Pandora's Box


Susan Squires
2003, Dark Ages (870s - 880s England)
Leisure, $6.99, 384 pages, Amazon ASIN 0843951249
Part of a series

Grade: N/A
Sensuality: N/A

There is a staff review of this book as well

Life in England during the Middle Ages was fraught with danger. Epona (Pony) finds herself caught between two warring factions - Vikings and Saxons. Pony is drawn into King Alfred's war to dominate the land but her involvement with the Valgar, a Viking, will put all of her beliefs to the test.

Valgar the Beast is a troubled man who has recently rejoined his countrymen and is trying very hard to prove his loyalty to them. Val hopes to use Pony as a pawn to gain respect for himself, but in Pony, Val gets much more then he bargained for

Linda:   Squires' previous book Danegeld was one of my favorites last year and I was really looking forward to reading this one. Have you read Danegeld, Blythe?

Blythe:   Yes, I have. While it wasn't a DIK for me, it was a solid B, and I loved the grittiness of the Medieval setting.

Linda:   Squires does portray the difficult conditions of life in the Middle Ages very well. I loved the hero and heroine of Danegeld as well, and was very happy to see them living happily-ever-after in Danelaw.

Blythe:   Well, let's not beat around the bush. What did you think of Danelaw?

Linda:   LOL, I'm afraid that I didn't like it as well as Danegeld. In Danegeld I was immediately drawn into the book and the couple was together early on. In Danelaw the couple doesn't meet for the first 60 plus pages and when they are introduced, it's because he kidnaps her.

Blythe:   Well, there were things I liked about Danelaw. I found it interesting, and the period details fascinating. The same grittiness that I appreciated in Danegeld was there in abundance; and like Danegeld, Danelaw features an opening scene that is bound to test the reader. In the case of Danegeld, it was the rape of the hero; in Danelaw, the hero has to withstand a severe pain test involving burning of his forearm. I think it's all intended to forewarn the faint of heart. But while I found the book interesting and well-researched, I can't say I liked it, and the main reason for me was the heroine. I don't really handle "fey" very well, and she's Fey with a capital F. She drove me so nuts that I wanted to throttle her. Often.

Linda:   Well, Pony was the problem for me too. I didn't like her much and when she abandoned Val I was really disgusted with her. I also got a bit tired of all of the religious mumbo jumbo and Pony's constant focus on what her mother told her - even when the evidence of her own eyes contradicts it. But, that said, I loved Val and was hooked on him from the opening scene. Val is a true "beast" of a hero and I've always loved beasts.

Blythe:   I liked Val too, and couldn't help wondering what he saw in Pony. First of all, her name was Pony (short for Epona). That drove me nuts. It sounds lame, but I couldn't get the song "Mony, Mony" out of my head...Mony, Mony, like a pony... <g> And I couldn't stand the way she referred to her horses as Herd - capital H, no "the." Her simplistic names for the horses (Young Black, First Mare) struck me as childish, and put me in mind of the heroine in Jill Barnett's Wild, a book I also disliked. To me, that manner of speech sounds like it comes from a toddler's mouth. But what really, really annoyed me was Pony's behavior at the end of the book. It's a total spoiler so I won't say what she did exactly, but I was very offended by it.

Linda:   Pony's talking to the animals was at times amusing but I really hated the rats at the end. Kind of smacked of the worms in Schone's The Lover <VBG>. Rats are just yucky, even if you can talk to them.

Blythe:   You know, they were gross, but I found it kind of funny when Pony talked to them and they told her "Danger! Danger!" or in other words, "Val eats us!"

Linda:   I had problems with Pony's labeling of things also. I had to reread a couple of pages at the beginning to get into the heroine's way of thinking. This is a book that makes you work a little, but for me, watching Val come to terms with his past and his fellow Vikings was worth the effort. Danelaw also features a strong paranormal element, which should appeal to a wide range of readers, although, of course, the grittiness of the period's depiction must again be noted.

Blythe:   Like you, I wouldn't necessarily warn people away from Danelaw. I liked the Viking stuff and found the examination of religion (particularly early Christianity) interesting as well. But that Pony! I guess you could say that it failed for me as a romance because I had trouble getting past my dislike of her.

On the other hand, Pony is not necessarily the type of character who would annoy everyone. Readers more into the magical/psychic paranormals and fey types should like her, I think. As a funny aside - and an ironic one, since I'm a vegetarian - I must mention that I also became frustrated by the way Pony referred to Val and most men as carnivores. She refers to Val in this way far more than she does Alfred, even though both eat meat and kill people.

Linda:   Well I'm a happy carnivore, but her referring to everyone that way didn't bother me too much. I like Squires' writing style - no purple prose here - and she does a marvelous job of painting pictures of what life was like in the period. This is not a sanitized historical where everyone bathes daily. I thought the peril of life caught between warring kings was well depicted and the clash of Christianity and the pagans interesting too. Perhaps a reputation as a witch wasn't such a bad thing to have for a woman trying to survive on her own. It worked well for Britta in Danegeld - the local people left her and her lands alone. But Britta was much more likable then Pony and ultimately that is what makes me prefer Danegeld to Danelaw.

Blythe:   I agree - Britta was much more likable. What has impressed me in both books, though, is Squires' willingness to take chances. I think a lot of people were impressed by Danegeld because it was something completely different. I mean, just how many Medievals can you read with plots that center around Lady Amazingly Beautiful, who has been told by the king that she must marry her father's archenemy, Sir RockThighs? Both these books center on historical events, and the Vikings are not sanitized romance versions - they really are believable. I couldn't help wishing that I'd liked Pony more. And Linda, I'm surprised you haven't mentioned that this book has one of your personal un-favorites - the long separation.

Linda:   I think that was one of the problems of this book for me - the couple really spends a lot of time apart. Pony's abandoning Val was one of my problems with the book, but she did redeem herself when she rescued him from the villain. I would have liked the couple to spend more time together as Karn and Britta did, but Squires made many brave choices. The plot was interesting and historical facts were woven seamlessly into the plot; the narrative flow was never interrupted for a history lesson. Also, they were very much people of their time; often in a historical the couple seems too modern in their thinking.

Speaking of archenemies, the villain here got one of the more colorful comeuppances I have read, and he certainly deserved it.

Blythe:   He sure did, didn't he? I confess I didn't really feel too sorry for him, although the scene has a pretty high ick factor. I think Pony's behavior improved at the end to the point where I was able to accept her HEA with Val. I figured Val, being a nice, strong guy, would probably watch after both of them and rein in her more idiotic impulses. And at least she also showed some willingness to give animals more complicated names. The name Loki isn't half-bad for a dog. <g>

Linda:   Yeah, I bought the HEA too. Pony showed some real emotional growth throughout the book and after her rescue of Val I felt she deserved him. Frankly, Pony is not entirely likable and it takes a courageous author to give us a heroine in particular who will grow likable by book's end. The more I think about it, the more I admire Squires for giving us a heroine like Pony, who begins the book by having an unemotional coupling with King Alfred as she was instructed to do by her mother to continue their line of girl-children. Her gaining the emotional maturity to realize that her mother was wrong about much of their belief system and her gradual acceptance of those things that didn't conform to her very narrow view of the world was achieved in a believable way. I can only think of one book I read in the last year that attempted the same trick: Elaine Coffman's The Fifth Daughter. I wanted to throttle the heroine of that book for a good 2/3 of the book and I had similar feelings about Pony.

Blythe:   I prefer my unlikable heroines to be more of the self-centered variety - more like the spoiled "Me Me Me" heroine of Diane Farr's Duel of Hearts. Pony was just too grating for my tastes. However, I agree with you about the scene with Alfred, which I found shocking, daring, and interesting. I guess in the end what I appreciated about this book was that it was thought provoking. This is the type of book that should invite a lot of comment and discussion on the Net. I can't wait to hear what other people think about it.

Linda:   I agree, the discussions should be lively. Although the hero and heroine were apart more then I like, the book never dragged or bored me. I would give it a solid B versus the A I would give to Danegeld.

Squires is an interesting and brave author and she hasn't duplicated herself yet. Of her four romances, two are Medievals, one is a vampire/historical, and the other is a SF hybrid. They've garnered great word-of-mouth and many terrific reviews. I think Squires is an author to watch. She has a great writing style - almost spare, which is certainly much better then the adjectivits that often plagues romance novels. And after reading Squires' Medievals I certainly wouldn't opt for a time travel to that time <g>.

Blythe:   I think I'd skip it too. Like you, I admire Squires' willingness to try something different. even if, as in this case, the individual book didn't work for me. I may not have liked it, but there were lots of things I admired about it.

Next month should provide a real change of pace; we're reading Teresa Hill's Bed of Lies. This is Hill's fourth single title and she has also written category romances under the name Sally Tyler Hayes, and she's a "new to me" author. Have you ever tried her, Linda?

Linda:   I have read one or two of her series titles and liked them, so I'm interesting in trying one of her full-length books. I know AAR gave her last book, The Edge of Heaven, DIK status. Right now it's sitting in my TBR pile. I've been going thru agony reducing my TBR pile in order to move. For some reason my hubby didn't want to move 1,500 books that I might want to read half-way across the country. Go figure.

Blythe:   Hmmm . . . must be why I only moved across town.

Linda:   Even with my traveling and packing I have read a couple of good books lately. I read Amanda McCabe'S The Golden Feather after I read the AAR review. I enjoyed it immensely and ordered up some of her backlist after finishing it.

Blythe:   One of my favorites this month was Mary Balogh's A Summer to Remember. I especially liked the neighbors of the hero - the Bedwyns - I was pretty happy to see that they get their own series. I can't wait to read it.

Linda:   Yes, Balogh has an exciting year ahead - 3 books about the Bedwyns. I have A Summer to Remember with me in California and hope to get it read soon. I also read Leanne Banks' The Playboy and Plain Jane which kicks off a year-long series from Silhouette Desire called The Barones. If the other authors can keep up the pace set by Banks, it should be a fun series.

Blythe:   I hope this month is a good reading one for you. Happy reading and packing.

--Blythe Barnhill and Linda Hurst, for

-- Pandora's Box

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