The Rose and The Shield is a medieval romance that takes a good half of the book to get going, but once it does, the tale settles into a generally satisfactory, albeit predictable, read.
Lady Rose of Somerford is doing everything she can to hold onto her deceased husband’s holding. She is aware that any sign of weakness on her part will result in her liege Lord Radulf’s reclaiming of the keep and either forcing her into an unwanted marriage or returning her to her devious and unloving father. But Rose, with the help of Arno, a knight who swore allegiance to her on her husband’s deathbed, is barely hanging on. And now, there are problems with raids on her village. Rather than admit her vulnerability, she sends off a notice asking for mercenaries to assist her.
Unbeknownst to Rose, Lord Radulf intercepts her messenger, and fearing treason, sends his own man in as this mercenary. Gunnar Olafson, son of Radulf’s armorer, has been on his own for years, selling himself to barons and others who need his sword arm. He is loyal to Radulf, who promises him the Somerford manse, if he proves that Rose is behind the plot. Gunnar has gathered about him a band of loyal followers, who would die for him. He is a unique blend of mercenary, honorable man of action and of course, ladies man. Gunnar is blonde, blue-eyed and muscular, endearing him to all the women, lady and serf alike. Having been raised by loving parents, he also has a gentle side, rescuing anyone who he feels needs rescuing.
Gunnar acts as if he is the enemy’s mercenary to try to determine if Rose is aware of the treasonous actions. He lies to Rose in order to ingratiate himself with Arno. Here’s the rub: Gunnar and Rose are immediately attracted to each other. Rose is both innocent (because her husband was old and less than lusty) and swept up by the yearnings she feels when Gunnar is around. She tries to deny them. Gunnar is amazed, as he has never had to fight to get a woman. The attraction he feels is more than simple lust.
Rose is a predictable medieval heroine - honorable, naïve, loved by her people, and possessing the strength and knowledge to operate the manor without a man. She is a mix of stubbornness and vulnerability. Yet she is so trusting so cannot see the bad in others. For the first half of the book, she was portrayed as one with many doubts, causing her to appear dense and wishy-washy. Arno was made to look villainous, yet Rose could not see it, making her seem weak.
From the beginning, not all was what it seemed with Gunnar. Yet, it was done in such a way as to be suspenseful - the reader wasn’t really sure whose side he was on all the time. The result was a loss of interest and a general sense of malaise for this reader. I did not hesitate to put the book down often and had to talk myself into picking it up again…never a good sign.
About 200 pages into the book, the pace of the story changed. Gunnar and Rose started to interact more intimately, testing the bounds of their feelings and their intimacy. Sexual tension built rapidly and their interactions were full of innuendo, fun and good sexual encounters. Rose started to smarten up and recognize what was happening around her. She actually started to act like a woman who has been successful in running a keep for several years. Gunnar started trusting her more and his complete background was revealed.
There is much to like about the last half of the story, with action moving the plot forward and the romance building. There were small distractions that included Rose lapsing back into denseness a few times, but she quickly regained her sense and moved on. Gunnar was the more interesting of the two lead characters, showing depth to his emotions and his motivations throughout the story.
By the end of The Rose and The Shield, Bennett had woven a tale of medieval romance and intrigue that made me smile. The reader just has to persevere for a few hundred pages to get there.