Reading The Quest was a bit like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle with too many pieces. I was able to enjoy the emerging picture a lot more when I stopped trying to force all the extra ones into place.
Henri Gillet has arrived in Scotland, seriously wounded, and with only his 14-year-old squire, Everand, remaining of the force he brought from France to fight the English. (This story takes place towards the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War.) He’s on his way to Baincroft Castle, where his good friend Lord Robert MacBain (of Stone’s The Highland Wife) will take them in.
Fearing that he will not survive his wound, Henri claims Ev as his son so the boy will have the protection of Henri’s family, then sends him off to find help. In one of those quaint coincidences that abound in romance novels, Ev, who speaks only French, stumbles across Iana, the only person within miles who speaks French, and who is also trained in healing. Although not wearing a wedding ring, she is also caring for a tiny child she says is her daughter. In spite of her obvious education and lady-like demeanor, Iana is living in a hut and struggling to survive.
Lady Iana, you see, has been banished to this crude existence by her brother, as punishment for refusing to marry the lout of her brother’s choosing. A grateful widow following the death of her abusive spouse, Iana has vowed never again to put her life into the hands of a man.
When Ev offers a substantial reward for helping his master, Iana sees her chance to escape forever, so she bundles up baby Tam and undertakes to nurse Henri on his trip to Baincroft. In exchange, she will receive the silver Ev offered plus the chance of a position in the household once they get there.
The adventure of their trip across Scotland is quite an entertaining one, once you get past the overly complicated background. Henri’s story, for example, was really difficult to unravel. I know there were strong connections between France and Scotland, but his French title (or is he just the heir?) and responsibilities, combined with a father still living - in Scotland, in spite of a “dynasty” in Trouville - created a tangle I was never able to satisfactorily sort out. Unfortunately, it appears that the sole purpose of this muddle was to create a barrier between Iana and Henri, since he feels obligated to marry within the French nobility. This objective surely could have been accomplished with far fewer convolutions.
The romance was the biggest casualty in all the complexity. The little band is travelling along, figuring out step by step how to get where they’re going, when suddenly Henri starts thinking that he wants Iana so badly he aches with it. I’m glad he mentioned it, because there was certainly no indication of it in the story. Henceforth, both his lust and love would emerge in pretty much this way, full blown and without advance warning or evidence.
Iana’s physical awareness of Henri is more understandable, given that she’s very worried the only position he’ll offer her at the end of their journey will be as his mistress. On the other hand, am I the only one who finds it extremely dubious that this concern would express itself in attraction? It would certainly be a challenge to show a woman falling in love with a man she’s convinced will mistreat her later, but we’re not shown how it happens, only told that it does.
In fact, we learn most of what we know about these characters from their treatment of others, rather than their interaction with each other. Henri’s affection and concern for Ev give his character the kind of caring depth we want to see in a romantic hero. Iana’s devotion to Tam is equally telling. If only the romantic relationship was as developed.
At heart, this story’s strength was in its simplicity. Unfortunately, the author then layered on so much of the wrong kind of detail that the picture got murky and the romance was obscured almost completely.