Lord Of Danger
by Anne Stuart, historical (1997)
Zebra, $5.99, ISBN 0-8217-5678-8


Anne Stuart's 1997 medieval romance Lord Of Danger fair takes my breath away. It is a dark romance that never shies away from the harsh realities of that time, yet at the same time it manages to be uplifting and utterly romantic. It is a rare romance that balances the dark side of human nature with the lighter side of things, and Lord Of Danger is a spectacular example of that.

And there's no protective nanny, pampered noble heroine, or avenging Norman knights. There's also no boinking after brushes with danger. Anne Stuart has the whole refreshing twist down pat.

Alys of Summersedge is very different from her sister Claire. While Claire is very beautiful, vibrant, bold, and outspoken, Alys is mousy, plump, and timid. She's afraid of everything from horses to ghosts, but for Claire's sake, Alys has learned to be strong. These women are living life as content as women could make do in medieval times in a convent when their half-brother Richard the Fair summons them home.

Richard is a slimy nobleman who is plotting against the young boy king, Henry III. To do that, he needs the poison Simon Navarre, a self-professed sorcerer, could concoct. In exchange for being crowned King, Richard would gift Simon with one of his half-sisters. Everyone assumes Simon would choose Claire, being the pretty one, including Alys. When Alys steels her nerves and meets Simon to tell him why she would make him a better wife than Claire, she gets a shock of her life: Simon has almost decided to choose her.

What sort of game is he playing? Alys finds herself slowly falling under the sorcerer's spell, and soon, hey, her life's going to be much more exciting.

If political intrigues are what started this story, soon the relationship between Alys and Simon becomes the forefront of the tale. It's not a pretty, conventional romance - readers looking for typical Norman/Saxon marriages of convenience stay away. Simon doesn't care that he is making a poison that will kill a boy whose only crime is to be born royalty. He is, like his nickname Grendel, a man who refuses to feel human conscience. But underneath his icy hard exterior is a man who lost his very soul in the Crusades. And it is this man inside that Alys falls for, although she is also fascinated with Simon's merciless persona.

There's always an element of danger, but oh, how Alys blossoms and actually thrives in it! This is no misguided innocent, but a woman who has long accepted that her lot in life will always be fraught with uncertainty. And she feels that her best days in her life were in the convent, where she loses herself in her studies. Powerless to stop her half-brother from taking her from the life she loves, she channels her efforts to saving her sister from Simon. After all, she knows Claire with her dreamy personality would never survive Simon. Alys, the practical and down-to-earth one, would survive, however.

It is, of course, a surprise to realize that she actually enjoys the thrill of the danger that is Simon. For the first time, her calm is destroyed, and she is made to face all her worst fears. And she learns to love her courage as well as the man who makes her see her own strength.

And Simon? With Alys, he slowly learns to feel again. And if he is terrified of going back to his old self (vulnerable to human emotions - and pain), he couldn't give her up either. Their courtship is fascinating, for even as Alys tries to stand up to Simon, he is slowly weakening inside. When they find a common ground, it happens in a most spectacularly romantic manner. I'll just say that this takes place where Alys, terrified of storms, walks down a narrow parapet in a stormy night towards Simon who stands there, pretending not to see her. "What do you want, Alys?" he asks finally, and she answers, "It's raining." Simple stuff, but described in such prose that evokes sexual yearnings and a need for human comfort so evocatively that I'm just enthralled. Likewise, there is the final denouement, where Simon finally gives up everything in his world for her, and she his.

It may be tad dramatic, but then again, since when are human emotions like love not dramatic, eh? The romance between Alys and Simon is grand and uncompromising. She will walk through storms and ride horses (another phobia of hers) to be with him, and he will kill and do anything in his power to keep her by his side. Codependency and dysfunction is never this sexy or romantic.

There's also a delightful secondary romance between Claire and the only man who doesn't respond to her beauty. Thomas du Rhymer is a man who takes his vows to God seriously, and even when his wife has left him to cavort with other more jolly men, and even when he knows he is serving an evil man, he feels that his vows to serve and obey bind him. Stupid? Maybe. But watching how Claire thaws him and he flabbergasts Claire is a lighter fare compared to Alys and Simon's dark romance. Thomas is also never a cruel man despite his rigid ways, and in the end, he is the right man for Claire.

Well, Lord Of Danger definitely isn't one of those knight's-revenge medieval fantasy. Danger does lurk, and Alys and Claire's positions and even lives are always controlled by men. But hey, they make do. Alys, especially, is an amazing woman who is a perfect match for Simon. Both are complex characters whose love saves each other. He learns to feel, and she learns to live.

Isn't that grand? Love changes people's lives, maybe not for the prettier, but definitely for the stronger and better. And Lord Of Danger demonstrates just that wonderfully. I read, I sigh and shed a few tears, and best of all, I feel. Great book? Definitely. Absolutely, positively.

Rating: 99


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