I have a suspicion that readers' enjoyment of The Damsel is going to be directly proportional to their tolerance for Big Misunderstandings, delivered with a heavy dash of non-communication. In a nutshell, the first 100 pages of this book absolutely did not work for me, due to the actions (and non-actions) of the lead characters. When the book picked up, about halfway through, I was already so irritated that it took a while for me to realize that it was becoming a very enjoyable book. And the ending is a high-comedy delight. So… here goes.
Burke de Montvieux first meets lovely Alys of Kiltorren when he is sent on a bride quest (see Book 1 of this trilogy, The Princess). Burke is quite taken with Alys, though her aunt, uncle, and two female cousins treat her like a serf and call her a whore. He tries to get to know her, finally stealing a kiss in the stables. The family discovers them, Alys is sent from the premises, and Burke declares his intent to wed Alys. The uncle and aunt deliver the news at dinner that Alys has refused his offer and won't even see him.
Heartbroken, Burke leaves Kiltorren (first irritant: he takes the scheming couple's word for it, though he knows they treat Alys like dirt). Burke returns a year later to pursue Alys, but Aunt Dierdre and Uncle Cedric assure him that Alys has fled, they know not where. Burke leaves (again without checking with the villagers, asking around, or doing anything to verify the story, even though he has reason to be highly suspicious of this family).
And this is in the Prologue. It's not a good sign when a reader finishes a seven-page prologue with the impression that the hero is dumber than a box of rocks.
Okay, then the story opens with Burke returning to Kiltorren for the third time, determined to find out what happened to Alys and track her down. He will marry this girl, he vows, as she's captured his heart. Alys overhears Burke tell the gatekeeper that he's come to Kiltorren in search of a bride. When Burke spies her and tells her he didn't expect to find her there, she assumes the worst. He's obviously come to marry one of her cousins, and he's a rat after all.
Burke is overjoyed to see Alys, but puzzled at her attitude. In order to get her alone and explain himself, he requests that Alys be sent to help him with his bath. Aunt Dierdre hisses that Alys is to service Burke in any way he wants, and Alys assumes he wants her as a bed companion while he courts a cousin or two. When he informs Alys that she is the bride he seeks, she doesn't believe him. And what does our hero do? Declare himself more forcefully? Explain that the family is behind all the lies and duplicity? Tell Alys to shut up and listen for once? Nope. He decides that maybe she should meet him later and talk about it!
As for Alys, once she climbs on her high horse, nothing can throw her off. Let's see. She's been branded a whore, treated like a slave, slapped around, ridiculed, and basically all-around shamed by her only relatives, yet the idea that they may have lied to her and Burke may be telling the truth is more than she can accept. Instead, she insists that he's the one to blame. She never received an offer for her hand, so he must never have made it. She was never told he returned to Kiltorren, so obviously he never came back. Her aunt calls her a whore, so that's what Burke must really think of her, too, and he just wants to get her into bed. Aaargh!
Burke decides to prove himself to Alys, and also to find husbands for her two cousins. That will get Aunt Dierdre off Alys' back and maybe then he can marry her. Meanwhile, Alys' father is searching for her, and he sends a smarmy nephew named Talbot to find Alys and bring her away from Kiltorren. By now the story was picking up, though it took a second reading for me to appreciate its comic merits. Suffice it to say that Talbot is no match for a scheming cousin once she decides she wants him.
Alys, Burke, and shy cousin Brigid (who stammers) are by now well away from Kiltorren and on an adventure of their own. The final scenes, in which Burke's estranged termagant of a mother locks horns with Alys' determined father, are a comic delight. And just to show that this book really ended on a high note, the teaser for the third book in the trilogy made me want to run out and buy it then and there.
And on a side note, maybe someone ought to have a word with the Dell art department. When I saw the cover, I assumed the book took place in the 1890s or later, because the bejeweled mid-heel pump that adorns it looks like something straight out of the Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalogue. When I saw the opening page, dated 1172, I just stared. Come on.
What's a reviewer to do? I can't give The Damsel a strong recommendation, but paradoxically, I can't wait for the next installment.