May TBR Challenge Review: Old Skool, Sort of: The Dream Hunter

It’s been two months since I posted anything here on the blog; things are busy at our house, including the addition of my first grandchild, who is (of course) his grandma’s pride and joy already. Not that I haven’t been reading, I just haven’t been taking the time to say much about what I’ve read,

The challenge for May was to find a book in my TBR published before 2000. My further challenge was to find one that I would finish in the time I had; there are a couple of VERY old school books in my TBR that are also VERY long.

I feel like the book I chose isn’t really all that old school; in my head, Laura Kinsale is in the “mid school” set of romance authors, with Loretta Chase, Jennifer Crusie, Nora Roberts, and some other authors who were big, respected names when I started reading romance again in 2008, but who hadn’t published a single novel when I was reading romance in the 1970s.

I’ve enjoyed most of the other novels by Kinsale that I’ve read. Midsummer Moon (1987) and The Shadow and the Star (1991) are among my favorite romances; Uncertain Magic (1987) and Letters in French (2010) were both good reads. But I couldn’t finish Flowers from the Storm (1992) or Seize the Fire (1989), despite several attempts, so I approached The Dream Hunter (1994) a little warily. It was recommended to my by a number of people because of my interest in “breeches” books (featuring cross-dressing women), and this certainly was an interesting use of that device.

A man of cool demeanor and stubborn solitude, Lord Winter was a restless wanderer who kept the passions of his heart well hidden. But now, traveling alone, he has discovered beneath the ragged costume of a Bedouin boy a remarkable young woman: Zenia Stanhope, daughter of the extraordinary English adventuress known as the Queen of the Desert.

Zenia wants nothing of the dangerous adventuring that Lord Winter lives for. She wants only to reach England, far from the blood and sand of the desert. But in one night of terror, condemned to death, their lives are irrevocably bound. Zenia escapes to an English world of elegance and comfort, leaving the lonely, fearless man who has changed her life and conquered her heart…until he returns to invade her sanctuary, and demand that she pay the price of passion.

Zenia doesn’t spend very much of the book in male disguise (86 pages out of 396), but she has lived that way for several years before the story opens, and it has scarred her. She was forced into playing a boy by her mother and the circumstances of her life in the Middle East, fostered in the Bedu tribe and determined not to be bartered off as a bride. All her life she has wanted to be a traditional English lady, and that role has been repeatedly denied her. When she meets Winter shortly after her mother’s death, she is in her boy’s role and feels that she must stay that way for safety; she fears that if the English find out who she is, she will be sold to pay her mother’s debts. With nowhere to turn for protection or assistance, she accepts Winter’s offer of employment; she will take him to find the thoroughbred horse he is seeking, and he will take her to England when that has been accomplished.

Arden, Lord Winter, thinks he has hired a young tribal man named Selim as his guide through the desert. Estranged from his family, bearing a huge load of guilt from the death of his fiancĂ©e, he has no interest in relationships with women (beyond casual sex, of course). During their difficult journey, he comes to admire Selim (Zenia) as a person; he calls her “little wolf,” and they become comrades. She falls in love with him, which he first recognizes while still thinking she’s a boy, and then the realization that she’s a woman, an English woman, throws his feelings into turmoil. His feelings of friendship combine with lust over her suddenly revealed femininity, and the certainty that they are about to be executed makes him unable to resist her when she wants one night of passion before they die.

Of course they don’t die, but they are separated, and she believes that he is dead. She gets her trip to England, where she seeks out her father, but on the way she realizes that she is pregnant. By the time Arden recovers from the near-fatal injuries he sustained so that she could escape, she is living with his family as his widow, raising their infant daughter.

It takes a while to resolve this complex situation; you can see that these people love each other, but they are each too incomplete as individuals to be good partners. This is one of my favorite formulas for romance, because they can help each other, but each must also help him/herself. Arden has to find the strength to accept that he can love a woman and commit to her, and that if Zenia is that woman, he will need to give up his exotic travels and risky adventures to stay in England where she is happy. Zenia must embrace the more exotic and unconventional parts of herself, that she rejected utterly once she reached England, and then trust Arden that he will not abandon her or give in to the “demon” that she fears in him.

Various minor characters help or hinder, of course, depending on whether they want the marriage to survive or not, but by far the secondary character with the most influence is baby Elizabeth. Arden falls almost immediately in paternal love with his daughter, and she is fascinated by her exotic Papa. She is literally the reason for the situation Arden finds upon his return from the “dead”; without Beth, Zenia would not be ensconced as his widow/wife, and it would be much easier for the two of them to either acknowledge or reject the feelings between them. Zenia is threatened by Arden’s potential power over Beth, and she has a deep-seated fear (fed by the attempts of various parties to regularize their legal relationship) that he will take the child from her. Thinking he was dead, Beth has become her whole world, and so the child both draws them together and keeps them apart. I suspect some readers would find Beth an annoying plot moppet, but to me her role in her parents’ relationship was fascinating. (I’m a new grandma, though, so I’m hyper-aware of how feelings for an infant affect everything and everyone.)

Arden’s second near-death experience (catching the measles from Beth) forces them to acknowledge their feelings for each other, but there are still obstacles in the way of trusting each other. Significantly, the events through which they finally work their way to each other take place away from Beth, where they confront their true selves, their fears, and their need for one another. It’s a bit of a whiplash ride through the last few chapters, but ultimately I thought the extremes that finally brought them together were appropriate to balance the extreme circumstances that brought them together.