Some things I know about the medieval period:
I mention these facts because I wouldn’t want anyone who reads The Circle of a Promise to mistake the thirteenth century England of this book for the real thing.
Feudal lords traveled with a troop of men at arms for status and protection. A powerful lord journeying to his betrothal would be accompanied by more than a single servant.
Traveling even moderate distances was difficult. You didn’t just leap on your trusty steed and head off without planning for provisions and shelter along the way.
Vassals were freedman who had sworn fealty to their lord. Just anyone who happened to work around the castle wasn’t a vassal.
Potatoes originated in the western hemisphere and were not known in Europe prior to the sixteenth century.
Amarantha of Ullswater is a spoiled beauty. Raised by indulgent, loving parents, she is as proficient at arms as any man. An only child, she has refused to consider marriage, but the threat posed by a villainous neighbor, Baldwin, Earl of Cumbria, is making it imperative that she wed. Her father has contacted a powerful northern baron proposing marriage between him and Mara.
Mara is used to freedom of movement. She secretly slips out of her father’s castle to go swimming and is surprised by a handsome stranger. She flees, knowing that the man her father intends her to marry cannot possibly be as attractive as the man she’s just encountered.
Stephen of Bellingham, accompanied by his loyal servant Jack, has traveled to Ullswater to contract a betrothal with the older lord’s daughter. He sees a beautiful naked woman rising from a forest pool. He continues to his destination but knows his future wife will never equal the woman he’s just seen.
When the two meet formally, they are delighted to see the other they had glimpsed so briefly. The betrothal is official, and Stephen rides away. He will return for their wedding.
Baldwin knows that his king is preoccupied with the possible rebellion led by Simon de Montfort. He fiercely desires Mara. He will take her as well as all the possessions of Ullswater.
Mara knows that she must be careful lest Baldwin seize her, but what could a little swim hurt? She slips out a secret door to the castle, but she is observed. Baldwin is successful in infiltrating Ullwater’s defenses. All, including Mara’s beloved parents, are brutally slain, and Mara, numb with the horror she knows was a result of her doing, is carried away to Baldwin’s stronghold. Stephen comes to her rescue, but Baldwin will remain a threat.
A modern-day Stephen Bellingham suffers from nightmares and profound depression. He is unable to function and lives with his sister and her family. He awakens screaming from a recent nightmare - he had seen a beloved wife slain in her husband’s arms. Aware of Stephen’s despair, his sister recommends he consult a regressionist, a woman who does past life regressions. Perhaps his difficulties are rooted in a past life. The sessions are more successful than he had imagined they might be. Soon Stephen is deep into his search. Does this beautiful woman have some connection to his dysfunction?
It took me literally weeks to work my way through this plodding tale of a love that transcends the centuries. There are several things I found irritating about The Circle of a Promise.
First and foremost is the character Mara. It’s hard to care much about a character who is so stereotypically beautiful, willful, and defiant. The rules don’t apply to her, oh no. Frankly, I thought Baldwin, a stereotypical villain with no redeeming social value, was welcome to her. Stephen, who’s a prince of a guy, deserves better than this headstrong brat.
The book’s pacing is uneven. The jumps between the historical and modern era are irregular. Furthermore, it can take a while to figure out which Stephen - the old or the new one - is involved when the action shifts. Some narration seems more designed to stretch the page count than add to the story. Does anyone really care about the life stories of various and sundry secondary characters? There’s a lot of head hopping going on as one character after another weighs in on what’s happening.
Finally, the attitudes and behavior presented in The Circle of a Promise are counter to the historical reality. For someone who has appreciated historical romances for the glimpse into a bygone era, this is a glimpse into never-never land. The thirteenth century was never like this, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.