As a historical novel of the Civil War, this tale is engrossing; the morality was questionable.
This continuation of the Civil War story begun in Candle in the Darkness picks up with Julia Hoffman, Caroline's spoiled cousin, whose one goal in life is to win the good opinion of Reverend Nathaniel Greene...until she witnesses the horrific Battle of Bull Run. After that, she begins a journey first to prove herself a capable woman in Nathaniel's eyes, then finally to please God.
Also followed in this tale is Phoebe Bigelow, a nineteen-year-old girl whose three brothers leave her to go fight in the war. Tired of life at home, Phoebe disguises herself as a man and enlists as well. Her story and Julia's are kept separate until well into the story, when Austin finally weaves them together.
Julia defies her parents and Nathaniel doing what she knows to be right. She lies in order to get work as a nurse, as Phoebe lies by disguising herself.
Unlike "Candle in the Darkness", this story's morals are slightly questionable the whole way through. While still disguising herself as a married woman, Julia finds herself kissing a married man, and while they both "know it is wrong", they also both believe that they have no control over their feelings. This is exactly the kind of thought that leads to adultery. However, despite all this, Julia's life comes out right in the end...giving her everything she wants despite her illicit love for the man in question. That was the major part that waved a huge red flag before my eyes.
For Phoebe, though she promises herself never to lie again after being found out, she continues to tell little fibs to save her skin. Sometimes these are not completely lies, but rather veilings of the truth.
On the other hand, such things as trust, courage, love, and mercy are values that appear all the way through the story.
Though God is an ever-present factor and the story is based on a Christian foundation, there is not as much theology in "Fire by Night" as there was in the first book of the Refiner's Fire Series. There are no obvious conversions: rather, all of a sudden characters begin to see things in another light. This brought some disappointment to the novel, as well as the fact that one prominent character ends up marrying a person who does not appear to be a Christian.
The very first pages reveal gruesome sights of wounded men at the Battle of Bull Run, the sounds of shells exploding, and the sounds of men screaming in pain. When Julia becomes a nurse, she sees even more such sights - gangrene, missing limbs, soiled bandages, etc. Phoebe, in battle, has to shoot men. The violence is more poignant and more often present than it was in the previous story.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Mead and brandy are used for medicinal purposes. It is a commonly known fact that Dr. McGrath drinks heavily and has hangovers.
To disguise herself, Phoebe ties a cloth around her bosom to flatten it. Also it is mentioned that she doesn't go to the river to bathe with the other soldiers; except in one odd little passage where the men pounce on her and make her splash around with them in the water (wearing modest underclothes). While disguised as a soldier Phoebe also shares a tent with Ted Wilson, her best friend, and when he finds out she is a girl he is utterly disgusted and afraid of what the other men will think about them.
"The curse" of women is mentioned two or three times, always with that veiled wording. There are passionate kisses as well as simple pecks on the cheek. There is an attempted rape. Dr. McGrath says that Julia "flirts" with her patients (a fact which is obviously not true). A man is said to have had "a weakness for a certain type of disreputable woman" and contracted a venereal disease.
Crude or Profane Language or Content
Dr. McGrath, the physician that Julia applies for a job under, makes rude comments about how men react to women as well as making two remarks (one veiled, one not so much) about her bosom. "The latrine" is mentioned a couple times. Soldiers have diarrhea and dysentery.
"Fire by Night", while a rousing and poignant read entertainment-wise, was a disappointing continuation of the Refiner's Fire Series. The morality made me uneasy from the start, and by the time I had passed the midmark my thoughts swayed between "How shall I review this?" and "How can this possibly end in a moral way?" I was surprised that Julia managed to get the life she wanted despite the obvious errors of her thoughts. It was also hard to tell just what her thoughts on marriage were and whether they were right or wrong. Her lying seemed to be a "must" factor, even though it engaged and hurt other people.
As for Phoebe, I found myself captured by the way Mrs. Austin produced her Virginian drawl and forthright personality. Her own romance, however, was profoundly disappointing at the end.
At reconstructing the Civil War era Mrs. Austin does a spectacular job; at shaping believable characters and lives, she also excels. The morality and romance in the story, however, was certainly not like it was in "Candle in the Darkness". While I would heartily recommend the first book of this trilogy, I would hesitate before doing so with this one.