Desert Isle Keeper Review

A Bed of Spices
(This DIK review was written by a reader)

Barbara Samuel
1993, Medieval Romance (1340s Germany)
HarperTorch, $4.50, 352 pages, Amazon ASIN 0061080780

Grade: A
Sensuality: Warm

I have been glomming Ruth Wind/Barbara Samuel for a while. The results have been quite successful, but locating her full-length historicals as written under her real name has been difficult. I searched longest for A Bed of Spices, the book I had been most eager to lay my hands on, since it is one of the rare romances that is set in my own home country of Germany. When I found it unexpectedly in a shabby second-hand book store, I was positively elated. I have finally gotten around to reading it, and it managed to surpass my expectations.

The tale that Barbara Samuel tells is exquisite. It is based on the Romeo-and-Juliet theme, but the two star-crossed lovers are not divided by feuding families, but by the even deeper gulf of religion, race and rank. If I were to give A Bed of Spices five stars instead of its well-deserved grade of A, each star would stand for something extraordinary about the book.

The first star would be for an unusual, but wonderful story, set in 14th century Germany. Rica der Esslingen is the daughter of a German nobleman, who has taught her more than befits a woman of her time and who indulged her unconventional thirst for knowledge and adventure. Solomon ben Jacob is the son of a wealthy Jewish merchant, and a student of medicine in Montpellier. When he visits his hometown of Strassburg during his vacation to enlarge his knowledge of herbs and healing plants with the local midwife Helga, he meets Rica, for whom Helga is something of a surrogate mother.

For both of them, it is love at first sight, and Barbara Samuel manages to convey this feeling with a few simple sentences:

"A little ache bloomed in her breast. Like a lady stricken with the beauty of a knight in one of the poems the priest had forbidden her, Rica felt faint and star-struck and bewitched. She smiled at him. He swallowed, then glanced away quickly, a dusky stain on his cheekbones."

It is clear right from the start that those two are destined for each other. What they feel is more than physical attraction; they are true soulmates. Rica is the first woman Solomon can actually talk to, and Solomon is the first man who listens to her and who treats her like an intelligent human being, not a delicate female. The passion between them blazes and the love scenes are are not at all gratuitous. Instead, they beautifully express the need for closeness and a physical as well as spiritual joining of the two lovers.

Yet just as strong as the love they feel are the odds they are up against. They can only meet in secret, and their union is doomred practically right from the start, since marriages between Jews and Christians are punishable by death. Besides, there is the added danger of the Plague, which was ravaging Europe in the 14th century, and which is slowly but surely approaching their own home town. Of course, this is a romance, so we do not expect the two protagonists to die. Yet I was more than curious as to how Barbara Samuel would perform the miracle of a happy ending, and this is one reason why I remained riveted by the story and could not stop reading.

I would award the second star for the extraordinary setting. Finally there is an author who dares to present a world outside the Anglo-Saxon culture and proves that this is just as worthwhile writing about. For me, there was of course the bonus that Strassburg is actually quite close to my own home town, but even those unfamiliar with the setting should easily be able to envision the beautiful countryside around the Rhine with its vineyards, gentle hills and mild weather. Barbara Samuel describes this panorama vividly.

The 14th century is not the most common time to write about in a romance, either, and it is even more unusual that the place is not some remote castle or Highland fortress like in countless medieval romances, but a town bustling with merchants, minstrels and people from all strata of society. You really get a feeling of what life must have been like then, with all its joys and difficulties, which is why I would give the third star for historical authenticity.

The characters are not modern people disguised as knights and ladies. They speak, behave and think as one would expect people in the Middle Ages to do. Their lives are governed by religion, but not to a point that religious asceticism overshadows the whole story. Rica may be ahead of her times, but it is still believable that a woman even then would want to break away from the restrictions imposed on her life, learn more about the world and marry for love. Solomon is an intelligent, thoughtful physician, but not above superstition or questioning traditional methods of healing.

The fourth star is for richly drawn secondary characters. Ricaís deeply disturbed twin sister Etta, who was raped when her mother was murdered, their strict but loving father, Helga, the down-to-earth herbalist, Solomonís family, even the villain - all of them come to life on the pages and are more than mere props.

Finally, the fifth star would be for the beautiful language. It is clear and deceptively simple, but with an almost poetic quality. All the nuances of feeling, all the poignancy of the story are expressed perfectly, without a shade of purple prose. If a book has that much to offer, how can it not be a Desert Isle Keeper? A Bed of Spices is a little treasure, and I recommend it to anyone who would like to read something very special.

-- Vivien Fritsche

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