Some historical romances are little more than an excuse for the author to dress her characters in period costumes and toss in an occasional archaic phrase or two. I get no sense of having experienced anything very different from contemporary life from those. I prefer historicals that are redolent with atmosphere, a glimpse into a distant time. Isolde Martyn’s debut book, The Maiden and the Unicorn, is such an historical novel. Those readers who, like me, miss the rich historical details of Roberta Gellis’s wonderful medievals, will want to seek it out. This book truly deserves the designation historical.
Set in 1470, the story brings to life the turbulent times during War of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster. With the exception of a few servants and an over-friendly dog, all the characters are real historical personages.
Margery is a member of the household of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, known as the Kingmaker for his role in placing Edward on the English throne. She has only recently rejoined the household after six years in a convent in disgrace after notoriously becoming the king’s mistress. Warwick’s influence over the king has diminished since his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville.
Now Warwick is leading a rebellion along with George, Duke of Clarence, the king’s younger brother, who is married to the older of Warwick’s two legitimate daughters. Warwick’s large party of family and retainers makes its way to the coast intending to sail to France where Warwick hopes to obtain money from the French King to support his rebellion.
In a village, Margery is observed by a man who seems faintly familiar to her. She is lured away by a false message and kidnapped. Her abductor Richard Huddleston brings her to the king. Ned, as she calls him, convinces her to bear messages to his brother and others in the hopes of avoiding further bloody civil war.
Margery manages to rejoin the Nevilles and travels with them to France. Huddleston also joins the party, having renounced his allegiance to Edward. Margery is forced to marry Huddleston, and only learns on her wedding night from her husband that she is Warwick’s natural daughter. Margery now faces the dilemma of her husband’s distrust because of her past as the king’s lover, her distrust of him because she knows that he only wed her to further his ambitions through her connection to Warwick, and her desire to prevent a bloody conflict.
As the political situation becomes more and more complex, Margery is surrounded by intrigue, danger, and betrayal.
I am normally a very fast reader, but some books deserve extra time. I managed to make The Maiden and the Unicorn last over three evenings’ reading simply because I didn’t want it to end. History was generous enough to provide the author with a panorama of complicated political maneuverings and complex personalities, but the measure of an author’s talent is what she makes of such a wealth of material. Ms. Martyn makes of it a truly memorable book.
The story is told primarily from Margery’s point of view. Principled and spirited, she is a character who is more than she first appears -- as the story unfolds so do the layers of her character. Even knowing the outcome of the Warwick’s campaign didn’t prevent me from hoping that Margery would be successful in her endeavors. I realized just how deeply I had been drawn into her difficulties when, during a particularly intense scene near the end of the book where Margaret d’Anjou is trying to extract information from Margery, I found myself becoming more distressed than I have in other books with similar scenes.
Similarly, Richard Huddleston is not the utter scoundrel his treatment of Margery would initially indicate. The author allows the reader just enough insight into Richard’s thoughts to know that he wants Margery for more than the manors she brings with her as dowry. He too is a multi-dimensional character with facets to reveal.
I particularly appreciate the author’s ability to balance the romance between Richard and Margery against the historical events transpiring around them. Too often in historical romances, either the romance or the historical background seems to overshadow the other. In The Maiden and the Unicorn, Ms. Martyn gives her readers the right blend of both.
A notice on the inside front cover states that Ms. Martyn’s next book is due out in summer of 2000. I’ll be watching for it. Any book by this promising author is on my must-buy list.