I am starting to feel insulted. This is the third or fourth historical I have read lately that has left me with the question, "Why was this story written?"
Historical romances cannot be easy to write. No one can "observe" life in the 12th century; recreating it convincingly requires an extraordinary effort. One must first learn the facts of the past and then attempt to imagine the consciousness that might have been formed by such a time. Excellent historical novels give us a sense that we are meeting people whose minds are different from our own. Good ones give us a sense that we have entered a strange but recognizable place. Others leave us wondering if there is some sort of guideline that advises, "Women like to read about knights and castles so much, they won't care a fig about anything else in the story."
I am sorry to say, this book falls into the last category. Fortunately, the time (1196) and place (Cornwall) are noted at the beginning, since there is insufficient detail to establish either from the narrative. At a time when women were considered to be dynastic and political assets, and marriages were often contractual alliances controlled by the king, Alexander St. Cyr, Duke of Windemere, has repudiated his betrothal to the daughter of the rich and powerful Enguerrand Marchand, whose castle and warrior heritage are described and whose daughters are styled "Lady," but whose own title is not mentioned. Instead, St. Cyr has wed – for love – the daughter of a merchant, and sent his brother, Rogan St. Cyr, to try to pacify the rejected family. These nobles appear to be feudally disadvantaged – they have no overlords or ecclesiastical authorities to help or hinder them.
Although he is instinctively wary of the Lady Catherine, his brother's former intended, Rogan is captivated by her younger sister, the Lady Lily. He woos her, he wins her, they are married and spend a blissful wedding night together at the Marchand castle, Charolais.
The next morning, Rogan is hauled out of bed and accused of raping the youngest sister, whose character is so pious no one, including Lily, can believe she would lie. It's an evil scheme by Lady Catherine, of course, and because the plot depends on it, no one in the crowded castle has previously noticed her considerable wickedness. Rogan is flogged to within an inch of his life and left in a dungeon to die. Lily, who could not bring herself to insist on his innocence, tends his wounds in secret. He is freed by his men moments before the dungeon is consumed by flames set by the wicked Catherine's lover and partner in crime.
Time passes, Rogan is believed dead, Lily is about to be wed to a new bridegroom. Rogan appears at the wedding and carries her off, not for love, but for revenge. He believes that she conspired with her family to punish him for the rejection of Lady Catherine. He keeps Lily captive, makes her work (an experience that she, unlike most women in the 12th century, had apparently not previously experienced), humiliates and degrades her, tells her he will take away any children she might bear, all the while lusting after her and despising himself for wanting such a treacherous woman. She, of course, endures it all with fortitude – having long since realized he could not have done the dastardly deed of which he was accused – and hopes for the day when he will forgive her.
This is an old and favorite story: the power of unconditional, innocent love to redeem a man's soul from the darkness of rage and pain. Unfortunately, it's a hard story to tell well, and to be convincing it requires characters more substantial than these.
In fairness, the writing is acceptable: the narrative flows, there are no dreadful lapses in dialogue. I think the author tried to deal with the trauma that accompanies the kind of physical and emotional pain that Rogan suffers. I think she intended for Lily's experiences in captivity to illustrate her spiritual and emotional growth. But the facts and circumstances she uses are just too unreal to be persuasive.
The lives of women throughout history are such a rich source of material that an author does not have to rely on outrageous villainy, bizarre plot devices, and a heroine whose chief distinguishing characteristic is a riotous mass of tawny ringlets. This is one reader who believes it takes more than just knights and castles to make a historical romance worth the name.