by Anne Stuart, historical (2000)
Zebra, $5.99, ISBN 0-8217-6470-5
Spoilers are present in this review
There's going to a wild party in Castle Fortham. King Henry has sent two men to seek out the holy and reputedly magical Blessed Chalice of the Martyred Saint Hugelina the Dragon - our glorious, golden hero Nicholas Strangefellow the jester and a child who is also an efficient and heartless assassin. Also in the Castle is our intrepid heroine Lady Julianna of Moncrieff who not only snogs Nicholas, but decides to seek the Chalice to be her trump card in bargaining with King Henry about her future (she hates all men and their touch thanks to her brutal first husband, and she wants to enter a convent). There's also an overzealous abbot with a thing for whips and young boys hunting for the Chalice.
And if that's not complicated enough, Julianna's mother Lady Isabeau is marrying Lord Hugh, Earl of Fortham, and they both love each other, they just can't say the three words out loud to each other.
Fun? Well, this is the closest so far to an Anne Stuart comedy. Ironic, therefore, that she has created one of her most brutal heroes to date in Nicholas. Oh yes, the man rhymes prettily, lies prettily too, and that butt ain't too bad a sight. I even look forward to his none-too-noble intention to seduce Julianna as a gift for a job well-done when he finds the Chalice. Such ego can only lead to a downfall, and I look foward to that moment. Alas, I only end up getting creeped out by this man.
Julianna is a feitsy woman with a wry sense of humor, but she is a absolute sponge when it comes to Nicholas. The man has no problems pulling all her strings and making her dance to his tune. She is no match for this man, and I can count the times she actually throws Nicholas off balance with one hand. Three fingers tops. Nicholas needs Xena to keep him in line, not Julianna.
If that's not bad enough, Nicholas shows a ruthless streak that manifests itself even in the last two chapters. He discards too easily, uses and abuses those in his vincinity too effortlessly. I cannot see him placing Julianna as his top, second, or even third priority in his self-centered universe. It is not good at all to end a book with a disquieting feeling that should circumstances require it, Nicholas would cast Julianna aside with probably nothing more than a few days of guilt.
I always complain about too-starchy goodie-woodiness in romance main characters. Well, I got my wish in a bad guy like Nicholas, but Nicholas also lacks any redeeming point. Actually he isn't that bad, Anne Stuart's hero in Prince Of Swords is the worst when it comes to despicable heroes, but Lady Fortune is obviously a light-hearted book. Which makes Nicholas' behavior all the more unlikeable.
Especially when Hugh and Isabeau are most interesting and decent characters. Now these two are fun. Hugh is a man who has waited all this years to marry Isabeau, ever since he comforted pregnant, crying child-bride Isabeau years ago. Now that's romantic. And unlike Julianna, Isabeau is a strong and worthy match for Hugh.
Think about it. Nicholas abandons Julianna after their lovemaking with the chalice in his pouch. Julianna is left to face the consequences of their actions, manhandled, abused, and kidnapped by the bad guys as a result. And while he spends his time getting drunk and thinking what a sorry bad moron he is, our heroine is having an awful time. A chapter later they get married and then it's the epilogue. Julianna doesn't even knee that man in the balls. Do I have the temerity to say rushed ending?
Compare this to the author's brilliant medieval tour de force Lord Of Danger. In LOD, Alys starts out a coward who discovers her inner courage, and there is one glorious scene where she makes the villian/hero realizes how she would destroy him, yet he couldn't ever let her go. In LF Julianna starts out spunky and ends up spunky with little character growth. Women are powerless in medieval times, and while LOD proves that no, women can find a semblence of safe harbor in those turbulent times (even happiness), LF only demonstates that women is not only powerless, they need to debase themselves to a man's absolute power to have security. At least where Julianna is concerned. This is a fatal flaw as far as I'm concerned.
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