The Holding
by Claudia Dain, historical (2001)
Leisure, $5.50, ISBN 0-8439-4858-2

The first thing I noticed about Claudia Dain's second romance novel The Holding is how the heroine Cathryn of Greneforde never once take out a healing pouch to save kids, pregnant women, and pigs in this story. She isn't some misunderstood witch, a bastard daughter of some nobleman, or any medieval romance clichés. Perfect.

The second thing I noticed is how much this romance is character-driven. There is very little political intrigue or even "My traitor in my courtyard" nonsense. The story is simple: William le Brouillard, loyal knight of King Henry II, is given the estate of Greneford and its lady as a reward for loyal service. He finds the estate in a state of rundown, but when Cathryn steps into his sight, he's a goner. That's it, really. Apart from the obligatory action scenes towards the end, the majority of this story deals with William and Cathryn trying to find a middle ground and make this marriage work.

And for a medieval romance with a typical marriage by design thingy, these two characters are wonderfully normal, for the want of a better word. Both characters don't fly at each other's throats from get go. Greneforde needs a male leader - Cathryn understands that, she is a practical woman, and she actually looks forward to the marriage, even if her heart is not in it. Duty above self - she is the lady of the land, after all. Likewise, William isn't above getting married. He wants lands, he will do his best to repair and restore Greneforde, and a nice, beautiful wife is icing on the cake.

Two practical people who think themselves above emotions. Or so they think.

The main conflict stems from Cathryn's lack of virginity. Normally I hate stories where the conflict rests on the woman's state of chastity. I don't care how historically accurate such an attitude is, if I want to read about Neanderthals worshiping a stupid, throwaway piece of nuisance epidermis, I might as well move to India and watch a suttee ritual. Of course, Cathryn was sexually abused in the past. Yet in The Holding, Ms Dain wisely doesn't prolong the sullen black faces and temper tantrums. William discovers the cause of his wife's lack of virginity soon enough and he can't eat the remorse cake fast enough.

Most fascinating for me is the character of Cathryn. She makes maintaining a calm, emotionless exterior to an art form. Inside, oh yes, she is attracted to William and she definitely wants, but she has learned the hard way that the best defense may be just withdrawing into an icy calm that is her shell when she is threatened by violent emotions. Hence, William is often frustrated when his wife keeps sending mixed signals. Cathryn does thaw, and it is her thawing into an emotional being makes this story erotic, rather than the love scenes.

William is a more typical macho, gruff knight. But I love the way the author allows him to actually act like a medieval knight. He can deliver violence as much as passion, and there's nothing more exciting to my senses that a heady mix of blood and sex. Okay, I'm a twisted reader. You got a problem with that?

Ms Dain's character-driven story does falter at times. The pacing can be off at some scenes, and I get irritated by some abrupt changes in points-of-view. But nonetheless, The Holding is a marvelous and fascinating read. It doesn't even hesitate to hide the rougher, coarser side of a medieval marriage, and that way, it only makes the characters' eventual falling in love all the more satisfying. I get this feeling that their feelings have really been tested and yeah, they will probably be okay in the long run.

The Holding isn't a pretty, sweet medieval story. But I find that this is its strength. With fascinating, flawed characters carrying a story that is simple yet so complex, this book hits the home run where I am concerned. Fans looking for happy healers falling for sensitive new age knights stay away. But me, I want more. I don't think we have enough character-driven, complex romance novels like The Holding.

Rating: 94

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