The Knave and the Maiden, by Blythe Gifford

>> Friday, February 09, 2007

I've accumulated quite a stash of Harlequin Historicals, seduced by the fresh and different plots and settings. The last one I read, The Surgeon, by Kate Bridges, wasn't a success, and I hoped Blythe Gifford's The Knave and the Maiden (excerpt) would be better.

book coverCOULD A MAIDEN'S KISS TURN A CYNICAL ROGUE INTO AN HONORABLE KNIGHT?

Mercenary knight Sir Garren owed much to William, Earl of Readington: his sword, his horse, even his very knighthood. And in return Garren had saved the earl's life in the Holy Land. Yet when his liege lord fell gravely ill upon their return home, Garren knew he must save his friend once more, whatever the cost - even if it meant embarking upon a pilgrimage to pray to a long-forsaken God, or promising to deflower an innocent young woman along the way....

Dominica was certain Sir Garren was a sign from heaven. Surely the pilgrimage, blessed with the presence of the handsome and heroic knight, would provide a sign of heaven's plan for her to take the veil. But every step of the journey seemed to be leading her straight into Garren's powerful arms. And Dominica was beginning to wonder if her true mission was to open the mercenary's seemingly cold heart to true and lasting love.

It was. Much, much better. The opening was slow, but after the first 60 or 70 pages it hit its stride and became a very good read. A B.

TKATM is a road romance featuring a type of road trip I've never seen before in a romance novel: a pilgrimage. Our hero and heroine meet while on a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Blessed Larina. They each have strong reasons to go there. Sir Garren, a landless knight, is going there because he was asked by his liege, Lord William, who lies dying after being rescued from the battlefield by Garren himself. Dominica, a young foundling living in a nunnery, is going to receive a message from God confirming that she should be a nun herself, too.

The very religious Dominica is in awe of Garren, called The Saviour by some, for his saving of Lord William. But Dominica doesn't know that the prioress, pushed to it by the unscrupulous Sir Richard, brother to Garren's liege lord, has offered Garren a tidy sum of money to seduce her, so she can't enter the nunnery. And even worse: she doesn't know he's accepted the offer.

I'm not sure why, but the first part of the book was really slow going. I'd read a few pages and lose interest and put the book aside. This actually went on for a couple of weeks, with me (obviously) reading quite a few other books in between a couple of pages read of this one.

I think part of the reason for my lack of interest was the character of Dominica, who at first was very difficult for me to understand and like. She's almost otherwordly in her faith. Everything is "God this" and "God that", and nothing in the world around her is dangerous, because God will take care of her and fix it. Her willful blindness to reality made me want to shake her.

But then came a turning point, when I realized that Gifford wasn't writing Dominica as a perfect, supernaturally good child-woman, but as someone so sure of everything that this becomes a flaw. It became clear that her faith in the fact that God will do anything she wants, if only she asks for it, crossed the line into pride and arrogance, and when she becomes aware of this, I was hooked.

This increasing awareness comes from her contact with the world around her during the pilgrimage, and especially from her contact with Garren. Garren turned his back on God years earlier, when all the people he loved were taken away from him during the plague, in spite of the constant prayers and even the gift to the Church of all his family's properties. He doesn't believe a pilgrimage will help at all, but he's willing to do anything that will give William peace of mind. But as the pilgrimage proceeds, and he interacts more and more with Dominica and the other pilgrims, Garren starts questioning his lack of faith.

As you might deduce from reading what I wrote above, this is a book in which faith and religion play a huge role, not just in the plot, but in the very make-up of every single character. I'm no historian, so I can't very well judge how historically accurate the book itself was, but I'll just say that Gifford made her Medieval setting come alive, and that her characters never come across as 21st century people in costume. The way they think and see the world is completely different to mine, and it was a very interesting experience to spend some time with them.

Oh, and the romance? Very nice, actually. I was a bit doubtful about the thing with Garren promising to deflower Dominica, but it ends up playing very well, adding even more to Garren's questioning of himself and his motivations. And I was also worried about Dominica's overwhelming hero-worship of Garren at the beginning. But the romance ends up being between two equals, people who have equal power over each other.

I also enjoyed the plot, the actual pilgrimage. The trials and tribulations the pilgrims go through to reach the shrine are just fascinating, and Gifford creates some very intriguing secondary characters.

I've checked Gifford's website, and it seems that this, a book published in 2004, is the only one she has out so far, and that's a shame. I would love to read something else by her.

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