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Lord of Midnight by Jo Beverley
(Topaz, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-451-40801-2
****
Jo Beverley writes historical romances and for that I am devoutly thankful. Her characters think and act like medieval men and women, not like 20th century people dressed up in fancy clothes. Her plots turn on issues that are rooted in 1100, not 1998. Her settings are realistic (or at least as realistic as even this demanding reader requires; none of us really wants to experience the realities of medieval life, however vicariously.) In Lord of Midnight, her fourth medieval romance, Beverley shows once us once again how engrossing, moving and entertaining a real historical romance can be.

The book opens as the citizens of London gather to watch a rare event: an ordeal by battle. Clarence of Summerbourne has challenged the claim of Henry Beauclerk to be the rightful king of England. Summerbourne had joined many of his fellow nobles in supporting the claims of Henry's older brother, Duke Robert Normandy. When Robert fled ignominiously in the face of Henry's greater strength, most of his supporters had meekly accepted the king's pardon, sworn fealty, paid their fines, and returned home, sadder but wiser. But not Clarence. This man who was more a poet than a knight and who had been Henry's friend and who clearly lacked political sophistication absolutely refuses to accept the legitimacy of Henry's rule.

Henry's cause is in the hands of Renald de Lisle, a warrior of renown and power and it looks to be an uneven match. Indeed, it is, for Renald's blade of German steel soon finds Clarence's heart. The king's rule is vindicated.

The scene shifts to the castle of Summerbourne where Clarence's family awaits news of his fate. This news comes in the person of Renald himself, who has been given the honor of Summerbourne as a reward for his service. He has also been given the responsibility to care for Clarence's family by marrying either his daughter Claire or one of his twin sisters. When the sisters balked at marrying the upstart knight, Claire is left with the duty of saving her family by wedding the king's champion. Her grandmother, who some thirty years earlier had been likewise forced to marry a conquering Norman, calls on Claire to make the best of her situation.

As Claire comes to know Renald, she begins to think that marriage will be no sacrifice. Indeed, she finds him most intriguing and increasingly worthy of admiration and perhaps even love. Renald soon falls under the spell of his promised bride, admiring her looks, her spirit, her intelligence and her devotion to her family and her people. He rushes her towards marriage, both because he is obeying the king's order and because he wants her safely wed before the truth about her father's death is revealed.

And wed they are but before the bedding is complete, Claire, putting together comments that she has heard, suddenly realizes the truth. Her husband, the man she is coming to love, was the man who killed her beloved father. Renald forgoes the final consummation of their marriage, hoping that Claire will understand and thus forgive. Can this marriage be saved?

In resolving this dilemma, Beverley does not cheat. Claire is faced with a moral conundrum, one that can only be resolved as she explores her father's motives through his journal and considers the meaning of his death in the context of the belief system of the early 12th century. She must understand why Renald regrets the necessity of killing Clarence, but still accepts that it had to be done. She has to understand in order to forgive.

And as we watch Claire and Renald wrestle with their problem, we come away with a much fuller understanding of the medieval mind and a clearer knowledge that, yes, they were different from us. And this is why Lord of Midnight is such a fine historical romance.

--Jean Mason


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