The Rose of Sebastopol – Katharine McMahon

Title: The Rose of Sebastopol
Author: Katharine McMahon
ISBN: 9780399155468
Pages: 384
Release Date: March 5, 2009
Publisher: Putnam Adult
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3 out of 5

From the publisher’s website:

In 1854, beautiful, adventurous Rosa Barr travels to the Crimean battlefield with Florence Nightingale’s nursing corps. A headstrong idealist, longing to break out of the rigid confines of life as a young lady, Rosa is determined to make a difference in the world.

For Mariella Lingwood, Rosa’s cousin, the war is contained within the pages of her scrapbook, in her London sewing circle, and in the letters she receives from her fiancé, Henry—a celebrated surgeon who has also volunteered to work within the shadow of the guns. When Henry falls ill and is sent to recuperate in Italy, Mariella impulsively decides she must go to him. But upon her arrival at his lodgings, she makes a heartbreaking discovery: Rosa has disappeared without a trace. Following the trail of her elusive cousin, Mariella’s epic journey takes her from the domestic restraint of Victorian London to the ravaged landscape of the Crimea and the tragic city of Sebastopol, where she encounters Rosa’s dashing stepbrother, a reckless cavalry officer whose complex past —and future—is inextricably bound up with her own. As Mariella’s quest leads her deeper into the dark heart of the conflict, her ordered world begins to crumble and she finds she has much to learn about secrecy, faithfulness, and love.

The Rose of Sebastopol takes place during the Crimean War, which took place from 1853-56. I didn’t know much about this war or this time period, so I was looking forward to reading this book and learning more about the era.

The Rose of Sebastopol is full of rich historical details that any fan of this genre will appreciate. The author really knows how to set a mood and create an atmosphere of history. The details of battle are disturbing and vivid, and just as easy to picture in your mind as Mariella’s needlepoint. McMahon took painstaking care with her details, and it really pays off. Also, it is clear that she researched the Crimean War very thoroughly and that comes across in the novel.

The book jumps timeframes quite often, varying between three different time periods. Though the beginning of the chapter tells the reader what time period they are reading about, the jumps are very jarring. It hinders the development of the book because it makes the whole novel very confusing. Also, towards the end of the novel when the suspense is building, the last thing the reader wants is to be taken back to England, to an earlier time period. It’s a device that isn’t used very well in The Rose of Sebastopol.

However, my biggest problem with the novel was the two main characters, Mariella and Rosa. Mariella was a complete pushover who couldn’t make up her mind and decide what she wants. It’s really frustrating to read about her following Rosa around, and then complaining about it. It seems like other characters make almost every major decision for her through the course of the novel and she merely follows their decisions. At the end, when she finally seems to come into her own, it’s a bit too late to redeem the character. Rosa, on the other hand, is completely selfish and seems to think of no one but herself. She is flighty, and though she claims to care about Mariella more than anything, her words ring hollow in the face of her deeds. It’s very difficult to say whether she redeems herself over the course of the novel, but in my opinion she doesn’t really. It’s hard to enjoy a book when you don’t like either of the main characters.

Despite the excellent historical details of The Rose of Sebastopol, the novel falls flat due to the unsympathetically drawn characters, the jarring time jumps, and the fact that the novel is overlong. If you are interested in this time period, you might enjoy this novel, but otherwise I’d steer clear.


  1. I’m actually quite interesting in the time period… I’ve been looking for non-fiction books about the Crimean War, but it might be interesting to read a fiction “account” too. Thanks for the tip.

  2. Thanks for the review. I would like to try “girly” historical fiction (as Booking Mama calls it) and I’m glad to know not to read this one.

  3. aw! Too bad you didn’t like the book better! I would have eagerly picked it up just for the cover.. what a beautiful cover! but after your review, I don’t think I will be in a hurry to pick this one up. Thanks!:)

  4. And you’ve read “The Reader”? Can’t wait for your review of that one!
    btw, I am reading Guernsay Literary and potato Peel pie society now.. i am liking it until now! you should pick it soon too!

  5. I’m very interested in the time period and the area, but it will be hard to get into for me if the characters are as unlikable for me as they were for you… Let’s see!

  6. Yikes. Marcia and I are planning on doing this one for a By the Chapter chat. I hope we’ll like it better. I am interested in the time period so hopefully that will help.

  7. No matter how interesting the time period if the characters fall flat then I tend to lose interest. Thanks for the warning.

  8. Wow, this time period would be fascinating to read about. I will have to take your comments into account should I pick this one up to read. I had heard this was a good book.

    I really have a tough time with spineless characters who complain, but do nothing to change their lives…and jarring time frame switches are not my favorite either.

  9. Ah, to the bottom of the TBR pile it goes!

  10. That’s disappointing. I enjoyed Katharine McMahon’s earlier books but she seems to have lost something recently.

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