This work of historical fiction, by Hana Samek Norton, has been in my print TBR pile since RomCon 2010. Ms. Norton and I shared a table at one of the conference events, and I was taken with her and with the idea of her debut novel, so I bought a copy. My daughter-in-law read it and loved it, but I hadn’t gotten around to it until I went looking for something outside the romance genre for this month’s challenge review.
First, let it be said that I am a huge sucker for literature related to Eleanor of Aquitaine. I researched her when I played her in The Lion In Winter in the late 1990s, and I just adore her as a historical figure and as an interesting character to speculate on in works of fiction. While she is not the central character of this novel, her influence is heavy and she makes frequent appearances, all of which are delightful. Norton writes historical fiction the way I prefer it; it’s a story, not a history lesson, so details of history that are not important to the plot are left alone, allowing the story to move more quickly, but the historical event are accurate and interesting. Since the main characters are not well-known historical agents, we can be surprised by their choices even if we know how the events of history unfold.
The main character is Juliana, who begins the story in a convent. (The main male character begins in a brothel; nice contrast.) She refused an arranged marriage to a much older man, and now, with her parents dead and no siblings, there is no one to arrange a match she’d like better. Not really wanting to take religious orders, although she enjoys the intellectual side of life in a convent, she agrees to let Eleanor choose a husband for her, thus allowing her to hold on to the family estate. Eleanor chooses Guerin de Lasalle, a mercenary with a terrible reputation; neither party is happy about the marriage, and both spend much of the book expecting, even hoping, to have it anulled.
The balance between the political intrigue and the personal/romantic comflict worked well for me. Juliana and Lasalle are caught up in King John’s attempts to hold his lands in Brittamy as well as his crown in England; they are not major players, but neither are they passive pawns. Without that dimension, the romance probably wouldn’t have been much to my taste, as there’s a lot of misjudging, big secrets and denial of obvious feelings. Against the political canvas, however, that didn’t bother me as much.
Fortunately, the romance has a happy ending, which you can’t always count on in historical fiction. And while the sexual encounters verge on being too much forced seduction for my taste (Lesalle drinks a lot, and acts like a pig when he does), there is a wonderful scene where he intends to take her by force, but cannot, because she talks so much that he loses his desire. Lasalle tells Juliana that there are “five means of gaining a well-guarded citadel” (“siege, storm, surprise, subterfuge, suborning”), but there’s also a sixth — surrender. In the end, he surrenders to her as much as she to him.