It's funny. Recently I found myself wondering where all the good Medievals had gone. I find the occasional winner at Harlequin, but it's been ages since I've read a good, meaty Medieval historical. And then , as soon as I wished it, one landed in my review pile. If you've been looking for a strong Medieval romance, The Conqueror is an impressive debut, indeed.
Guinevere (Gwyn) de l'Ami holds a precarious position. As an heiress to large holdings, her father's recent death leaves her vulnerable to unwanted advances and possible forced marriage. Though she has concealed her father's death for days, since her time will soon run out she travels to Court to seek the protection of King Stephen. England faces civil war and, as the daughter of one of the king's backers, she trusts her safety to him.
However, Gwyn arrives to find herself still in danger. Marcus, a greedy neighbor, covets Gwyn and her land, seeking to force a marriage between the two. To her dismay, Gwyn finds herself outmaneuvered and, though she insists on believing in her king, readers will see him too weak to see what is happening and step in on her behalf. To get away from Marcus, Gwyn flees and as his men overtake her on the road, an unlikely protector steps forward to save her.
This mysterious protector, whom Gwyn knows only as Pagan, is really Griffyn Sauvage. Though Gwyn does not learn it until later, readers discover fairly early that Griffyn and Gwyn's fathers had been on the Crusade together, but that their friendship had fallen apart. Griffyn now sees the de l'Ami family as his deepest enemies. Still, as he and Gwyn are each blissfully unaware of each other's true identities, they start to feel attracted to one another as they travel together.
Though the book is set over more than a year of events, the main characters actually fall in love in only a day. The two have such strong chemistry and the author writes emotion so well that this turn of events actually seems believable. As the couple faces greater travails in the second half of the book, the bond they built early on seems genuinely to carry them through all problems. In other words, their relationship felt real.
I also appreciated the use of history in the novel. Though of noble status, these characters are not courtiers and their infrequent brushes with actual historical figures make sense. However, the ripple effect of government instability makes itself known on Gwyn's estate in more indirect ways. News of court is mentioned and the estate experiences shortages that feel much more realistic as they are casually worked into the story - much as news of war in Iraq or the stock market might be worked into a contemporary story.
By and large, I greatly enjoyed this book. The story has some meat to it, and the characters are well written. A few loose ends too-neatly tied up near the end pulled me out of the story a bit and the second half of the book does not go quite far enough in building upon the emotions of the first. Still, even with these relatively minor quibbles, The Conqueror is a fantastic page-turner. I've been missing medieval settings, and I am so pleased to see a promising new writer who writes them.
-- Lynn Spencer
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