Uncommon Vows, by Mary Jo Putney

>> Friday, October 13, 2006

More and more rereading lately. My beloved spreadsheet tells me I didn't reread all that many books in the first few months of the year, but my rhythm is picking up.

Mary Jo Putney is one of the authors I've been revisiting. River of Fire reminded me of just how incredibly good her books used to be, and so I've decided to work through her backlist. First up was Uncommon Vows.

Lady Meriel de Vere had deceived Adrian, Earl of Shropshire. Standing in the royal forest, her falcon perched on her arm, she boldly claimed to be a Welsh commoner, not a noble Norman. Lord Adrian beheld in wonder her raven-black hair and defiant blue eyes, heard her lies, and felt a dark, primeval passion rob him of all reason.

In one irrevocable move of fate, he ordered this fair beauty locked in his castle's tower, vowing to entice her into surrendering her kisses with lips as hungry as his own. Never to give in, to die if she must, was Meriel's vow . . . until one rash moment of impetuousness swept them both up in the royal battles of kings . . . and into a dangerous intrigue of sweet caresses . . . and fiery, all-consuming love.
My very few memories of UV were that I'd liked it, but only moderately. I vaguely remembered feeling a bit frustrated by some of Meriel's actions. This time around I liked it much, much better. Even the things that frustrated me back then (basically, Meriel's refusal to make certain explanations that would have probably protected her) felt well justified. It's so good that I'm putting it right at the top of my favourite MJPs. An A.

Adrian de Lancey is fifteen and about to become a monk when he receives the tragic news that his entire family has been massacred. Adrian sees the abbey as a refuge from his dark side and would very much like to remain there, but the new circumstances dictate that he become a different man. Now he will need to get in touch with his inner darkness, and devote his life to avenging his family's deaths and rebuilding their holdings.

Fast-forward eleven years. A young woman named Meriel is hunting with her falcon a few miles from her brother's holding. She accidentally goes into the royal forest after her falcon and is unfortunate enough to run into Adrian's hunting party. They mistake her for a peasant and think she's been poaching, an offense aggravated by her possession of a falcon, a bird English peasants aren't allowed to own.

Simple enough to explain who she is, right? But once Meriel realizes the hunting party's leader is Adrian, Earl of Shropshire, she knows she can't say anything. This is the 1140s, right in the middle of the civil war, and Meriel's brother and Adrian are on opposite sides. Adrian's got a reputation for being a fearsome warrior, and Meriel doesn't want to give him an excuse to attack her brother's keep while her brother's away.

So Meriel remains silent about her true identity and allows them to believe she's a Welsh peasant. Given that they have no proof that she was poaching, and that being Welsh allows her to own a falcon, she's sure they'll just reprimand her and let her go on her way.

But Meriel isn't aware of what's going on inside Adrian. The minute he saw her, Adrian became completely obsessed with Meriel. There's just something about her that tells him he needs her. So even though he's really got no reason to do so, Adrian takes her prisoner and has her brought to his castle. There, he offers her the chance to become his mistress, an offer she refuses. But Adrian won't take no for an answer, and locks her in the tower until she changes her mind.

So, how about it? Sounds like something I'd absolutely hate, right? A hero who takes the heroine captive and really applies the pressure to make her his mistress (for instance, not content with locking her up, Adrian stops her from having contact with anyone, hoping extreme boredom will help change her mind), oh, yeah, there's a prince of a guy. There's even an almost-rape scene, to make things even better.

But you know what? It works, and this ends up being one of the most wonderful romances I've ever read.

I think I've managed to understand why I liked it so much here, when captivity in most romances makes me grit my teeth, and in 99.9% of cases, a hero who would seriously entertain the idea of forcing himself on someone would be completely repellent and unredeemable.

There's two elements which separate Adrian holding Meriel prisoner from those other silly books. The first is something I explored at length in an old column I wrote for Romancing the Blog: Adrian knows he's wrong in holding Meriel. He fears for his very soul for doing this evil thing, and tortures himself about it, but can't stop himself (more on the "can't stop himself" thing later). And that makes all the difference for me. A guy who'd thought he was perfectly justified in doing so and had every right to do this to her, I would have considered an asshole. With Adrian, I felt for him, especially because the tension between what he was doing and what he knew he should do was so well written.

A second element that makes this succeed is that Meriel never gives in to Adrian. Yes, as she interacts more with Adrian, she finds herself liking him more and more, and is even attracted to him, but she always says no. She just cannot fall in love with someone who's holding her captive, and she sticks to this, not through pride or to spite Adrian, but because she really does feel it.

So how about the almost-rape? How could I accept a hero who probably would have forced himself on the heroine if she hadn't instinctively found a way to make him see reason? Well, first because, like with the captivity, Adrian knows his actions are wrong and he hates himself for them afterwards. And second, because unlike real-world sexual violence, his actions were all about how much he loves and needs Meriel, not about violence and power over her. Let me stress what I just said: this is not something I would accept in the real world, with real people, but in this book, Putney made me believe it. And it's the same reason why I accepted that he really couldn't stop himself from taking Meriel captive.

Adrian's obsession with Meriel is written in such a way that it is very interesting. This is not a promiscuous man, or even one with an insatiable sexual appetite. He's not one to whore around; rather, he's had a couple of stable relationships over the years, and those, as we could see when he went to talk to his old mistress, were more about comfort and warmth than about passion and hunger. This makes the tempestuousness of his feelings for Meriel extremely out-of-character, and much more powerful, for that.

I'm not going to go into how Putney resolves this untenable situation, with Meriel refusing to give in and Adrian not being able to force himself to release her, but suffice it to say that she takes a romance cliché that should have made me groan and roll my eyes and turns it into something fresh and fascinating.

Something I especially appreciated about UV was the sense of religiousness that imbues the characters and really, the whole book. Both Adrian and Meriel are people of strong beliefs, and these beliefs shape them and influence their actions. And I'm not a great fan of organized religion myself, but I did like that unlike in so many Medievals, here religion was portrayed as a positive thing, not simply as a weapon for power-hungry zealots and mysoginists.

The only reason UV is not an A+ is the very final parts, when the actions of the cartoonishly evil villain come to the forefront. I suppose it bothered me that this unnecessary plot intruded in the romance. I thought there was more than enough tension right there without those events that take place. It felt almost like a "well, we can't have a medieval without a fight scene" moment.

But this is really a minor point, and doesn't diminish the wonderfulness of the romance one whit. If I'm not mistaken, this is Putney's only Medieval, and considering how great it is, this is a real shame.


Post a Comment

Blog template by simplyfabulousbloggertemplates.com

Back to TOP