It was a relief to find in this story, set in England and Wales during the 12th century, a hero who is grappling with something as serious as political intrigue at the court of Henry I – of course, he is grappling with another man's wife at the same time, but hey, you know what rogues these heroes can be.
Randulf Fitz Hugh is the ambitious middle son of one of Henry's nobles and he is not happy with the fact that his considerable efforts on behalf of his king have been rewarded with land in Wales – a "reward" that amounts to exile. It dawns on him that the woman he's with is probably the source of his troubles, and she admits that her jealousy may have prompted some of the machinations that led to his current predicament. In spite of his anger and resentment, he is unable to resist her desperate attempts to keep him with her for one last time, and so he stays, vowing the while that he will never let a woman affect his plans again.
This opening scene foreshadows the good, the bad, and the disappointing elements of this new historical by Roxanne Becnel. This is some mighty fine writing and better than average history. Without getting bogged down in the Machiavellian politics of the time, the author manages to convey the complexity of survival during a very turbulent period of English history. Her descriptions of everyday life are detailed and realistic; people work hard, or they don't eat – and sometimes they work hard and still there is not enough to eat.
The characters in this story are, if anything, a bit too realistic. Rand's personality, displayed so starkly in the beginning, is a mixture of attractive and repellent qualities. He's ambitious and, well, very randy. You might say he's real presidential material. Although he is intelligent and canny, his brain seems to be too often in thrall to another body part – in spite of the fact that this proclivity has not served him well. When he arrives in Wales with his castle builders, he encounters Josselyn ap Carreg Du, whose family has lived near the great Black Stone (Carreg Du) since before recorded history.
Josselyn is young, extremely well educated – she understands Norman French and Saxon English, and she can write – and ripe for the changes that the newly arrived English will bring. The Welsh families that inhabit the area fight among themselves, but they have come together in the past to expel English invaders. During one such battle, Josselyn's father was killed, along with her only male cousin, leaving Josselyn heiress to the lands of Carreg Du. She is destined to marry Owain ap Madoc, heir of the neighboring family, in order to cement an alliance between families. Owain is described as a "cruel thug" whose ambitions outstrip his heritage, and it is hoped that Josselyn's marriage to him will limit his depredations of Careg Du. Josselyn is aware of her duty in this matter, but understandably reluctant to place herself in Owain's power. Her dilemma is convincingly portrayed; the reader cannot help but feel for this brave young woman whose loyalty to her people places her own interests at risk.
Hoping to help find a way to drive the English away, Josselyn becomes Rand's translator. Rand is determined to get his castle built and return to the center of political power at Henry's court. He knows that peace between his men and the Welsh will best facilitate that goal. He does not, at first, realize that his translator and language tutor is heiress to the lands upon which he's staked his claim, and when he discovers this truth, he is convinced that she has conspired to deceive him. Unsurprisingly, he has lusted after her almost from the first, and she finds herself shamefully attracted to him. Josselyn feels that her attraction to the Englishman is a betrayal of her own people, and this compounds her distress over the betrothal to Owain. It becomes a real question as to who is the enemy in this situation.
This could have been a very interesting story. Many a romance has based its plot on the difficulty of discerning between two characters, one of whom is a villain and one of whom merely looks the way the heroine expects a villain to look. The heroine's task is to grow by using new information to reevaluate previous beliefs, discovering truths about the other characters and herself in the process.
Instead, this story plunges these two characters into a very unattractive sexual contest in which Rand tries to compel Josselyn to submit to him, using her own ambivalent feelings against her, while she scratches, claws and protests until she practically trips him and beats him to the floor. At the conclusion of this farcical (albeit extremely steamy) wooing, Josselyn is returned to her family and then marries Owain's impotent father as a compromise between her duty and her fears. Her life among the Madoc clan is too grim to relate. Since this is a romance, she does make her way back to Rand, who has come to his senses and realizes that marriage to the heiress of Careg Du is the ideal solution to both his problems and his unhappiness.
As with Rand's character, this story suffered from too much ill-considered sex, making otherwise attractive and intriguing characters appear foolish and ineffectual. This may be relatively accurate for the period, but it falls short as an illumination of human relationships. It was also extremely unpleasant to read; at times I had to put the book down. So, although this is a solidly researched, well written book, it is not for the squeamish; readers looking for a cozy feel-good experience will likely be disappointed.