Thursday, March 6, 2014

Secrets At Court
I know authors loathe the term "wallpaper historical," but I've always found it an apt description, assuming the term is used correctly.  For me, a book that is "wallpaper" is one with no clearly defined world building.  That is to say the author tells you the story is a medieval, but it lacks so much flavor that it might as well take place in Regency London, post-Civil War America, or on the moon.  When I read a historical romance I want the author to give me a story that is entrenched in the era they are writing about.  When I'm reading a medieval, I want a medieval thankyouverymuch.  Which is why I could kick myself in the teeth for not reading a Blythe Gifford book sooner.  Secrets at Court is very clearly a medieval - a darn good one at that.

Anne of Stamford knows how lucky she is, in theory.  Born with a lame foot and leg, she is well aware that her life could be spent either in a nunnery or begging in the streets.  Instead she is a lady in waiting to Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent.  Joan keeps her around for a couple of reasons 1) she has secrets Anne could expose and 2) being "lame" Anne is never really "seen" by most people.  That is to say Anne is pretty darn great at ferreting out court intrigues - and Joan has plenty of secrets, most of which involve her addiction to marrying men in secret.  Now she has fallen in love with Edward, the Black Prince, they marry in secret with Anne as a witness, and then after the fact try to get the Vatican's blessing.  The fly in the ointment?  Joan has been married before - twice.  The church having already untangled one of her messes.  The other is that Joan and Edward may be too closely related for the church to bless the union.  Well, no matter.  We're talking royalty after all, why should rules apply to them?  So Edward dispatches a knight, Sir Nicholas Lovayne, to deal with these few remaining minor details.

Nicholas is bloody well tired of dealing with the whims of his betters, but you cannot very well say no to a prince.  He just wants to get the whole mess sorted so he can pack his bags and head back to France, or Italy, or wherever the wind takes him.  Nicholas is a man with no ties, very few possessions, and has spent his life at war.  It's the way he likes it - until he meets Anne, a woman who intrigues him like no other.  But little does he know that the tempting Anne has entered into his orbit at the behest of her lady.  Because Joan has secrets that Nicholas can never, ever, be allowed to uncover.

There is no mistaking this story for a medieval.  It's a medieval down to the marrow.  There's the court intrigue, the politics, the incredible importance of the Vatican and the Pope, plus the keen sense of value placed on loyalty.  Loyalty was everything.  Loyalty either let you live or got your killed, depending on which side you were on (hopefully the winning one!).  Loyalty literally meant life or death - and the author does an excellent job of conveying all of this within the framework of her fictional story.

What I loved about the romance is that both Anne and Nicholas felt they were "lesser than" for entirely different reasons.  They are two lost souls who feel they are unworthy of love, marriage, and happiness - but for their own unique reasons:

"A man might wed a plain woman for money or because she could help raise children and run the household.  He might bed a beautiful one for love or lust.  But a lame one was of little use to anyone.  Except, perhaps, to God."
"The truth was, he had nothing to offer her, or any woman, but a strong right arm and a nimble brain.  All he had to show for thirty-one years on this earth was the horse beneath him and the armour on his back."
And when these two people get together?  When they succumb to their attraction?  You get beautiful moments like this one - where Anne literally teaches Nicholas to open his eyes and see - see the details all around him:
'You must promise me something.  You must do it for me.  When you leave, when you go back to France and Italy and the rest of the world, look at it twice as hard.  Look at it for yourself and then look at it for me.  Look at every leaf and stone and bit of coloured glass and every wave.  And know that I will think of you.  That I am here, imagining all the wonders the world holds.'
It's everything I want out of a good medieval.  It gives me the strong sense of time and place, with intriguing, damaged characters lugging around enough burdens to make them interesting.  If you love medievals this is a must read or if you just need a historical romance palate cleanser?  Look no further.  This is a very good story that will take you out of the Regency ballroom for a change.

Final Grade = B+


azteclady said...

This sounds intriguing--and I truly like the idea of medieval historicals that actually feel medieval, so I'll keep an eye out for it.

I do have a quibble, however (even though I'm going to come across as an awfully pedantic nitpicker): in the 14th Century (Black Edward, 1330 to 1372), neither Italy nor France actually existed yet--there were a number of kingdoms, city-states, principalities and the like, loosely tied by language and currency (and even that, only to a point).

Wendy said...

AL: What stuck out most for me was the Vatican angle. Not that the Church isn't still powerful - but during this era they wielded more of it than pretty much....well, anybody else. Also, the importance of religion in everyday life, things like pilgrimages in the hopes of being blessed with a miracle etc. The characters *thought* like you would imagine medieval people did think.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a great reader of medieval romances (although I love HF set in the period) - for some of the reasons you say about the wallpapers. But this sounds like a good one - *adds to TBR pile*


Wendy said...

Caz: It's a very solid medieval, and I felt like the author did a good job of immersing me in the time period.