A Falcon’s Heart by Jayel Wylie
(Sonnet, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-7434-1839-5
New author Jayel Wylie has penned a sprawling novel set in 12th century England. While the book shows promise, it bears the hallmarks of a first effort. The tale lacks focus and the characters do not act or think like people who lived in the 1100s. This, and other historical inaccuracies, detracted from my enjoyment of the story.

My concern started with the way Wylie began the book. It opens with a lengthy letter from Fra Paolo Bosacci to his sister in Florence detailing the events at the castle of Falconskeep. Now, setting the stage in this fashion is a useful plot device, but problematic for a story set in 1139. Long, chatty letters were simply not all that common at this time, so I was a bit perturbed from the very start. That Fra Paolo is identified as a Franciscan friar several decades before the founder of the order was born created in me the dread premonition that the author was not all that interested in historical verisimilitude.

The plot is a familiar one to readers of medieval romance: an heiress is ordered by the king to marry the man of his choice. Wylie does offer an interesting if not unknown spin to this common scenario.

The family that owned Falconskeep was driven out of the castle during the early stages of the struggle between King Stephen and Empress Matilda for the English throne. Its holder, loyal to the king, was given another keep which had been seized from one of the empress’s supporters, Brinlaw. There, Mark of Brinlaw raised his daughter Alista after her mother’s death. When Stephen died, Mark went up to London to offer homage to the new king, Henry II, Matilda’s son. Mark’s possession of the castle is challenged by William of Brinlaw, the son of the previous holder but the king, anxious to heal the divisions of years of civil war, confirms Mark as master of Brinlaw.

William expected better of his sovereign; after all, his father had died in the empress’s service and he had been Henry’s friend and companion. He does not accept the king’s decision meekly, but threatens Mark. Then, fate takes a hand That very night, Mark dies and Henry sees a solution. He orders Will to take the body back to Brinlaw with a letter from the king ordering Alista to wed the new master of Brinlaw keep.

Alista is devastated by her father’s death but is convinced to wed Will by Henry’s letter which falsely states that he was her father’s choice. Since her father had never forced her to wed. Mark had adored her mother and insisted that Alista must likewise find her soul mate. That he had “selected” Will suggests that he had perceived something special about her suitor. That Alista feels a certain connection to Will leads her to go through with the ceremony.

Much of the rest of the story can be predicted. Alista and Will, after a rocky start, begin to fall in love. Then, she discovers the truth - that rather than choosing Will, her father had viewed him as an enemy. Another of her suitors, Geoffrey of Anjou, suggests that Will had murdered Mark. So the breach becomes even greater. Will is called to London to answer charges and Alista flees back to Falconskeep where she discovers the secret of her mother’s magical powers and finds that she too is a faerie.

At this point in a review, I generally describe my take on the characters, especially the hero and heroine. To be frank, I found both Alista and Will somewhat stereotypical and somewhat problematic. She has had an unusual upbringing. For reasons never quite made clear, her father had had her trained in arms. She thus can go after Will with sword and knife when she discovers the truth. I am sure that the author meant to create a strong heroine. Instead, Alista came across to me as coming too close to reckless and foolish in her behavior.

Will is, I suppose, a tortured hero. He had gone to the Holy Land as a crusader and his experiences there had left him guilt ridden. Yet his “tortured-ness” only pops up sporadically and does not seem all that central to his character and behavior.

As for the romance between Alista and Will, it seemed underdeveloped. I was never quite sure how, when or why the two fell in love.

A Falcon’s Heart has plots and subplots galore, too many, in my opinion. I’m not sure what the whole magic subplot really added to the story other than to allow Fra Paolo to worry about his charge. Even the machinations of the evil Geoffrey which should have been the clear external conflict didn’t have the impact they could have.

I began by calling A Falcon’s Heart “sprawling” and I believe this description is at the heart of why I didn’t enjoy this tale as much as I could have. I like lengthy books with lots of action but I like things to hang together nicely. I fear that Wylie lost control of her story and thus lost me.

--Jean Mason

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