|Given a choice, I would prefer to read a medieval over any other romance subgenre. It was a time of chivalry, betrayal, and political strife, of bold knights and fair maidens. What it wasnot is a time when this remark might be made:
“‘Tis not amusing,” Kit said, his tone offended. “You think what you do is dangerous? I defy you to be in my boots for one moment when I face the great Ovarian Horde in your stead.”
Ovarian Horde? In a medieval? (Ovaries were not identified as a part of female reproductive anatomy until the seventeenth century.)
Anachronisms abound in this tale where Rowena, a pacificist lady who can read Arabic, has traveled to Paris, and is the sole heir to her father’s vast lands, resolves to marry only for love and wants someone kind and gentle she can sign songs with; her goal is to establish a school to teach troubadours. I swear I’m not making this up.
The hero, Lord Stryder, a knightly hunk who is lusted after by every female in the area except the heroine, is determined never to love, never to marry, never to have children. Why? Because his mother didn’t love his father and he went insane. Why is Henry II allowing this idiocy? Banish these two to a distant isle and put someone with some sense in their place.
His queen Eleanor is assisting him to help the two fall in love so they will get married. She comes up with a troubadour competition arranging for Rowena, known as the Lady of Love, a great heiress who is somehow also a troubadour who despises knights and writes songs about needing love in an age of violence, to teach Lord Stryder, earl of Blackmoor, so that he can take part in the competition. And Henry and Rowena’s uncle think this is a good plan!
Stryder’s half-brother Kit is bastard-born so cannot inherit and there’s some question about his sexual orientation, but Stryder loyally defends him against any calumny. Rowena is friends with Kit and admires Stryder’s familial devotion and manly form. Her mind might be saying gentle troubadour but her hormones are saying hunk.
Stryder had been held in a Saracen prison for three years with fifty other men. Five of them, known as the Brotherhood, vowed they would all one day escape. It must have been a real jolly time because he’s now got a friend from Byzantium, Christian, a royal prince, and two Saracen friends Nassir and the lovely lady Zenobia, who drop in for a visit and tell him that one of their number who’d been imprisoned had been tortured and murdered. Who knew travel between England and the east was so easy in the 12th century? I was equally unaware that multiculturalism and political correctness was so prevalent then.
Soon another two of his comrades from the Outremer days are dead, and his former admirers are quick to accuse Stryder of their murders. He is arrested. Rowena knows this honorable knight could not possibly be guilty of such a despicable deed and vows to help him.
A reviewer looks for many things in a book including well-drawn characters, a plausible plot, realistic setting. A Dark Champion is a disappointment on all those points, but the biggest disappointment is how unmedieval this story is. Readers who are familiar with the history and social conditions of the period will wonder if they’ve entered into an alternate dimension. The feudal system where the lord exercised powerful control over one’s life isn’t a factor. It was of utmost importance that a strong leader held the land against enemies both foreign and domestic. These characters seem unaware that they owe their lord or king fealty. Yes, yes, marry for love and sing songs all day – so what if that’s not going to keep the south of England safe from the French? And the majority of the female characters are an embarrassment – they speak and act like hysterical teenagers at a rock concert. England in the 12th century was brutal and dangerous but – thankfully – never like this.
This book is supposedly the first in a series of the Brotherhood of the Sword, but it’s also a sequel to “Midsummer’s Knight,” a story in the anthology Where’s My Hero? Lord Stryder was introduced there as a major character but was not the hero. With so many characters having shared Stryder’s imprisonment, this has the potential to be a lengthy series. A Dark Champion, however, is an inauspicious start.