|Fans of medieval romances rejoice – Anne Stuart has made a triumphant return to the Middle Ages.
Elizabeth of Bredon is sick to death of being at the beck and call of her loutish father and boorish brothers. Tired of being disparaged because she’s too tall, too thin and too red-headed to be marriageable, her real skills unappreciated, she wants only to enter the convent and be done with the entire benighted male gender.
Her escort into her new life will, therefore, be something of a mixed blessing. Elizabeth is to travel to the Shrine of Saint Anne with Prince William and his entourage. William, bastard son of King John, is going to the shrine under orders of his father. Seems that the prince is a “spoiler lecher” whose nasty sexual tastes led to the death of a young woman. Unable to ignore his offspring’s excesses any longer, the king has ordered William to go to the shrine and do penance. He is accompanied by an armed guard (to ensure that the outraged father of the girl he killed doesn’t have him assassinated before he has atoned) and a group of clerics (to ensure his good behavior).
As far as Elizabeth can see, however, the soldiers and the monks are equally indiscriminate in their debauchery. The one exception seems to be Brother Matthew, who catches Elizabeth’s eye because, with his beautiful face and sweet smile, he appears to be the “epitome of quiet, chaste brotherhood” she associates with a religious calling.
Of Prince William, she scarcely knows what to think. She has heard the sordid stories about him, and he himself acknowledges that Prince William is as corrupt as he’s been painted. But he is oddly solicitous of Elizabeth in ways that appear to be at odds with his reputation.
In fact, one of the reasons this book is so entertaining is that almost no one is what he or she appears to be.
Elizabeth is hiding her intelligence and razor-sharp tongue from the males who would love to beat them out of her – although she has difficulty hiding both from Prince William, who seems to find them quite entertaining. We also find out very early on that “Prince William” is actually Brother Peter, a monk who joined the church upon his return from the Crusades where he gained a reputation as a ruthless and effective killer. Peter is masquerading as Prince William to protect him from enemies who would love to kill him before he has completed his penance, thereby ensuring a speedy descent into hell.
Peter is deeply troubled, thanks to his experiences in the Holy Land, and is uncomfortable with his role in protecting a man he knows to be a dangerous psychopath (my description, not the author’s). He is further torn by his growing feelings for the impetuous Elizabeth, as he knows they are incompatible with the life he has chosen. These qualities, combined with his intelligence, his insight into Elizabeth, and his sense of humor make him an extremely attractive hero. The author did a great job of doling out information about him in increments that kept him growing and me interested.
Elizabeth is alternately charming and exasperating, as seventeen-year-olds often are. She has an active mind but has seen little of life outside her father’s lands, so there are quite a few surprises in store for her en route to the convent. The author’s ability to let me see her through Peter’s eyes, however, ensured that her charm consistently outweighed my exasperation. The sexual tension between them builds beautifully, thanks to the consistent and believable obstacles of character and story that conspire to keep them apart.
The story moves along at a good clip, the pace increasing as the reader gradually discovers the truth behind each character and what is at stake. There are excellent secondary characters, as well, two of whom enjoy a very satisfying little romance of their own.
There’s a great deal I can’t tell you without spoiling Ms. Stuart’s nicely constructed plot, so I’ll just say – read and enjoy for yourself. This is exactly the kind of medieval I’m always hoping for.
-- Judi McKee