Review of audiobook version of outstanding medieval romance
Reading Level: Adult Romance
Release Date: 1995
Pages: 354 pages
Publisher: Recorded Books
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry
At 30 years of age, Hugh the Relentless is in his prime and is famed far and wide as an intimidatingly victorious knight, both due to his being a champion of jousting tournaments and the scourge of marauding bandits. Born illegitimate to a highborn lady and a landed knight, whose tragic deaths in his childhood are shrouded in mystery, he has strived all his life to be a faithful retainer of the man who raised him, his liege lord. In addition to that important role, he has also made a fortune as a merchant of spices. In spite of his fame and fortune, however, what he has wanted most all his life has been out of his reach until the present moment. At long last, his lord has rewarded him with the ultimate boon for a landless knight: a castle and lands of his own. And this particular property is of great personal significance to Hugh, because it once belonged to his mother’s family. However, in order to win the hearts and minds of the peasants who live on this land, and insure thereby their obedient acceptance of his legitimacy as their lord and master, there are two things Hugh must first obtain: a high-born lady as his wife, and a mysterious green crystal. The crystal has been stolen from the convent in the village outside his newly acquired castle, and according to local legend, rescue and ownership of the crystal represent an essential sign from heaven which will unequivocally prove to them that High is their rightful lord.
At 23 years of age, Lady Alice and her 16-year-old brother have been orphaned for several years. Their mother died first, and their father died not long after, during one of several vainglorious expeditions to the crusades. Her brother badly injured one of his legs in an accident at the tender age of eight, and after that, their father regarded him as useless, since he could not be trained as a knight. As a result, the combination of her brother’s youth, inexperience and physical disability gave their paternal uncle sufficient justification to successfully petition their mutual liege lord to assume possession of their deceased father’s estate. Alice and her brother have been living in their uncle’s castle ever since, because he transferred ownership of their former home to his oldest son. Alice has never gotten over her resentment at her uncle as well as intense guilt and shame at her failure to save her father’s estate for her brother. In order to recompense her brother for letting him down, she is determined to find a way to fund formal education for him on the continent so that he can become the medieval equivalent of a lawyer. Additionally, she hopes to somehow find a means to afford the pricey dowry required to enter a high quality convent with a large library. A reclusive life away from idiot men sounds ideal to her.
Alice is a scholarly woman who is the equivalent of what in the modern world would be called a scientist. Her mother had a similar propensity. She was a brilliant herbalist obsessed with her craft, who left behind a large, handwritten book filled with her carefully tested recipes for healing herbal potions. This book is Alice’s only legacy from either of her parents, but she has such a forceful personality, that she has managed to obtain, over the years, and even under her uncle’s roof, a quantity of books and various supplies, such as dried insects, for her explorations of “natural philosophy.”
Hugh and Alice meet for the first time when Hugh seeks her out at her uncle’s castle because he has learned that she possesses the green crystal he is seeking. Unfortunately, someone has recently stolen the crystal from Alice but, seeing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity before her, Alice strikes a bargain with Hugh. She informs him that she knows where the crystal very likely can be located, and she is willing to help him recover it, but in return he must fund her aspirations for her brother and herself. Hugh, who can well afford to do so, states his willingness to comply, but to Alice’s dismay, he makes a counter-offer. He needs her, on a temporary basis, to act as his betrothed for at least two weeks, long enough for him to settle in at his newly acquired castle.
Alice is initially quite leery of his offer, which directly contradicts her goal of happy spinsterhood, until he assures her that a betrothal is not a legally binding commitment, and he will do his best to settle her in an excellent convent after the two weeks are over, if she still wants to do that. Unknown to her, however, Hugh has decided that Alice would make him the perfect wife, and he is determined to do everything in his power to convince her to become his bride.
I have read and re-read a whole lot of contemporary romance by Jayne Ann Krentz, and I am a huge fan of her Harmony, futuristic, paranormal romances. But I only recently began reading her historical novels written as Amanda Quick, because I rarely read historical romances. I’m not a big fan of immersing myself in a world with a lack of indoor plumbing and, in that regard, I especially don’t enjoy reading about the extreme privations of the medieval era. However, I recently discovered my local library system has a complete collection of AQ historicals as audiobooks, and as a result, I have been systematically listening to all of her historical romances. Out of all of the ones I’ve experienced so far—perhaps 25—per my own personal taste, this is one of the very best historical romance she’s written, for the following reasons:
First, though there is ultimately a bit of a mystery in this book, it does not dominate the story, as seems to be the case with virtually all of AQ’s other historicals, because her trademark genre is “romantic suspense.” In her historical novels, the plot usually goes like this: Somebody is murdered. The hero and heroine are both sleuthing around, trying to discover whodunit. They get in each other’s way and, with varying degrees of resistance in one or both of them, decide to join forces. In the process, the hero becomes intensely protective of the frequently foolhardy heroine. She is an enormously independent soul, and she gets extremely irritated at his ordering her around and demanding she be more safety conscious. She sees this as him not treating her as an equal partner in their mutual investigation, which becomes a central romantic conflict. The murder mystery tends to be the main plot, with the romance coming in second place, with very little page space dedicated to the growth of mutual respect, liking and love between them. Instead, most of the time they are looking for clues, which is an activity that, for me as someone who is not a fan of the mystery genre, can sometimes get quite boring. The first sex scene is usually precipitous, and the heroine doesn’t enjoy her deflowering. And the depictions of their love life after that milestone don’t get much better from there. Virtually all her heroes are described as if they suffer from premature ejaculation, and they do very little in the way of foreplay. In short, they greatly disappoint the romance genre expectation that they will be virtuosos in the bedroom.
None of those issues occur in this book. The romance is the main plot, and the secondary plot is an outstanding interweaving of the solution of the mystery around the deaths of Hugh’s parents, along with the solution of the mystery of the green crystal. Along the way, Alice’s relationships with the Mother Superior of the local convent and the people living in the village next to Hugh’s castle make the historical time and place come alive while AQ simultaneously and refreshingly presents the lives of women in that era in an empowering and uplifting way.
It is clear from the first moment that Alice steps on stage, and all through the whole book consistently, that she is a woman of great charisma and natural authority. She protects and defends the weak, and goes toe to toe with any man who might try to dominate her. No one has ever made her cower, or even retreat. Thus, when she meets Hugh, it is quite believable to the reader that, other than his liege lord, she is the only person he has ever met who is not intimidated by him. By the same token, it is equally well motivated that Hugh proves to be the only man she has ever met whom she finds that she instantly, if grudgingly, respects.
I love it that Hugh never orders Alice around or treats her with condescension, as virtually all of AQ’s other heroes (in many of her early contemporary romances, as well as her historical romances) seem to invariably treat her other heroines. In an age of rampant illiteracy, both Alice and Hugh are literate and enjoy reading. Both are honorable, loyal people who are natural leaders, and who feel duty bound to care for those whom they feel are their personal responsibility. And both are blazingly attracted to each other.
In short, because they have so much in common, in my personal opinion, AQ has done a better job in this book than in almost any other I have read by her, in all three of her genres, at showing these two are true soulmates. I believe that this contributes greatly to the fact that the love scenes in this book are some of the most enthralling she’s ever written.
I experienced this novel in audiobook format. It is narrated by the outstanding voice talent, Barbara Rosenblat. She is extremely talented, and it is a treat to listen to her.
I rate this book as follows:
Romance Plot: 5
Adventure-Mystery Plot: 5
Historical Setting: 4
Audiobook Narration: 5