September 2008, Renaissance Romance (1480s England)
Avon, $5.99, 384 pages, Amazon ASIN 0061432962 Part of a series
Though I have not read the earlier books in the League of the Blade series, I had no problem sinking right into the author's (who was previously published as Gayle Callen) Secrets of the Knight. This tale of a Bladeswoman determined to prove her worth and find a place for herself entertains quite well. Historical purists may find themselves distracted by the occasional anachronism and the somewhat modern tone of the book, but the main characters and slightly offbeat story caught my interest enough to bring me many more smiles than grimaces.
Diana Winslow, a novice Bladeswoman, has taken an assignment to disguise herself as a servant in the home of Viscount Bannister in order to investigate circumstances there. Reports of his cruelty have reached the ears of the Order of the Blade and as is their way, they intend to intervene quietly on behalf of the victims. Diana manages to integrate herself smoothly into the household as a maid and thankfully, the book is free of the laughably poor "disguises" of Romanceland. However, the plan goes awry when she walks in on Viscount Bannister abusing a young maid. The maid manages to get free, but when the viscount in turn attacks Diana, the struggle ends with his death.
The viscount's brother Thomas discovers the death and out of compassion, allows Diana (who he thinks is a maid) to escape. Some time later, Thomas finds himself on a journey north to seek a bride. As a lifelong student for the priesthood, Thomas had little experience with women until his brother died, and this has caused him some mishaps. However, he still holds out hope of wooing a mysterious beauty in the north of England.
When word of Thomas' impending arrival reaches Diana, her instant reaction is one of fear. She does not want Thomas to recognize her and the role she played in his brother's death, so she takes a daring measure - she has Thomas kidnapped and imprisoned in the dungeon. Her plan is not fully thought out, and this shows as Thomas begins to question the reasons for his imprisonment. Diana also does not count on her own disturbing attraction to Thomas, and this starts to play more of a role in their encounters.
Though I did not expect to enjoy this portion of the book, the interactions between Thomas and Diana while Thomas is a prisoner in the dungeon actually drew me in. Though Diana obviously hadn't considered all aspects of her plan, her spirit and intelligence make her reactions intereting. This is no hair-tossing, foot-stomping or "feisty" woman. She could stand to mature a bit, but having Thomas in her life helps. Sure, Diana can sometimes be a flawed heroine, but this author has skill enough to make her flawed characters more likable than not, so it's all to the good.
While Thomas and Diana have a definite chemistry, and I found myself enjoying many of their times together, the book would have felt richer had the author delved more deeply into Thomas' mind. Having been raised in austere circumstances to prepare for the priesthood to suddenly find himself with a murdered brother and new title thrust up on him surely has an effect on this man. While the story makes reference to these life-altering events, something deeper than lip service would have made the romance truly come to life. Thomas is still an entertaining hero, but more depth of character could have made him a much better one.
As it was, the main characters and their story managed to transcend surroundings that in nine out of ten cases would have sent me running. The secondary characters are effective, if not terribly well-developed, and the Medieval setting is wallpaper, to put it charitably. Still, this story came together well enough to make a whole that rises well above the sum of its parts. Secrets of the Knight is a fun read with engaging characters, and definitely an entertaining way to while away an afternoon or two.
-- Lynn Spencer
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