Heaven's Fire, by Patricia Ryan

>> Wednesday, June 06, 2007

TITLE: Heaven's Fire
AUTHOR: Patricia Ryan

PAGES: 341
PUBLISHER: Topaz (Penguin-Putnam)

SETTING: Medieval (12th century England)
TYPE: Hmm, I suppose the suspense subplot might be big enough to call this Romantic Suspense-ish.
SERIES: Follows Falcon's Fire. Seems the hero of HF was an intriguing character in FF, because there's a foreword saying that many readers asked for his story.

REASON FOR READING: It's a second chance for HF. I tried to read it 3 or 4 years ago, and didn't get past the first 50 or so pages. Since I didn't remember it as a bad book, just one that didn't click with my mood at the time, I decided to give it another try after enjoying two other medievals by the author, Silken Threads and The Sun and the Moon.

Young Constance was practically a slave, waiting to be taken at will by the cruel Sir Roger Foliot. But Sir Roger did not count on her ability to escape from him into the protection of priest, Oxford scholar, and sworn celibate, Rainulf Fairfax.

Now Rainulf and Constance have a lesson to learn about love...how unstoppable it is...what it will cost them...and what the priceless ecstacy of sharing a future--forever--can be..

THE PLOT: Desperate to escape the cruel Sir Roger Foliot, who thinks all the young women living on his lands are his to do as he will, Constance decides to fake her own death. She pretends to have died in the pox epidemic (she almost did, actually), and while a friend makes a show of burying her "body" (a sackful of hay), Constance runs of to Oxford disguised as a boy.

In Oxford she takes refuge with Rainulf Fairfax, a former priest and currently a teacher at the university. Rainulf had first met Constance when he'd gone to help at her village and nursed her through the pox. Hearing of her death, he'd been devastated, so discovering that the young man named Corliss is actually Constance in disguise is a huge relief.

For both of them, it's extremely important that Constance/Corliss be able to maintain her disguise while staying with Rainulf. Sir Roger didn't take long to find out about Constance's ruse and he's sent a very scary man after her. Plus, Rainulf might not be a priest any more, but he aspires to the chancellorship at Oxford, and to get that post he needs both to be celibate and to seem it.

MY THOUGHTS: I really don't know why this book didn't hit it off with me that first time. There were a couple of things that exasperated me (more on that just ahead), but that was later in the book. This time, the first section felt just fine to me. Eh, well, guess I'll never know.

Anyway, as in her other Medievals, Ryan creates a vivid, flavourful setting here. I have to confess that it's not a setting that comes across as completely genuine, but I still loved visiting Ryan's version of Medieval Oxford. I especially enjoyed catching a glimpse of the early days of Oxford, with its rowdy students and their conflicts with the townsmen and the politics of how it was ran.

HF is a book with some very interesting characters, too. Rainulf is a wonderfully done beta hero. He was a warrior before he became a priest and brought the single-mindedness necessary for the former to the latter. So when he experienced a crisis of faith and became wracked with doubt, it was disastrous for him and he ended up leaving the priesthood (and for those of you who're shaking your heads at the concept of a medieval priest simply leaving the Church as easy as he pleased, it's not like that. It was shown here as a complicated process, involving petitions to the Pope based on the fact that the priest who ordained Rainulf had been condemned as a heretic, so Rainulf argued he was never a real priest. It might be historically accurate or it might not, I don't know, but at least you can rest easy that the issue was not ignored).

But leaving the priesthood didn't solve the problem, and Rainulf is still as tormented by doubts as ever, and he questions whether he's the right person to be teaching his students, considering this. Thus his determination to continue with his celibacy (eleven years and counting) and to move into the chancelor's position, a goal that is derailed when he starts spending time with Corliss. Their relationship was quite lovely, marked by respect on both sides and what seemed to me to be genuine fondness. This is one very sweet guy, and if his characterization holds from the previuos book, I don't wonder at all those readers writing to ask Ryan for his story.

As for Constance, I liked her much better at the beginning of the book than nearer the end. She starts out as a heartbreaking character. Until she runs to Oxford, her entire life has been about avoiding Sir Roger Foliot's "attentions" (which are known in the village to be horrific), and she's had to go as far as to trade her body for protection from him. See, Sir Roger is terrified of going to hell, and it seems he believes that while rape is just fine in God's eyes, sex with a married woman or interfering with a priest will damn his soul. Taking advantage of this, Constance married very young and when her husband left her a widow not too long after that, she became the "housekeeper" of the local priest.

When she moves into Rainulf's home and realizes he's not expecting sex from her in exchange for his protection, the freedom of it is a revelation, and I rejoiced right along with her. And even more when she realizes her work illuminating manuscripts is a highly marketable skill, which allows her to be independent.

Though... maybe too independent, as much as it pains me to say so, because it really goes to her head. After a while, she started driving me nuts. For a brilliant, learned woman such as she was, she was terribly stupid about her safety. She knows she's being hunted by this horrible psychopath, whose handiwork she's seen (all those mutilated women he'd "recovered" for Sir Roger before, so damaged they'd prefered to kill themselves rather than go on living like that). So what does she do? Why, she pooh-poohs Rainulf whenever he urges caution and insists on walking around on her own so she won't bother people. After all, she's disguised as a man, so she's safe. And she keeps on nattering on about that even after events prove that being male has its own dangers. And then there's her "oh, I have to leave for his own good" thing there at the end, when Rainulf's students have accidentally exposed her identity in front of all of Oxford. Think, you idiot! All Oxford knows now that the young man who was living with Rainulf is actually a young woman. So how does going away now help? That's the kind of thing she kept doing.

I really wish she hadn't had those episodes of stupidity, because if she hadn't, then this would have come close to being a keeper.



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