Heaven Forbids

My Wicked Fantasy

A Promise of Love

My Beloved by Karen Ranney
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-380-80590-1
Karen Ranney is an author whose books I have on my to-be-read pile, but whom I have never before read. I knew from comments on the lists and reviews that her heroes are of the tortured variety and that her plots are often dark and complex. Somehow, my hand never reached for one of her books when I was searching for something to read. That will now change. I am so impressed with this, her first medieval romance, that I will read her earlier books at the first opportunity.

This is a medieval romance which feels medieval. The plot is complex, but it is also compelling and unusual. The characters are clearly products of the 13th century, not the 20th, in their attitudes and behavior. The romance is both bittersweet and ultimately inspiring. My Beloved is a powerful book.

Sebastian of Langlinais had been captured by the Saracens during one of the century’s unhappy crusades. He is ransomed by the Knights Templar who demand a heavy price for their “charitable” act. His younger brother Gregory, who had joined the Poor Knights of the Order of the Temple of Solomon more from ambition than from devotion, informs Sebastian what he owes the Order. If he cannot pay the debt, his beloved Langlinais will be forfeit to the Order. But the questions Gregory asks hint at more.

Sebastian had been summoned to the Cathar stronghold of Montvichet in France by his foster mother while the place was under siege by “crusaders” sent to root out heresy. He knows that Gregory and the Templars really want to know Where is the Cathar treasure?

Two years later, Sebastian has returned to Langlinais and has sent for his bride. When he was twelve and Juliana was five, they were married. He has not seen his bride in the twelve intervening years. Juliana was reared in the nearby convent of the Sisters of Charity. Now, she has been summoned to meet her husband and to make the marriage real.

But the man who approaches the fearful young woman is not the knight who was victorious in so many tourneys or the brave crusader. Rather, he is garbed in the black robe of a monk. And he puts before her a most unusual proposition. She will be his wife but the marriage will not be consummated although no one must know of this fact. (It would invalidate the marriage.) Or she can return to the convent. Juliana chooses to accept being a wife in name only.

Sebastian is a truly tortured hero. He has very good reasons both for bringing Juliana to Langlinais and for refusing to touch her. He has abjured the world and faces death, but his wife’s sweetness, intelligence and beauty make his path doubly difficult as he finds in her the true soul mate that he can never have.

Juliana trained as a scribe in the convent and thus is both literate and well read. Known all her life as Juliana the Timid, she begins to find her courage as she adapts to her new life. She also finds her reclusive husband increasingly appealing as they discuss the books they have read and the world beyond the walls of the convent that he has experienced. Juliana is an unusual but not improbable medieval woman.

Then, the peace of Langlinais is threatened when the Templars demand either the rest of what is owed or the Cathar treasure. Thus, Sebastian and Juliana make their way to Montvichet and to their fate.

As I said above, My Beloved feels medieval. The problems and challenges faced by Sebastian and Juliana are rooted in the beliefs and practices of the era. Issues of faith and religion, so central to the age and so often ignored in medieval romances, are prominent this book.

But this is, after all, a historical romance and its success must ultimately depend on how well Ranney develops the love story of Sebastian and Juliana. She does this wondrously well. There is a gripping poignancy to the growing love between these two, a love which both fear can never truly be. The pain that each feels when facing the seemingly insurmountable barriers to their future happiness is marvelously drawn. The reader suffers along with the hero and heroine and shares both their sorrows and their joys. Ranney makes us care deeply about Sebastian and Juliana.

My Beloved is one of the best medieval romances I have read this year. If I had an occasional quibble with a few minor details, the power of the story quickly overcame them. I know I already used the word “compelling” but I can’t think of a better way to describe My Beloved.

--Jean Mason

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