by Madeline Hunter, historical (2001)
Bantam, $4.99, ISBN 0-553-58354-9
Madeline Hunter's The Protector takes place in 14th century Brittany and London. Morvan Fitzwaryn's squire is dying of the Black Death and Morvan decides to stay by the lad's side till the end. They are in Brittany which is torn by civil war. Lucky for him, Anglophiles rule (at least when the French are in the picture, which is the only time the British in romance novels aren't rapist, vile, murderous Scots-killing vermins), and he's stuck in the land of one Anna de Leon, supporter of the faction with England's backing.
Anna and her priest Ascanio hold off a lynch mob out to get the dying squire. Anna, by the way, is immune to the bubonic plague, so when Morvan gets the illin', she gets to nurse him back to health. This is the start of a beautiful relationship that soon has Morvan helping Anna to ward off an unwanted evil suitor Gurwant (look at that name - you know he must be evil), Morvan nursing Anna back to health, Anna moving to England to incite Morvan's jealousy, Morvan marrying Anna... it's a long trip here to the happy ending.
Now, technically, The Protector is near faultless. The history is not lightweight stuff, but it's not an encyclopedia either so the whole history/fiction balance is just right. Morvan and Anna are above average when it comes to their characterization - not excellent, as they are familiar characters, but their personality is not just one-note and their relationship sometimes hold a note of poignancy. I like that. The Protector is one of the better books I've read recently.
But can I nitpick? I really am disappointed at how the story starts out with an unique twist to the old formula - the Black Death, wow! - only to peter out into the blah old mundane "I think he loathes to touch me, he thinks I don't love him, we sit down and sulk, big big sigh everybody" stuff. Of course, Madeline Hunter wouldn't be getting all these accolades from every other reviewer out there if she falls into the trap of using big misunderstandings as plot device. But it still is disappointing to read a story that promises to be something different, but instead turns out to be, well, a very superiorly written comfort read. Especially Anna, a heroine who, for some reason, thinks herself butt-ugly just because she is tall. An author that shows promise like Ms Hunter just shouldn't use silly plot devices like this. It doesn't feel right.
The Protector is good. But somehow, I can't help feeling it's not good enough. It's too safe. This book can be so much more unique and different, but instead, by page 100, it feels dumbed down for public consumption already. And I still find this book very enjoyable. What does that say? When Madeline Hunter is at her top form, everyone be very afraid.
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