By Arrangement

By Possession by Madeline Hunter
(Bantam, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-553-58221-6
I’ve never been a fan of the powerful lord/beautiful serf medieval romances. European society under feudalism in the Middle Ages was extremely rigid. One’s birth dictated one’s social rank, and the term “upwardly mobile” was an unknown concept. Sure, a lord might fool around with a peasant girl, but he’d marry within his own class. Madeline Hunter’s newest romance By Possession delivers what I would have thought an impossibility - a convincing tale of love that transcends class boundaries.

Addis de Valence was captured and enslaved during the Baltic Crusades in the early 14th century. When he returns to England, he learns that his troubles are not over. He has been presumed to be dead, his wife has died, and his stepbrother has seized control of his lands. Moira Falkner had been his wife’s companion and has been caring for his son Brian in secret.

Moira’s mother Edith had been Addis’s father’s lehman. On his deathbed, he had freed both women and given Edith property which Moira inherited on her mother’s death. Even though the villagers uphold Moira’s assertion of being a freewoman, Addis will not accept her claims and forces her to be his servant. Addis’s demand is partially based on a complex history he only half-remembers. Moira had nursed him when he was grievously injured and has loved him for years.

When he removes Brian from her care and hides him in a secret location, Moira becomes desperate to escape him even as she’s emotionally bound to him. He rides unarmed into his stepbrother’s stronghold to confront him. It is Moira’s cry of alarm that saves his life, and they both narrowly escape.

Determined to regain his rightful lands, Addis heads for London forcing Moira to accompany him. There she meets a man Rhys, who seems to fulfill her requirements for a husband: “a freemason ... well established and highly skilled.” Addis, meanwhile, becomes involved with the faction striving to oust the king and his corrupt advisors. Their involved history and mutual desire draw Moira to Addis in spite of her desire for freedom. How can they overcome the many obstacles to a loving future?

In spite of the parallel titles, By Possession is not a sequel to the author’s debut romance, By Arrangement. Like its predecessor, however, it focuses attention on non-aristocratic characters which distinguishes it from most medieval romances.

Addis is a very complicated hero and one who is sometimes difficult to like. Given his personal history as a slave, it would seem that he should be especially understanding of Moira’s desire for freedom. To the contrary, he recognizes that her explanation of how she and her mother had been freed is most probably true even without written documentation. Nevertheless, he selfishly overrides her rights and forces her back into servitude because of his uneasiness in his unfamiliar situation.

Moira, on the other hand, is an admirable heroine. She’s intelligent, committed, and loyal. She does not cast aside her allegiances simply because they prove inconvenient. Her actions and reactions are explainable by her conflicting loyalties. (On the other hand, I had some occasional hopes that she would dump the domineering Addis in favor of Rhys who was bound to be easier to live with.) I especially appreciated her conduct at the end of the book. While Brian disappears completely from the story, it would be out of character for Moira to forget him.

This talented author’s use of setting is particularly noteworthy. Too many authors of historical romances use setting as wallpaper - stick their plot in a time period and then pretty much ignore it. Ms. Hunter evokes a sense of place and time that is uncommonly realistic. The political strife of the period adds to the personal conflict between Addis and Moira. The characters are not merely modern actors in historical garb but rather seem authentic to the time period. I especially appreciate that the secondary characters from the lower classes are as well developed as the aristocratic ones.

With her first two books, Ms. Hunter has established herself as a promising new talent and is sure to gain a large appreciative audience among romance readers. Her plots are involved, her characters well developed, and her settings well defined and evocative. She’s on my auto-buy list. I encourage readers who haven’t discovered her yet to check her out.

--Lesley Dunlap

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