Saturday, February 3, 2018

Review: Rumors at Court

I'm a small handful of librarians inhabiting the planet who does not have an undergraduate degree in English.  No, mine is in history - and I spent the better part of four years working on a concentration in British history.  This being said, I'm fairly hopeless when it comes to anything prior to the Tudors.  I like reading medieval romances, but medieval history never captured my imagination in the same way that, say, the Victorian era did.

Which is why I appreciate how Blythe Gifford writes about the time period.  She has this way of infusing her stories with the history without 1) writing dull textbook treatises or 2) hopelessly confusing the reader.  While reading Rumors at Court, I'll admit, I ran off to Wikipedia early on to brush up on the Duke of Lancaster's timeline but after that I sunk right into the story and let it carry me away.

Valerie of Florham is a widow and she thanks God for that fact.  Hers was not a happy marriage.  Her husband was abusive and was not faithful.  Adding insult to injury, she failed to conceive - and a child is something Valerie so desperately wants.  Her husband's death means she has been summoned to London where the Duke of Lancaster (now calling himself My Lord of Spain) has wed Constanza of Castile.  The Duke was hopelessly in love with his first wife, Blanche, but his second marriage is strictly strategic.  He knows he is unlikely to ever sit on the throne of England and our boy has ambition.  So he weds the exiled Constanza which gives him a claim to the throne of Castile.  All he has to do now is wage a war to take it.

This would be where Sir Gil Wolford comes in.  She served the Duke faithfully fighting in France.  He is a trusted knight, and has the Duke's ear.  He was also Valerie's husband's commanding officer and he wishes to meet the widow to return something she gave her husband before he rode off into battle.  A small scrap of beautiful silk.  Imagine his horror when he meets Valerie and she spurns the silk.  Um, yeah.  She gave her husband no such thing.  So here's poor Gil, offering back the token to the wife that some mistress gave her husband.  Oopsie doodle.

What follows is a story about two people who lack agency - because, to be frank, very few people had agency during this time.  If you weren't at the mercy of the Court, you were at the mercy of the Vatican.  Valerie lives in fear that the Duke will decree she take another husband and given the dumpster fire that her first marriage was, she's not exactly in a rush.  All she wants is to go home, to tend her small garden, to work the land.  Gil is a man who has a home, but it's one he spurns.  His family's history is unsavory to the point of ugly.  He's damaged goods.  It's what has driven him to be a fierce warrior, that blind hope that people will forget what blood runs through his veins.  His greatest wish?  To take Castile for the Duke and live there permanently - a land where nobody knows his name.

We all know where this is going, right?  The Duke eventually decrees that Valerie and Gil will marry.  Valerie resigning herself to be controlled by yet another man, and fearful because her only memories of marriage are horrid.  Gil wants a family, desires a wife, and he is attracted to Valerie.  But she's a puzzle, wrapped in a riddle, wrapped in an enigma - and he has no idea how to reach her.

Secondary storylines come into play surrounding the Duke, his mistress Katherine (a friend of Valerie's) and Constanza, who is pregnant by the Duke when this story opens.  As Gil prepares for war, Valerie is making herself indispensable to Constanza, and looking for a way to return to her home - even as it seems inevitable that she will marry Gil and end up in Castile.

There's a nice mix of external and internal conflict to this romance, but even with all the drama surrounding court life, this is a quiet story.  Valerie and Gil are both characters with deep insecurities and fears who must learn to trust and be open with each other.  Gil is a fearsome knight with a fearsome reputation, but his gentleness with Valerie make this a movingly sweet romance.  And Valerie, with Gil's understanding, has to learn to find her voice.  Gil makes decisions over the course of this story that will break her heart, but as they come together, as they learn to trust, Valerie and Gil find their way to each other and carve out their own path to happiness.

Final Grade = B


SandyH said...

If you haven't read Katherine by Anya Seton, I highly recommend it. It is the story of John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster) and his mistress who becomes his wife.

Carole Rae said...

I love when romances have external and internal conflicts. It really adds to the story.

Miss Bates said...

I like this one too, a lot. I loved Secrets at Court even more and think I ended up reading it b/c you reviewed it so positively? In any case, Secrets's romance really came alive for me, and Rumours was, as you said, quieter. But the leads in both case are quite sympathetic.

Deb said...

I was privileged to read this book early on, and I liked it very much. The mid-14th century is one of my medieval happy places, and I am a huge fan of the way Gifford gives her characters layers and hidden unhappinesses that inform their choices. Her characters are never "cardboard cutouts" in veils and surcotes and armor -- they are both true to their times and completely realized human beings. Kudos to Gifford for another winner.

Wendy said...

SandyH: The author mentions that in her afterword! I, of course, knew of the book - but have never read it - so had no idea.

Carole: It's a good mix here and the book doesn't feel overcrowded for it.

Miss Bates: I've had this one buried on my Kindle forever, and your recent review had me resolving to dig it out. I'm glad I did! I, too, liked Secrets a little bit better - but I loved the quiet intensity of this story.

Deb: What I've appreciated about the two books in this series that I've read (I still need to get to Whispers...) is how Gifford creates a romance for characters that aren't free to live their own lives. That is, to say, they're at the mercy of people with more power than they have - royalty and/or the Vatican. But somehow she makes it all work. Even with the lack of agency, I end up believing in these romances.

Jazzlet said...

Katherine by Anya Seton was the first romance I ever read, snuck of the high shelf above the coats in our ... aargh can't think of the word ... room off the hall for coats that also lead to the loo. I have no idea what my mother was doing with it, I never saw her read anything like Katherine, the nearest she got to romance was Elizabeth Goodge.

Wendy said...

Jazzlet: The closest my Mom got to romance was Gone With the Wind and The Thorn Birds. And OMG - one of the libraries I use has Katherine on audio! I'm knee-deep in "required listening" right now for work - but once that is done Katherine is moving to the top of the list!