Valentine Grey tells the story of a girl who has been raised in India but returns to England for a visit and is forced to stay when her father dies. She moves in with her father's brother, Charles, and his wife, Caroline, but struggles to adapt. When Reggie, her cousin, comes home she finally has someone on her wavelength but Uncle Charles wants his son to volunteer for the Boer War. Reggie is gay and knows full well he wouldn't survive the battlefield and, besides, he wants to stay with his actor lover, Frank so Valentine secretly goes in his place.
I was surprised how much Toksvig crammed into this book. Not only do we get a proper picture of Valentine's attempts to acclimatise to London life but the war itself is vividly evoked, from the journey over there to the actual battles themselves. Nevertheless, the reader isn't overwhelmed with detail. Toksvig is economical and it seems to be the best approach.
Valentine is an excellent protagonist and certainly one who develops over time. Her reasons for going to war are much more complex than I thought they would be and the relationships with her fellow soldiers are intriguing for the layers to them as they obviously believe she's a man. There are several scenes of pure horror, not just related to battle, and one loathsome character who lingers long after you put the book down. The plot goes to places I didn't anticipate, showing various facets to war and dealing far more in reality than idealism.
Something that also surprised me was that Toksvig kept one foot in London with Reggie and Frank. This created an entirely different strand of the novel that I wasn't expecting and worked as a good contrast at times, though at others being in battle seemed preferable. Reggie's characterisation - and his fears - were both real and imagined and I think I actually preferred him to Valentine most of the time, possibly because Valentine was having to pretend to be someone else throughout.
While I won't spoil it, the novel builds to a good yet melancholy conclusion. The lessons I took from the final pages could easily have been lessons from the last fifteen years in the modern world.