The Marriage Prize by Virginia Henley
(Island, $6.99, R) ISBN 0-440-22209-5
If you are a Virginia Henley fan you’ve likely already enjoyed The Marriage Prize. If you have never read her, but are curious, this would be a pretty good place to start.

In 1253, following the deaths of her parents and brother, Rosamond Marshal became a ward of the crown. Only 12 years old, and a considerable heiress, she was almost immediately betrothed to Rodger de Layburn, age 17, to help protect her from fortune hunters.

The next time they see each other, five years later, Rodger has distinguished himself in service to Prince Edward and has become both wealthy and powerful in his own right. Rosamond is now a spirited 17-year-old. Taking a dislike to Rodger when she meets him again, she tries to end their engagement.

According to the list at the front of the book, Rosamond is the only fictional character in the story and the romance unfolds against the political intrigues that took place after the English Barons forced Henry III to sign the Provisions of Oxford and establish the House of Commons. I will say only that part of the conflict between the hero and heroine revolves around philosophical differences over this issue.

I’m no historian, but Ms. Henley’s fictionalization of these events sounded thoroughly researched. I’m more the historical “wallpaper” type myself, but I think those of you who like the real thing will appreciate this. There’s a lot of accurate-sounding detail and color, and a great deal of the story is driven by the events that surround it.

I’d have to say that the language is a bit flowery for my taste, although Ms. Henley never allows it to become overwrought. I also wasn’t crazy about the “see-saw” relationship. Time and again, both before and after they’re married, Rodger would persuade Rosamond to look favorably on their union. Then Rosamond would hear something she didn’t like, throw a fit, and they’d be back to square one.

Her age also raises another issue. I don’t have a problem with a 17-year-old heroine on principle, but I’m not crazy about a bad-tempered, hair-tossing rebel of a teenager who resents authority. Maybe I’m too old and cranky. A defiant child who goes off in snit just because she doesn’t like being told what to do isn’t terribly appealing to me.

Having said that, however, Rosamond is more likable than I expected, learning from her mistakes and occasionally acknowledging that her behaviour is immature. She resolves to change and sometimes even succeeds in acting on that resolve although it doesn’t usually last long.

Rodger is a good, if standard, idealized hero of this time - physically powerful, highly intelligent, charismatic, and a fabulous lover, if somewhat patronizing and arrogant. I guess it’d be hard not to know more than a girl who’s scarcely been outside the castle in all her 17 years.

He is also generous and extremely tolerant for his time, altogether very attractive and appealing to modern sensibilities.

In fact, other than the reservations that could be attributed to this not being my favorite style of book, I have only one major complaint. It may not be a big deal for you, but unfortunately it was for me. The hero prefers to be called by his nickname of “Rod,” especially in bed.

Now, I’m willing to believe this cheesy single-entendre is quite the knee-slapper when the boys are yucking it up at sword practice, but it jerked my head out of the story every time. Ms. Henley is rightly known for generating some very explicit heat between her characters, so every time these two started to work up head of steam all of us would settle in to enjoy ourselves. Then Rosamond would start to moan “oh, Rod, oh Rod” and I’d start to moan “shut up, shut up.”

. The Marriage Prize walks the middle ground in Virginia Henley’s work with a good balance between the romance and the history and a rather more romantic approach to sex than some of her other writing. My guess is that if you already have an opinion about her books, pro or con, this one will likely reinforce it.

--Judi McKee

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