Pandora's Box

By Design

Madeline Hunter
2001, Medieval Romance (1320s England)
Bantam, $5.99, 400 pages, Amazon ASIN 0553582232
Part of a series

Grade: N/A
Sensuality: N/A

There is a staff review of this book as well

In By Design, the sequel to By Possession, Madeline Hunter tells the story of the freemason, Rhys and an indentured servant, Joan. Their story is set amidst the turmoil of Medieval England's political wars, where the sides can change quickly. Rhys and Joan are quickly caught in webs spun by others. Rhys takes Joan into his home to protect her and sets off a chain of actions that have unseen results, plunging them both into deep waters both politically and emotionally.

Linda:  Blythe, I am in the same position with By Design as you were when we read The Star King by Susan Grant. I have heard wonderful things about Madeline Hunter, but have put off reading her books because the medieval period is just, frankly, not a favorite. To my relief, although this book shows the Middle Ages with many of its warts, the hero is not the jerk-alpha that so often appears in medievals. Rhys is just divine - he is from the same school as Julie Garwood's wonderful heroes - strong but very likable. I also liked the heroine, Joan, a lot. She was smart and extremely strong. No milkwater miss here.

Blythe:  It's funny you should say that, because the medieval period is a time I generally avoid myself; I only read a handful of medieval romances every year. However, I believe I will always make an exception for Madeline Hunter. Her thoughtful characterization and fabulous attention to period detail have made Hunter a must-read author for me. While I didn't think that By Design was flawless, I found it to be a very satisfying read.

Linda:  This was my first Hunter. I did not read the prequel By Possession before reading BD as I wanted to see if it would stand on its own. It certainly passed the test, but I may go back and read BP later - a little of that dark period goes a long way with me and I will have to let some time lapse.

Although I was drawn into the story from the beginning I did find that I liked the book much better once the couple began to act together as a couple. I was relieved with Hunter's choices - treachery and betrayal were suggested but thank goodness she chose not to go down that path with these two thoroughly likable, if very troubled people.

Blythe:  I liked both these characters too, and I particularly thought Rhys was to die for. I think one of the reasons I tend to avoid medieval romances in general is that the hero is almost always a warrior, which is a character type that I tire of easily. Rhys is a mason, and the details of his life are fascinating. He is thoroughly decent and honorable - in a wonderful way. Joan, too, has a craft - she is a tiler (makes tiles) who also makes small clay statues in her spare time. Hunter does an excellent job of making their world come alive. >

These are troubled people - Joan more so than Rhys, probably, but then Rhys has his hands full trying to balance his loyalties. I thought while I was reading this book that it is definitely darker than the last few we have discussed.

Linda:  Yes, it is definitely darker and worst (and best) of all, this book made me cry. <g> Not once, but several times. The villains are numerous and treacherous, and Rhys performs a very delicate high wire act - one that is made more dangerous by his devotion to Joan and her brother Mark, who are not what they seem on the surface.

Joan and Mark, her younger brother, have been on the run for three years and their survival has been perilous and fraught with danger. Joan is afraid to trust Rhys and she also knows her presence in his house is endangering his safety.

I really enjoyed Rhys's friendship with Moira (heroine from BP). How wonderful it is to see a man have a real friendship with a woman who is not the heroine! He also risked everything to keep Joan safe and to restore her to her proper position. When he goes to Moira for comfort after the climactic battle, I was very moved. All of the characters in this book were just very well drawn and believable. I also thoroughly enjoyed the connection that Joan and Rhys made through the love of their crafts and the need to create that they shared.

The day-to-day details of what Joan went through to survive for three years and care for her brother were horrifying. Where did anyone get the idea that women in the past were weak? The descriptions of the jobs performed by the women at the tilery, and elsewhere, denote women who were very strong indeed.

Blythe:  With people on both sides demanding Rhys's loyalty, I wondered more than once how he was going to save his neck! I found the climactic scene both dramatic and believable. And I agree that Joan is one of the strongest heroines I've seen. What a survivor. She had to support herself and her brother in a man's world, all the while saving money and guarding her virtue. One of the most affecting scenes for me came early in the book when Joan was caught selling defective tiles (which had been made by her employer) and punished in the stocks. I'm sure I've read similar scenes before, but never have I read such a vivid description of what it was like.

Linda:  Oh lord, that was just awful. By the time Rhys found Joan, she was half-dead and covered in filth from the fruit and garbage thrown at her. Like you, I had not seen this depicted in such heartbreaking detail; what a terrible punishment. It would certainly fall into the "cruel and unusual" category today, wouldn't it?

England in this period was a time of constantly shifting loyalties and one had to be on one's toes not to end up on the losing side. Rhys had been on the winning side that deposed a King, but then saw all that he worked for destroyed by Mortimer's rise to power and the failure of a second rebellion. When he meets Joan he really just wants to practice his craft as a freemason and be left alone. Each side is dragging him into the mess and he just wants out - but that isn't one of his options.

Rhys is such a strong man and yet his gentleness in helping Joan to heal and deal with her past is just wonderful to read. There is real emotional growth with this couple and the ending was emotionally satisfying, but I wasn't sure that I found it completely believable.

Blythe:  Well, where it lost me for a time is when their relationship first took a physical turn. I wanted them to focus more on where their relationship was going. I wondered why Rhys wasn't asking her to marry him (as he did Moira in BP). Then I wondered why Joan couldn't have both Rhys and revenge. I thought for their time period they should have been thinking a bit more before they had a sexual relationship of any sort. However, many of my questions about this were answered towards the end when we found out more about Joan's identity.

Linda:  I wondered why he didn't ask her to marry him too. Also, they both seemed so unconcerned about pregnancy - which I thought should have been a big concern. Joan's calm response to her brother, that if she got pregnant she would give the baby to Rhys to raise, seemed completely out of character to me. She literally sold herself to the devil to save her brother's life and yet she would walk away from her child? There did seem to be a lot of emphasis on the physical side of the relationship; I did find it easier to see as more than simply lust once the emotional side was more developed.

Joan's complete distrust of Rhys, and her near betrayal of him, were harder for me to swallow. This man had done nothing but love and support her from the beginning, yet she is searching through his possessions and even bargaining with people for money to betray him. I was very glad when this part of the book ended - the wrong choice would have turned this into a wallbanger for me.

One of my pet peeves in a book is when a character lies to another "for their own good," so I shuddered when Joan did this too - but Rhys figured it out quickly and I was so happy that her lies didn't result in the dreaded Long Separation. Hunter walked the edge here, but made the right choices that brought this couple together. When that happened, they became truly fascinating.

Blythe:  I also dislike that "I must drive you away for your own good" phenomenon, and had the same reaction as you did - thank goodness he figured it out! This is the type of thing that might really annoy me in another book, but Hunter's skill as an author really saved the book for me. I was thinking as I read it that Hunter reminds me somewhat of Carla Kelly. Not all Carla's books are Desert Isle Keepers for me, but all are worth reading just because of the way she paints her historical world. I think Madeline Hunter has a similar skill, which is no small compliment.

Linda:  On-line, everyone seems to be comparing Hunter to early Garwood, which is high praise indeed. The writing is certainly as good or better then Garwood's. The hero and heroine are equally likable and definitely similar to Garwood characters. But overall the tenor of the period is certainly much darker in Hunter's medieval world, and far more realistic, even if her characters do bathe and wash more than was the norm. I think the main thing Garwood and Hunter have in common is the creation of wonderful characters. These are people that you care about and the secondary characters are equally well drawn. The one character that seemed problematical and even unsympathetic was Joan's brother, Mark. I suppose that given his history and age this wasn't surprising. His hardness toward Rhys throughout the book also made it hard for me to accept his actions at book's end.

I wonder if she will write a book about Mark? He would be an interesting hero as his past is so rough and his emotional life, other then his resentment and anger, is not really dealt with here at all. It could be interesting to see what kind of woman could bring out the softer side of him that he has had to completely suppress to survive. He certainly never shows Joan much appreciation or compassion for her struggles and exerts his authority over her at the first opportunity he has to do so. Considering what she did for him, I found him a bit tough to swallow.

Blythe:  Hunter like Garwood? I don't really see that one - at all. Garwood seems so much lighter and funnier, and not as detail oriented. No, I haven't heard that comparison, and don't buy it for a minute. What I do believe is that Hunter, like Garwood, is going to be a quickly rising star in the genre

I also found Mark somewhat unsympathetic, but he was believable as a young hothead. Don't all teenagers think they know everything? I know I thought so. And I don't remember being particularly grateful either at that age, so perhaps I identified with him - even though I agree that he should practically have been kissing Joan's feet after everything she did for him. But I agree that a sequel with him as a hero would be an interesting idea. Mark had some fairly "black and white" views as people often do at his age, and I would be really curious to see what he would do if he were forced into a situation where he had to look at the gray areas a bit.

Overall, though, I feel that By Design is a satisfying book. It is emotionally draining at times, but the characters - and great setting - are worth it.

Linda:  I think it is in the likable heroes and strong heroines that the Garwood comparison comes in. Also, Garwood deals with heavy subjects like abuse (Saving Grace and Honor's Splendour) as well as the politics of the time, in her medievals. One friend, who only reads historicals, calls Hunter the "Garwood find of the year" for her. I ended up liking this book much more then I expected to - since I tend to like books set in the Georgian and later historical periods and tend to prefer lighter fare. But, this book is well written; it drew me in from the beginning and I truly cared about the characters. As I said this book made me cry more then once, which shows my complete involvement with the characters.

For those who like the medieval period, Hunter is a must-read. For those, like me, who usually shy away from this type of book, I would make an exception; this is a wonderful book. Although the romance often takes a backseat to the machinations of the plotters, and the plot, the emotional growth and connection are definitely important.

Blythe:  As I mentioned earlier, I'm a person who generally doesn't care for medievals. But I strongly agree that Hunter is worth reading regardless. These aren't books about knights, jousts, and feisty ladies. Her characters are different than the norm in medieval romance in terms of station, and with the historical detail the she includes, they seem very real to me.

Linda:  Blythe, I think we have a little surprise for our readers for next month, don't we?

Blythe:  Yes we do! Pandora will be online later than usual in February so that it will coincide with the release of the book we will be discussing. And what book is that? It's for you to guess! We are having a contest to guess which book it will be, and the winner will get a signed (by the author - not us ) copy of the book. Please send your guesses to Sandi. Just one guess per person, please. The winner will be chosen at random from the correct guesses.

Linda:  So readers, comb the lists of upcoming books and make a guess - I can guarantee that you won't be disappointed with the prize!

Blythe:  See you next month - a little later than usual.

--Blythe Barnhill and Linda Hurst, for

-- Pandora's Box

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