Monday, September 21, 2020

Review: The Rebel Heiress and the Knight

The Rebel Heiress and the Knight Book Cover
The Rebel Heiress and the Knight by Melissa Oliver is her debut novel, having gotten "the call" as part of Harlequin's So You Think You Can Write initiative. It was on my to-read list for all the unusual historical reasons, but when the Romantic Novelists' Association awarded Oliver with their Joan Hessayon Award (for new writers), I moved it up the queue.

Hugh de Villiers, a knight in service to King John (yes, the Magna Carta / Robin Hood King John...) is at Tallany Castle to deliver a message from the King to the widowed Lady Eleanor and the woman has kept him waiting for three days.  He's got better things to do than wait around, listening to one cockamamie excuse after another delivered by her steward on why she cannot see him.  But he's a knight, loyal to his King, and if the King wants this message delivered to Lady Eleanor, there's nothing for it.  Hugh waits.

Lady Eleanor survived a disastrous first marriage that was, naturally, arranged by the King and has successfully avoided court since her odious husband died of dysentery.  She's not exactly eager to receive some knight, loyal to an odious King, who is delivering a message for said odious King.  But she realizes that she can't will him to go away, so she bites the bullet and receives him.  Only to open the message and learn that the King expects her and this knight to be wed.  Well, bother!

Hugh is just as shocked as Eleanor.  He isn't exactly all that keen to marry - but Lady Eleanor is obviously the King's way for thanking him - Hugh having saved his majesty's life on the battlefield.  Eleanor is about as eager for this union as getting all her teeth pulled but there's no defying a King's order.  This marriage is going to happen and Hugh recognizes his bride-to-be is less than enthralled by the prospect.  So he does what all good romance heroes do - he sets out to woo her and win her over.

Eleanor is a woman recovering from an abusive first marriage that left her both physically and emotionally scarred, but with a fighting spirit still intact.  She's an heiress whose lands are to the north, and strategically it is logical that John - who is having a devil of a time with the Rebel Barons - would marry her off to a man who is loyal to him.  The other reason for the union?  There are outlaws running amok in the area, stealing taxes meant for the King.  Hugh, an accomplished knight is meant to track them down.  Of course little does he realize that his new wife is aiding and abetting said outlaws.

What I like about medievals is that there is often high stakes conflict centered around loyalty.  If you place your bet on the wrong horse - loyalty could, in fact, get you very dead.  King John is a suitably villainous villain, and Hugh - while loyal to a King who hardly deserves it - is an honorable, worthy romance hero who holds no illusions as to what kind of King John is.

Eleanor is haunted, vulnerable and feisty all at the same time.  She's the kind of heroine who verbally spars with the hero, and yet is scared that she may have pushed too far - given her first husband's cruel abuse.  It's Hugh's job to woo her - to show her he's an honorable, decent man and that not all men are like her first husband, who Hugh knew and had no admiration for.  This is all well and good - but Eleanor seems a little too superhuman.  The fiery spirit doesn't always mesh well with the haunted vulnerability.  She's scarred from her first marriage yet somehow seems amazingly well-adjusted. She pushes back with the outlaws, she pushes back with Hugh - sometimes secretively (which makes sense) and sometimes brazenly out in the open (which, does not).

The other problem is the outlaw storyline.  Naturally Hugh eventually learns the truth about his wife's role - and he's angry.  I get this.  But his anger comes and goes - he's incandescent with rage, at first, but then the edges smooth out, and then he's back to anger again once he finally confronts her.  Hugh's not a fool. He knows King John is an asshole - but the asshole is his boss.  And Eleanor, a woman in 13th century England with very limited power (yeah, she's an heiress but STILL!) has put him in a very precarious position.  On one hand he's got his boss who can execute him with a snap of his fingers and on the other he's got his wife, who he has sworn to protect and who he has fallen in love with.  I mean, consistent anger and hurt isn't too much to expect here.  I get he's a nice, decent man but dude - she's put you in a very difficult position!

It's a good, solid debut that loses a little footing for me with a heroine who seems to be great at everything despite all she has endured and the wrap-up of the outlaw subplot.  Not perfect, but I was entertained, intrigued, happily engrossed, and Oliver creates an interesting world while laying groundwork for a second book (featuring Hugh's friend Will) that I will readily pick up.  

Final Grade = B-


azteclady said...

On Hugh's anger: isn't it interesting how we demand a lot more consistency from our fiction than what happens in real life? I mean, I can see being incandescent with rage, then calm down (because sustaining that level of emotion is exhausting), then getting even angrier all over again when confronting the original cause of my anger. But we expect the character in our books to be more consistent with their emotions.

Wendy said...

AL: Point taken. I think for me it was the time period. I mean, by this point in the story we know that Hugh loves Eleanor and he'll do anything to protect her - which means protecting her secrets from the King - which in turn could get him, her or both of them very, very dead. The confrontation scene is very good but I guess I wanted it to be more explosive? Given the life or death nature of the secret.

One thing I did like though is that once the hero uncovers the secret he doesn't go charging into the mess to confront Eleanor. He sits back and waits. And she knows something is very wrong given the utter shift in his mood. It builds tension. I was SO ready for the confrontation when it does happen.

azteclady said...

Oh, no, I absolutely get it--fiction must make sense, while reality doesn't at all most of the time. But it is interesting, no?