Liss sets his saga circa 1780 in post-Revolutionary Philadelphia, New York, and the western Pennsylvania frontier. The cast of characters includes such historical luminaries as Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and Aaron Burr. In alternating chapters between two protagonists, Captain Ethan Saunders and Joan Maycott, a woman hardened by her frontier experiences, the action focuses on a rather diabolical ploy against Hamilton’s Bank of the United States.
This newly organizing country is forming a financial structure in the early days of a successful struggle for independence. The messy business of governance brings out the rascals as well as men of courage and vision, a resurgence of entrepreneurial creativity flooded with scoundrels who seek to make their fortunes and exploit the foolish.
Saunders has a troubled past and stumbles into a role in pursuit of an ideal, the woman he hoped to marry. His name and that of his love’s father tarnished during his work as a spy for the United States government, Saunders is a private man who keeps his business to himself, frequently depending on the aid of Leonides (a slave he has yet to free for various inscrutable reasons). Clearing his good name is not a priority for Saunders, but protecting the now-married and still-beloved Cynthia Pearson is.
That he becomes involved with Hamilton and a scheme against the U.S. Treasury is entirely incidental. Whatever his future, Ethan is a pragmatist, single-minded in his purpose. He is also a drunk and a womanizer. Too long out of the game, Saunders frequently trips into the clutches of those who would do him harm, his mind usually muddled by spirits. Still, he is inordinately effective in upsetting the best laid plans of others.
Although her path will ultimately cross with that of the captain in the spring of 1871, Joan Maycott might never have met Saunders, trekking to the wild Pennsylvania frontier with husband Andrew to start a new life. The couple harbors no illusions that their future will be easy, but the barbaric nature of Pennsylvania’s western region is shocking, the men terrifying, and the violence part of everyday existence: “Our first day upon our new land showed us both the lowest depths of human greed… and the great generosity of the human heart.”
Essentially duped by a wealthy charlatan with his eye on a greater prize, the Maycotts cannot survive their decision without joining forces with neighbors in the growing whiskey trade. The cost of the Maycott’s venture is considerable, the frontier altering Joan’s perspective: “There is a name for a creature that is part one thing and part another: monster.”
While exciting, these are terrifying times as well, a new country jeopardized by the grand ambitions and greedy schemes of visionaries and crooks alike. Much like France after the revolution, the process is messy, the morality fungible, the landscape exciting, dangerous and defined by American eccentricity.