Lady Gallant by Suzanne Robinson very much changed the way I look at romance novels. Tautly crafted, well researched and psychologically riveting, this book knocked my socks off. Be forewarned, however; this is no hearts and flowers love story. It is tense, gritty, but ultimately a very satisfying read.
Part of the reason I love Lady Gallant has to due with its historical setting, which is one of my favorites. It takes place in Tudor England, when Queen Mary sits on the throne, and the world is a very dangerous place indeed. As Mary has wed Philip of Spain, the Inquisition has come to England, and no one is safe from the fires of Smithfield.
Nora Becket is one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting. Despite her empathy for her monarch’s troubles, Nora is horrified by Mary’s burning of Protestant heretics. Because Nora is very shy and timid, the other ladies at court ridicule her and call her a mouse. Mouse she might be, but she has no stomach for cruelty. Daringly, she becomes a spy for Princess Elizabeth, and the forces which favor her royal succession.
Also deeply involved in court intrigue and the politics of the day is Christian de Rivers, Viscount Montfort. Mercurial and silver-tongued, Christian belongs very much to the English Renaissance; earthy and sublime, he is equally capable of great charm and great cruelty. In sum, he is one of the most original, complex and fascinating heroes I’ve ever read in a romance.
Naturally, it comes to pass that Nora the mouse will be a great foil for a man described as a "violet-eyed cobra". Since both live at court, each knows of the other, but it isn’t until their paths cross unexpectedly that Christian takes notice of her. At first, he is all contempt for docile, defenseless Nora, but her gentle charm has a powerful effect on the debauched young nobleman. Christian sets out to seduce her, even though her horrid father is set on quickly marrying her off, to someone else. But when Nora saves Christian from the Inquisition’s torture chambers, and then saves his father from dying as well, he is compelled to intervene. He marries her himself.
Just when Christian discovers his love for Nora, he also discovers that she has been spying, but he doesn’t know for whom. Someone is trying to murder Christian, and he can only conclude that Nora has been planted by his political enemies to ruin him. What better to snare a jaded knave than a seemingly sweet, pure maiden? Nora pleads her innocence, but by then Christian has gone mad. Believing himself duped and betrayed, he determines to make her life a living hell, keep her prisoner and destroy her every small comfort. He behaves despicably to Nora.
At this point, I didn’t believe that Robinson could ever redeem her hero, but she did. I also didn't believe I could ever forgive Christian, but I did. This is definitely a credit to the author’s considerable skills as a storyteller.
Meanwhile, Nora refuses to submit passively to Christian's revenge. Though he breaks her heart, he does not kill her spirit, and she steadfastly refuses to divulge her secrets. And when she gets her wits about her, she begins a transformation from mouse to dragon — and she is a wonder to behold! Make no mistake about it, this is a romance novel with a strong feminist ethic. But Nora is no Gloria Steinem walking around in a farthingale. Robinson is too wise to history to let this happen, and Nora’s character arc always stays believably within the context of her time.
When Christian realizes his terrible wrongdoing, his guilty suffering is glorious, because he so richly deserves it. And in a bold countermove, Nora turns the tables on him, and suddenly he is at her mercy. But why should she bother with him after he’s been such a monster, you may wonder? Because even at his nastiest, he's scintillating. When Christian is vulnerable, well, he's still a very bad boy, but hard to resist. And Nora is, of course, gallant.
Lady Gallant creates a tightly woven yet richly textured plot, with nothing superfluous. It is written in clean, graceful prose with nary a hint of purple; Robinson's economical description picks the telling detail to paint vivid pictures of Tudor life. Special mention must be made of the brilliantly written dialogue, which is a joy to read. Laden with Elizabethan zest and eloquence, it is still always clear in meaning. Best of all, not one of the characters used the Freudian term "ego", a great pet peeve of mine.
As for Robinson’s historical research, it is immaculate; with a Ph.D. in anthropology, she is very aware of the way people lived in her chosen setting. Historical facts are used cleverly and effectively, surrounding the reader with the magnificence of Renaissance England, but never overwhelming the story. The author never, for example, goes into detours to describe a bit of armor.
After Lady Gallant, Robinson wrote a series of connected books, some in which Christian makes cameo appearances. Unfortunately, none of these come up to what I consider Lady Gallant's exalted standard. The writing is less exacting, the plots less complex, the characters less memorable. Why this is, I do not know - the dreaded contractual treadmill, perhaps?
Lady Gallant will always be at the top of my roster of Desert Isle Reads. From a technical perspective, it's an exceptionally fine book. From an emotional one, it wrings me inside-out and makes me want more. Every time I read it, I find something new to appreciate - it's truly a small masterpiece. Well, the tenth time I read it, I did find a small error, but who cares. I love this book. Can you tell?
-- Meridith Moore
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