I was less than impressed with this book. It was written in 2011 in the style of Dickens (working conditions of the poor) and Hardy (pastoral love stories with some grit thrown in), but ultimately it felt to me as if it was just too forced and intentional.
First, everything was just too contrived. Sullivan escapes, but heads to Durham which is where Kemp is newly interested in coal mines; Kemp's arch-enemy in the fight for the insurance on the slaves is Ashton who is brother to Kemp's newfound love interest. Really? We are talking about all of England in 1767, why are these people so inter-twined?
Second, this novel was purported to be about abolution, but Unsworth couldn't help putting a communist (or maybe socialist after all, this is England) spin to things. Since this is set in mid 1700s, I was struck by the inappropriateness of some of the "means of production talk" (especially coming out of the mouths of common-folk). After all, Marx was not even born until 1818. I think the book would have been stronger if Unsworth wasn't so divided trying to address issues of poverty/class/working conditions of the miners and slavery.
On the other hand, there were a couple interesting quotes. Particularly about greed and property ownership:
"There is no country in Europe where a man of woman or child, especially of the poorer classes, is more likely to be hanged for offenses against property than this great country of ours." and
"Rights were measured with money, in his view of things. The terms were more or less interchangeable. Kemp had money in plenty, but those with money always wanted more. It was a fact of life; he had never encountered a single exception to it." and
"Fairness was not a fixed value; it depended on the nature of the end to be served."
I also found a few of the scenes between Kemp and Jane to be beautifully written, such as: "when she raised her eyes to look at him she found his gaze fixed on her, the space between them was canceled, an it was as though they were continuing some conversation close together in a pause between words."
Overall I did not find it particularly compelling or thought provoking. It was just a mediocre read.