Publisher: Bold Strokes Books
Promising Hearts is the sequel to an earlier Radclyffe novel Innocent Hearts. It brings back the characters of Jessie and Kate, partners who are running a ranch in Montana; Mae, the kind-hearted madam of the local saloon; and introduces Dr. Vance Phelps, a one-armed female Civil War veteran.
Vance arrives in the Montana Territory under less than positive circumstances. In the last skirmish before Lee surrendered at Appomattox, she was wounded badly enough that she lost her left arm from the elbow down. She had faced a difficult enough future as a female surgeon in the 1860s. To be a one-armed female surgeon seems impossible, so she has arrived in the West with her confidence shaken and her career appearing to be at a dead end. Instead, Vance finds a kindred spirit in Jessie, a friend in Kate, and Mae, a woman who accepts Vance exactly like she is and only wants to help her heal. This quartet has a lot to deal with. It would seem to be enough that they are lesbians leading an unconventional lifestyle in a small town on the frontier in the 19th century, but they also have to contend with cowboys, rustlers and the town's society ladies. They draw on strengths each one has to survive and carve out a place for each of them in the community while discovering the ability to love deeply.
Radclyffe's historic detail is excellent. She is able to describe things so that you feel as if you're in the Civil War medical tent, cutting off arms and legs as bullets tear by. Or you can visualize the setting as Jessie and Vance creep up a valley to try and lay a trap for deadly rustlers. Nothing in the book is particular to Montana, so the story easily could have been set in Colorado or Wyoming, but it definitely is a western. All four of her characters have admirable qualities, but, for a lesbian novel, the characters of Jessie and especially Vance are written to be almost too masculine. The characters are extremely believable, but the reader may have to keep reminding herself that they were women. Their mannerisms, behavior and speech scream male. This isn't a matter of them being "butch." If someone wanted to cast this story for a movie and substitute men for those two roles, little of the actual story would be changed or lost. In her other books, Radclyffe has a tendency to write one of a pair as more masculine, but she goes beyond her normal boundary in this book.
On the whole though it is an enjoyable, well-written story, with the romance that is expected in a Radclyffe novel. Promising Hearts is one of Radclyffe's better written books and certainly an enjoyable story to read.