In The Willing Wife, Claudia Dain has finished the trilogy begun with The Holding and The Marriage Bed. This is the darkest and most complex of the books, appropriate for the story of a flawed and wounded knight known as Rowland the Dark.
As book opens, Rowland has been gifted with a wife and holdings by King Henry II in return for his prowess in fighting for his king. But he is not interested in marriage, for his heart still belongs to his first wife, long dead and buried. In fact, the story of his undying love of her and devotion to her memory are the stuff of legends and admiration throughout the kingdom. Nicolaa, his betrothed, is equally uninterested in marriage, because it will be her fifth. She has been ill-used by all of her husbands, for none of them have loved her, though they all bedded her (with no thought to her pleasure), and all of them set her aside in favor of richer wives.
Nicolaa has no doubt that Rowland will do the same thing, especially when he learns that she is barren. In her inability to love and her distrust of men, she is as scarred and wounded as the man she is fated to marry. But while she seems vulnerable in some ways, she is not weak, but strong as the tempered steel of Rowland’s sword. She has taken what life has dealt her, and has both survived and conquered her foes, no matter what faces they wear. The marriage that binds these two together against their wishes will have to outlast both their efforts to escape it in order for them to allow each other to heal their wounds so that they can love each other.
Dain has created a rich and sensual novel, with her detailed descriptions of castles, lands, clothing, food, and characters. Nicolaa and Rowland stand in stark contrast to each other, she a figure of light silhouetted against his darkness. Both are tall, but she is slender and pale with fiery red hair, while he is dark-skinned with black hair and eyes. And both are warriors, although their battlefields are vastly different. He fights for his king, and his body shows the scars of years of battles. She fights for her freedom, her battlefield is her own home, and her scars are visible only to those who see her heart and soul.
Surrounding them are their friends and family, including William and Cathryn from The Holding and Richard and Isabel from The Marriage Bed. These knights and their ladies are also richly drawn, and the reader is able to learn more of their lives and loving than was revealed in their own books. Nicolaa’s ladies who live with her are sometimes less-vividly drawn, and there are so many of them, six in all, that it is easy for the reader to confuse them at times.
It is difficult to find much to criticize about this book. The characters are complex and learn from their experiences to evolve in different ways, the setting is realistically and carefully drawn, and the plot involving, with unexpected twists and turns. Nicolaa and Rowland are not plastic people, but characters who have to learn to deal with their scars and flaws, and change and grow before they are able to achieve the love they both want so deeply. Dain’s descriptions use lush, sensuous, vividly colorful words that make both the people and the world they live in easy to picture. The whole book seems like one of the intricate tapestries that Nicolaa and her ladies create in vivid, jewel-like colors, beautiful both from a distance and at close range, where the smallest of details can be easily seen. Even the cover (except for the rather modern-looking gown Nicolaa is wearing) draws the reader into the love story between the flame-haired beauty and her dark warrior.
I’m sorry this trilogy is over, but hope that Dain will decide in the future to give some of her secondary characters their own books. Meanwhile, these three books, and especially this one, are eminently re-readable.
--Joni Richards Bodart