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Review: Novelist David Liss gives a shot of U.S. history straight up in 'The Whiskey Trader'

Early American history is often overshadowed by the drama of the Revolution. The events that come after the war seem dry in comparison: Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists, insurrections over taxation, uncertainty about where the American experiment would lead. But David Liss (A Conspiracy of Paper, A Spectacle of Corruption) vividly reveals a brash, vibrant era. The Whiskey Rebels is a highly entertaining blend of historical fiction and swashbuckling.

Former rebel spy Ethan Saunders is, in the parlance of his day, a scoundrel. Disgraced by an accusation of treason, he lives on the fringes of society. As the novel opens, he is about to be beaten, possibly murdered, by a jealous husband.

He is rescued by two allies who draw him into an investigation of the disappearance of a prominent businessman, an associate of several members of George Washington's Cabinet.

Meanwhile, Joan Maycott, a settler on the Western frontier near Pittsburgh, is angered by the new excise tax on whiskey (she and her husband are whiskey traders). After a series of disastrous events, which she blames in part on government officials, she wants revenge.

The story begins in an almost leisurely manner, but as Ethan and Joan begin to find themselves on opposite sides of a plot against the Treasury Department, the pace quickens.

The story also features interesting secondary characters, including Kyler Lavien, an 18th century version of a Special Forces operative; Leonidas, Ethan's well-educated slave; and Lorcan Dalton, an Irishman turned backwoods distiller.

The novel isn't flawless: The plot becomes convoluted, and the action is sometimes predictable, but it is smart, page-turning fun. And though you might learn something by reading it, don't worry — your education will be painless.

Holly Fults can be reached at hfults@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2944.

The Whiskey Rebels

By David Liss

Random House, 519 pages, $26

• David Liss will be a featured author at the Times Festival of Reading

Saturday.

Review: Novelist David Liss gives a shot of U.S. history straight up in 'The Whiskey Trader' 10/18/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 3:47pm]

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