no relationship with him. I have no idea where this line came from. I so sorely wish it had been the main theme, but it wasn’t. The theme was simply that only Nora could make Nora whole, Nora had to do what Nora wanted, only Nora’s dreams mattered, and Nora didn’t need anyone else for anything ever.
I wish it were true, but no one can truly be independent of other people (much less of God), and selfish, prideful attitudes like this always come before destruction.
Okay. No more ranting now. I’m sure y’all understand. I just…I get so caught up in characters’ lives, it physically hurts. *chuckles ruefully* In fact, I couldn’t sleep last night because of the ending to the book I’m currently editing. *sobs for her precious Nathan*
Long Story Short: The Secrets of Emberwild, like all stories, had great potential. However, Nora’s character and arc (or lack thereof) made her seem angry, selfish, and poorly developed, and without the necessary relationship with Jesus, she, Silas, and their romance feel flat. I liked the concept, but it too seemed a little cliché and formulaic.
If you’re a horse fan or looking for an easy historical read, this novel might just be for you! But if you’re like me and prefer some depth (and less anti-men agenda), then you might be in need of something else. To be honest, if anything, I feel more chauvinistic, pro-men, and pro-patriarchy after reading this than I did before!
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. All opinions expressed are my own.
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about the author
Stephenia H. McGee is a multi-published author of stories of faith, hope, and healing set in the Deep South. She lives in Mississippi, where she is a mom of two rambunctious boys, writer, dreamer, and husband spoiler. Her novel The Cedar Key was a 2021 Faith, Hope, and Love Readers’ Choice award winner. A member of the ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) and the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution), she loves all things books and history. Stephenia also loves connecting with readers and can often be found having fun with her Faithful Readers Team on Facebook. For more on books and upcoming events and to connect with Stephenia, visit her at www.StepheniaMcGee.com.
Are y'all getting tired of feminist heroines too? Or are you just tired of my constant ranting? *winks* How to do you think faith and spiritual growth affects character arcs? Are you a horse fan? Have you ever ridden a horse before? I wanna hear all about it in the comments!