Book Review: The Right-Hand Man by K.M. Peyton

K.M. Peyton writes for children/young adults and is famous for her pony stories and, of course, her Flambards novels that were adapted for television back in the 1970s.

The Right-Hand Man is one of her historical novels. First published in 1977, it has been re-printed a few times, but not with such an eye catching jacket as the first edition. The illustrator is Victor Ambrus who has a very distinctive style and has illustrated many children's books including his own.

The Right-Hand Man is set in 1818. Twenty-year old Ned Rowlands is a stagecoach driver with a reputation for speed and recklessness. He is the "... youngest, and certainly the most desirable (not to say the cleverest, cheekiest and most conceited) of the coachmen on the Harwich Road ...".

Arriving at Ingatestone behind schedule, Ned is taken to task by Lord Ironminster, who was once the best dragsman in the land before an accident left him disabled. Still disgruntled by their earlier encounter, Ned is not pleased when Ironminster sits beside him on the box seat for the next leg of the journey. As the journey progresses, Ned and Ironminster soon find they share a common love of horses, coach driving and speed. During their conversation, Ironminster reveals he is looking for a coachman and offers the position to Ned, but Ned declines preferring a life of public driving to that of being a liveried servant and all it entails.

When he loses his job, Ned has no option but to reconsider Ironminster's offer. Presenting himself at Threadgolds, Ironminster's estate, he learns the real reason he has been offered the position. Ironminster has a long standing racing wager against his cousins, James and Rupert Saville, to drive a coach from the gates of Threadgolds to Whitechapel Church in under seventy-five minutes, the prize £5,000. To outwit his cousins and win the wager, all he needs is Ned's help. A partnership is formed and an unusual friendship develops between the pair.

However, there is more at stake than the prize money. Ironminster is not a well man and racing carriages is a dangerous pursuit. Should he die without marrying and producing an heir, James Saville stands to inherit his estate. The dowager Lady Ironminster has found her son a suitable wife, but Ironminster's affections lay elsewhere.

When a tragic accident occurs, Ned is arrested and imprisoned in Newgate. Many rally round to help him, but it is the sacrifice Ironminster makes that shows Ned the true depth of their friendship.

I borrowed this book from the library, but loved it so much that I immediately purchased a second-hand copy (with illustrations) to add to my keeper shelf. From the first chapter to the last I was completely immersed in Ned Rowland's world. The minutia of being a coachman is skilfully woven into the story and there is lots of other period detail.

Not being a horsey person, I was unaware of the skill required to drive a coach-and-four. Now I appreciate there is much more to it than holding onto the reins and giving them a twitch now and then. There are so many variables to consider. I have also learned the value of a good leader, what a wheeler is and how easily disaster can strike.

The carriage racing scenes are spectacular and are responsible for a few heart-stopping moments. At times Ned and Ironminster behave like a pair of Georgian hoons, but this only adds to the excitement and emphasises how dangerous a mixture of speed, horses, bad roads and a disregard for the road rules can be.

The story unfolds from Ned's perspective as he reflects on the day that changed his life forever and the ten months that followed. Even though Ned is more comfortable with horses than people, he is well aware of the effect his "beguiling brown eyes" and his other physical attributes have on the female population, young and old, but is totally unprepared for the depth of feeling Ironminster arouses in him. As he becomes emotionally involved in his new master's life, Ned begins to understand the significance of his role as Ironminster's right-hand man and the true meaning of courage.

The Right-Hand Man is a fast-paced historical adventure. Everything about this novel, the characters, the plot, the setting and K.M. Peyton's expertise in bringing it all together, makes it a very enjoyable and engrossing tale of an unusual friendship. Ned and Ironminster will live on in your mind long after their story is told.

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