The Blacksmith's Wife by Elisabeth Hobbes was the blacksmith hero. Heroes in Medieval Romance Land tend to skewer heavily towards knights and warriors and warriors fighting knights. I'm also happy to report that while our hero is the bastard son of a titled, wealthy man - it's not revealed in the end that he's some long, lost Duke or is going to inherit his father's lands. No, he's a blacksmith and he stays a blacksmith.
After her family is wiped out by pestilence, Joanna goes to live with her uncle, a blacksmith and powerful member of the Smiths' Guild. While he's not overtly cruel to her, let's just say Joanna is well aware that she's another mouth to feed and an added burden to her uncle's family. So she's feeling the pressure to marry and start her own household. She has set her sights on handsome knight, Sir Roger Danby, who intermittently travels to York for tournaments. Joanna is convinced he's going to propose any day now, and while his forceful kisses leave her feeling a bit uncertain, she's madly in love. Isn't she? Well, she thinks she is and she thinks he is - but it soon becomes apparent Sir Roger is nothing more than a womanizing flirt with no intentions of proposing marriage to a blacksmith's niece.
Traveling with Roger, this time at least, is his bastard half-brother, Hal Danby. Hal is in York to show his work to the Smiths' Guild, only to have the men tell him "you're not ready yet kid." Joanna's uncle sees an opportunity though. He suggests that if Hal marries Joanna and continues to hone his craft that maybe, just maybe, the Guild will look on him more favorably next time around. Hal and Joanna have, naturally, already had run-ins with each other and Hal is smitten - never mind that she fancies herself in love with his brother. Seeing the marriage as an advantageous match for his ambitions and Joanna, frankly out of options, the two get married.
There was a lot I liked about this story. Both characters are outsiders in their respective families with much to prove. Joanna lives with the knowledge that her uncle didn't want her, Sir Roger didn't want her, and now she's married to Hal only because it can further his career. Hal has pride and while he married Joanna for her connections, he's determined to get into the Smiths' Guild on his own merit. He's also smitten with her, but knowing that she loves his brother hasn't exactly instilled him with a ton of confidence. He's hoping, over time, and with his brother always traveling for tournaments, that their marriage can be a partnership, if not an outright love match. Although he's more than halfway there already.
Where the story started to stumble, at times, was in the conflict. First, the good. I loved (LOVED!) that Joanna was a romance heroine who actually thought about her virtue. There's a scene very early on when she finds herself alone with Roger and he's putting on the full court press. His kisses are punishing (not in a good way) and the encounter leaves Joanna feeling vaguely uneasy. She knows that Roger is pressing her for something more, but our girl resists. She is not "that kind of girl." It also helps that Hal arrives on the scene shortly thereafter. Throughout history a woman's worth has been tied to her virtue, and one of the more annoying aspects of historical romance is the ease in which some heroines just toss aside those years of ingrained fetishized (is that a word?) virginity because the hero is suitably Alpha and manly enough. The fact that Joanna doesn't makes her a breath of fresh air as far as genre conventions go.
However, given that Joanna fancies herself in love with Roger and Hal's pride - well, a huge chunk of the conflict, especially in the second half, centers around the Big Misunderstanding and the fact that these two characters don't talk to each other. Hal has no idea that Joanna is a marvelous sketcher (ergo she could really help him with his decorative design work!) because he doesn't ask and she doesn't tell. He keeps secrets from her (Hal's been cleaning up Roger's messes for a while now...) and she keeps secrets from him (brought about in part when Rogers reappears on the scene....). After a while this She Didn't Say, He Didn't Say, I Thought You Felt This Or That Way Etc. gets very tiresome. Especially when we get towards the finish line and the couple are finally hashing everything out in the final chapter.
So it's kind of a mixed bag. The medieval flavor of the story is very good, I liked the characters, and I liked the general set-up of the story. But I did find myself wearing down under the Big Misunderstanding conflict in the second half. Still, it's a solid historical and a well-done medieval when those aren't necessarily thick on the ground. Hobbes' has three books under her belt now (I've read, and liked, two) and I have every intention to continue following her career.
Final Grade = B-