If I had to choose one author whose books I would take to a desert island, it would probably be Penelope Williamson. Her books really are buried treasures and, without exception, keepers for me. Her characters are explored in depth, her stories excel through the richly textured historical background, her writing is lyrical, and her books always deliver the right mixture of tears and laughter. Keeper of the Dream is one example of her incredible talent.
The book is set in 12th century Wales, which is being invaded by Henry II of England. Owain, Prince of Gwynedd signs a truce with Henry, thereby swearing fealty to the King, giving up Rhuddlan Castle and surrendering his son and his daughter Arianna as hostages. Raine, "the Black Dragon," the illegitimate son of a Norman nobleman and a fierce warrior, always had his mind set on owning Rhuddlan, but was usually deprived of any possessions due to his ignoble birth. In a tourney organized by the King, he defeats his half brother, their father's pampered favorite, who also wanted Rhuddlan, and wins the castle and Lady Arianna's hand in marriage.
Lady Arianna is no fragile nobelwoman though, but a Welsh seer who fights tooth and nail against marrying the hated Norman bastard. Not only did Raine kill her brother in battle, but she also has had a vision of him about to pierce her heart with his lance. Arianna is determined never to surrender to Raine, and she actually knows how to defend herself. Suffice it to say that on their wedding night, he ends up shedding more blood than she!
What appears to be a conventional arranged marriage plot turns out to be more than just that. The story of Keeper of the Dream is roughly based on old Celtic tales of romance, which often ran to a common theme: a knight sets out on a quest to win a lady's heart. Only her spiritual and physical love can redeem him and give him immortal life. The story is further enhanced by a supernatural element in the form of the Welsh bard Taliesin, an ethereal creature who desperately tries to get Arianna and Raine to love each other, insisting that this is their destiny. His often futile interventions add a humorous twist to the story.
A deeply touching element is provided by Arianna's visions, which reveal to her Raine's childhood suffering and the abuses he has endured. While in the beginning Raine appears to be only a ruthless knight, gradually his gentleness, sense of justice and insecurities are exposed layer for layer until he ends up being an admirable, wonderful hero.
Although Arianna and Raine are constantly at loggerheads in the beginning, their conflict is understandable. Her loyalty to her people collides with his demand for order and fealty on the part of his vassals. Yet there is a lot of tenderness between them, and a blossoming love that both try hard to deny. And there is also a sizzling physical attraction that results in some really hot and memorable love scenes.
One scene is particularly moving: Arianna frees her cousin, who has been imprisoned for rebelling against his liegelord Raine, and he thanks her by dragging her away from her home in a stormswept night. She seeks shelter with her parents. When Raine comes to take her back, he asks her to swear homage to him, which is in itself an honorable act:
"But no woman had ever been asked to swear fealty, for no woman was thought to have honor or pride or any value beyond the use of her womb and the lands she could bring as her dower price. No man had ever taken his wife as a vassal, for she would be not a chattel in his eyes then but his equal in honor. And no man surely would want to look at his woman in such a way.
"No man except this one.
"Tears, hot and salty, rolled down her cheeks and into her mouth, and she didn't care. She looked down at their hands clasped together around the sword hilt - hers small and white, his larger and brown. Flesh pressing against flesh, yet it was more. It seemed as if her blood flowed into him and his into her. She could feel his heart beat within her own breast."
Emotional scenes like this one abound in Keeper of the Dream. There is also quite a bit of heartbreak for the characters, which is especially realistic in the face of the time setting. You may have to grab your hankies every now and then, but the tale is saved from becoming too bleak by the element of humor, which is especially apparent in the lovers' witty dialogue. Plenty of action is provided by political intrigue and recurring military conflicts, but Raine and Arianna's relationship always remains the focus of the book.
All these components, together with the beautiful writing and characters that really come to life, make this book so precious to me. In the end I breathed a sigh of relief, as if I had gone on an arduous quest to bring those two star-crossed lovers together against all the odds. Yet I also had a happy smile on my face because they did finally find eternal love. And if you still are not convinced that love will never die, just read the delicious epilogue, and you may change your mind.
-- Vivien Fritsche
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