I quite enjoyed the two previous Seton books I’ve read; her strength is in writing well-detailed historical novels with strong, entertaining plots, and in that regard this one is no different. I was consistently entertained and kept wanting to know what happened next. And I learned a fair bit about the Jacobite rebellions, and some about colonial Virginia. The settings are well-done and enjoyable to read about. Seton’s books are certainly more immersive than those of many other historical fiction writers, who tend to skip over the description and assume readers will fill it in for themselves; Seton takes worldbuilding as seriously as many a fantasy writer and I always appreciate that.
I’m of two minds about the characters. Charles Radcliffe is possibly the most complex character here, and his exploits are interesting to read about. His daughter Jenny takes center stage for most of the book, and she’s just okay--she has her moments, but Seton’s rhapsodizing about her beauty and inviting us to feel sorry for her because other women are jealous and therefore dislike her often tends to overwhelm her actual personality. Her friend Evelyn is the more interesting of the two, and with far less screen time. And, unfortunately, a lot of Jenny’s time is spent on a quite unromantic romance (I concur with the other reviewers who called this the least interesting part of the book), which Seton nevertheless seems to expect us to find romantic. It reaches the height of silliness with a contrived “devil worship” episode, which, while one of the most important scenes in the book as far as its effect on the plot goes, takes up all of three pages including build-up and immediate aftermath, making it near impossible to take seriously--and it was a goofy idea besides.
Finally, every time I review an Anya Seton book I find myself writing some variation on: “Overall, this book has aged well for something written 50-60 years ago, but....” What comes after the “but” is always different. In this case, it’s a particularly unfortunate sequence from which it appears that Seton realized it’s a really bad thing to hit or rape one’s spouse, but considered such actions easily forgiveable if the offending spouse apologizes and promises never to do so again, and furthermore, that that person can show their continued love by making decisions for the other person without asking their preferences one way or the other. (Also, a kid with a limp and webbed fingers is better off dead? Huh?)
Meanwhile, the prose itself is serviceable, although the foreshadowing is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Three stars is perhaps a bit generous in my view, but Devil Water is overall an entertaining book and well-executed, although not on the same level as Katherine or The Winthrop Woman.