The Silver Sword
by Angela Elwell Hunt
Waterbrook Press, $11.95, G) ISBN 1-57856-012-8
****
This unusual historical novel may not appeal to mainstream romance readers. The setting is obscure, the romance is very subtle, and the historic detail on 15th century religious reformation is a tad cumbersome. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it because of its determined heroine, and would recommend it to those readers who are comfortable with more history than romance.

Anika O'Connor of Prague learned to distrust the bureaucracy of the Church when she was only six years old. Her mother was caught in a fire and could not be rescued because a pompous Cardinal needed the only available ladder to rescue his vestments and parchments. In those precious moments, her mother's life was lost. Ten years later, Anika is a rarity for her time, a well-educated girl who assists her bookseller father with his copying jobs. One of the bookstore's most loyal patrons is John Hus, a rebellious priest (and a genuine historical figure) who dares to criticize the Church, especially its practice of selling indulgences that forgive past and future sins to individuals who donate large sums of money. Only God can truly judge and forgive, claims Hus, and he pays a high price for his beliefs.

When a young, lecherous nobleman's son decides he wants Anika for his next conquest, tragedy ensues. Anika is soon on the run, with the determined nobleman close behind. She hatches a desperate plan to disguise herself as a boy and become a squire for the handsome and honorable Lord John of Chlum. Her goal is to learn enough to become a knight so she can exact revenge against the Church leaders and the nobleman who have caused so much pain. Amazingly, her ruse succeeds, and she is accepted under the tutelage of Lord John's captain. But Anika's secret may not last long, and she finds herself enjoying the time spent with Lord John far too much.

The first half of The Silver Sword is engaging, as Anika faces tragedy upon tragedy and still emerges strong and determined. While her strength can never be as great as a man, she finds ways to use her speed and cunning to keep one step ahead of her adversaries.

The second half of the novel focuses on the sad fate of John Hus, whose heretical teachings do not go unnoticed by the corrupt Pope and Church hierarchy. There is a great deal of religious debate as Hus willingly surrenders himself and then has to account for his behavior. Anika accompanies Hus, as one of Sir John's knights, but her role is primarily a passive one. The Silver Sword should, it seems to me, involve a little more swordplay and excitement. Only in the last 50 pages does the pace pick up again when Anika confronts her arch nemesis.

The love story is extremely subtle and not at all physical. John admires and respects Anika, first as a disguised boy and then as a woman, but his pride keeps him from admitting even to himself the depth of his feelings. Anika realizes she has fallen in love with her master, but because of the difference in their classes she never even entertains that there could be anything between them.

Fifteenth century Prague a setting totally unfamiliar to me and the religious conflicts were obviously well-researched. At times, however, I felt emotionally distanced from Anika, even during tragedies that should have moved me more. I wished the author had invested less time on the historical characters and more time on the fictional ones.

The brief framing device that begins and ends the novel links Anika and two other historical women with a contemporary narrator, Kathleen O'Connor. According to legend, they are all heirs of Cahira O'Connor, an Irish princess whose dying wish was to have strong women heirs who would "restore right in this murderous world." I wavered between giving this novel 3 and 4 hearts, but as I find myself planning to buy at least the next installment of the series, I guess I must be hooked. Angela Elwell Hunt's style reminds me of Robin McKinley or Judith Tarr, without the fantasy element those authors use so well. The Silver Sword will appeal to those who appreciate a thoughtful historical with theological overtones and just a touch of romance

--Susan Scribner


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