I got a complimentary copy of this novel from the author in exchange for an honest review – thank you very much ! That fact, of course, didn’t influence my opinion in any way.
The novel is set in the 12th century England (more precisely in 1199 AD). Yes, these were the times of Robin Hood, Sheriff of Nottingham and lady Marian. King Richard Plantagenet, known as ‘ the Lionheart’, a great military leader and warrior, is returning slowly from the crusade while his younger brother, Prince John, a conniving, cold-hearted regent, rules the Kingdom .
It was not easy to be an Anglo-Saxon aristocrat among Norman noblemen at that time. Helena of York experienced it first hand – she was outlawed by King Richard after she and her father had escaped to the Sherwood Forest. Then her father was murdered in very strange circumstances by some Norman barons. Since then Helena has lived and breathed vengeance, hell-bent on finding the murderer and clean her father’s name. In order to do so she’s been posing as Isobel of Brittany, a high-born orphan sponsored by lady Catherine and Hubert Fitzwarren, lord of Worcester – they’ve been helping her to find her place at the court and, of course, an appropriate husband. Helena hopes that, attending all these feasts and tournaments as a Norman lady, she will be able to find the guilty baron. She finds love instead.
Stephen, Count of Dinan, a former crusader, is a man who lost the grace of the King for unknown reasons. Now he is living a pointless existence, shunned by loyalists and universally despised; the fact that he is also a great knight, able to defeat every opponent no matter what weapon they wield, doesn’t help him either. When he sees Helena during a feast he is drawn instantly by her lovely, unusual eyes. Still when he hears her name he instantly knows she is not a woman she pretends to be. Stephen used to play with little Isobel of Brittany in his childhood and he remembered clearly that her eyes were different. He decides to find out the real identity of the beautiful girl who took his fancy but soon he is faced with a wall of silence and deceit, hiding more dangers than he would ever imagine. Will he be able to love Helena, knowing the whole truth? How much will he be willing to sacrifice in order to win her over?
When I was reading this novel I constantly saw flashes of that old movie, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner in my mind. It was not only because both the book and the movie were set in the same times and presented a romantic story of clandestine love; it was also because they presented the Middle Ages in the same way – as a mere backdrop, without at least trying to understand the mind set of people who lived in 12/13th centuries on the British Isles and their motivations.
I am not saying that the author neglected her research because she clearly tried her best. Officially everything was in perfect order: the King, the events and places, the titles, the clothes and customs. What’s more, the narration was done skilfully, drawing me into the plot pretty quickly. Still, as soon as I started reading I knew the book’s setting was spurious – like a cheap theatre costume. Why? The characters thought, acted and often spoke like your contemporaries.
It was, for example, very strange to me that Helena, being left alone in a very difficult situation, never even though of consulting a priest or a monk to ease off her tension, never went to church (a very important activity even for the ladies of the court), never prayed or confessed and generally never pondered about the religious aspect of taking her vengeance (which is, as far as I know, pretty much forbidden in the Bible; in the New Testament it is presented as something completely unchristian). Her approach was modern to the core – it might be summed up as ‘ God most likely doesn’t exist and certainly doesn’t care; I’ll do whatever I think is the right thing to do because my opinion counts the most’. Correct me if I am mistaken but no medieval lady would think that way. The same can be said about her beloved Stephen – not even once he questioned those religious beliefs which made his King and himself go to the so-called Holy Land, far away from his own home, and fight the Muslims. He remembered the beauty of the desert but nothing more. His loyalty towards the King stemmed from the fact that they were…good friends. Yeah, right.
That’s why I wouldn’t call this novel ‘historical’ at all. History, treated as a cheap decoration set, is just an excuse to present all these armoured knights and tournaments, the English medieval royal court and ladies and Robin Hood of course. If you are not a purist and you can live with it, enjoying the romance – no problem. Still be honest and don’t call this book ‘historical’. It is merely historically-flavoured and that’s it.
The romantic story arc was done a bit better than the historical aspect – at least the author didn’t rush things overly and avoided that pesky insta-love and insta-lust, so obnoxious and so wide-spread nowadays. Still I wish both Helena and Stephen weren’t so damn pretty. I also wish the main baddie, Savaric, was a bit more three-dimensional because, let’s face it, he started off as a very interesting character indeed: an illiterate peasant from an unusually large family who managed to, metaphorically speaking, pull himself by his bootstraps and ended up as the closest advisor of Prince John. Such a career would be worth a book on its own. Unfortunately Savaric was truncated to your common-and-garden black hat who plotted, killed, hurt innocents, gnashed his teeth and even, imagine his cheek, dared to compete with our chivalrous Stephen for the favours of Helena. My problem was that I rather liked him although I wasn’t supposed to. In order to make such a brilliant, unprecedented career, no matter what era we are speaking of, you must have been uncommonly intelligent, very motivated, completely ruthless and very, very lucky, especially if you were just a simple guy from an ordinary peasant family. Because of that I wanted Helena to fall for Savaric, at least a tiny little bit – no such luck. Pity – in my humble opinion it would make the whole book far better.
A lovely, high-born Anglo-Saxon girl, a dark Norman baron, Robin Hood, the Sherwood forest, a band of cartoon baddies and a bunch of social notions straight from 21st century. If you like your pseudo-historical romance following the same, well-worn scheme it might be a book for you. I am not saying it was abyssmal but its mediocrity left me a bit disappointed. I hoped for more history and less romance. Meh it is.