Master Of Torment
by Karin Tabke, historical (2008)
Pocket, $6.99, ISBN 978-1-4165-5503-2

Ha, ha, ha - this is great! I love it when an author surprises me and Karin Tabke certainly does that with Master Of Torment. To me, one of the saddest days in the romance genre is when author Gayle Feyrer or Taylor Chase lost her publishing contract. Master Of Torment, with its hard-hearted hero and strong-willed heroine, has me feeling excited from page one, reminding me of how I felt when I first read The Thief's Mistress, and the momentum rarely sags all the way to the last page.

Tarian of Trent is a woman who is only important when she is a widow. Before that, she was an outcast due to the unfortunate circumstances of her birth. Unwanted by both the Saxon and Welsh side of her families, she took up the sword and decided to determine her own fate instead of letting men dictate her life. Of course, with this story being set in early 11th century England just when William of Normandy had toppled Harold Godwinson, her power is illusory - she is actually more powerless than she'd like to admit. The moment her husband died, she was branded as his murderer and her husband's uncle swooped in for the kill. While she finds herself imprisoned and tortured in the dungeon of her own home, William of Normandy decides that Tarian's relationship to the late Harold Godwinson (she is his granddaughter) marks her as a threat to his power and sends our hero Wulfson of Trevelyn to kill her.

Upon setting foot in Draceadon, Tarian's holding, Wulfson soon realizes that he can't just walk in and break the heroine's neck - Tarian may be poor dead Godwinson's granddaughter, but she is also linked to the most powerful Saxon and Welsh royal families in the area thanks to her now dead husband's as well as her mother's blood ties. We are talking about folks who are waiting for an excuse to start a war with William. Realizing that Tarian's death will be the excuse these people are looking for, especially when Tarian may be carrying her late husband's heir, Wulfson realizes that he has no choice but to play the lord of Draceadon while he waits for William's follow-up orders. Tarian is not going to meekly submit to her fate, of course, and there are many people out there who are more than happy to use Tarian as an excuse to cause trouble for William. Poor Wulfson, his mission isn't going to be that simple after all.

The plot looks like a set up for all kinds of clichéd scenarios like arranged marriages between the hero and the heroine, but be assured that in this story, there is no such contrivance. Wulfson's order is clear - he must kill Tarian, and this is the biggest conflict in the story as he becomes increasingly enchanted by Tarian's strength and determination to stand up to a cruel world. And I tell you, there is no sweeter victory than seeing an exceedingly alpha and confident man like Wulfson being brought so low by love that he actually ends up determined to defy his liege for Tarian. Being that this is part of Ms Tabke's The Blood Sword Legacy series, there is that ridiculous paranormal aspect of the story where the hero's true love is proven true when his true love is knocked up by him, but here, Ms Tabke manages to show me very well that the attraction between Wulfson and Tarian isn't just Good People Breed Like Rabbits propaganda in action. I'm convinced that these two really have it bad for each other.

Oh, Tarian. She's a tough warrior princess, but I like the fact that she's strong without being too much like a superhero. She has plenty of realistic weaknesses here - she is not always as strong as she'd like to believe she is, and yes, she is actually powerless here despite her attempts to be in control, but I really like Tarian for her determination and courage. She fights back, and even if she has to play dirty to get the upper hand, even if it means sacrificing inconvenient things like her virginity, she'd do it. As she tells Wulfson, it's all about survival - she'd be damned if she lies down and dies quietly like the fates seem determined to have her do. And like Wulfson becoming a besotted fool as the story progresses, she eventually lets love make her pull off a stunt that would seem like foolishness to some readers (and I can understand why they will feel that way), but to me, her antic as well as Wulfson's are a culmination of their obsession with each other that finally has them deciding that their love for the other person is all that matters - it may even be more important than their lives. You may think this is stupid and I'd somewhat agree with you, but I also think this is all fabulous melodrama done in the name of fools in love.

The romance is pretty dark. For example, when they are officially introduced to each other, we see the hero pressing the blade of his knife against the heroine's neck and she responding by coolly pressing her skin deeper into the blade and daring him to finish her off. There are a few sex scenes here that are of dubious consent, especially when Tarian tries to use her sexuality to manipulate Wulfson. You may also need to suspend your disbelief when our heroine gets deflowered by what seems to be the biggest penis in the land only to go for a second round and have fun in the process. This is probably not a romance for everyone, but me, I love everything about the dark and sometimes disturbing nature of the relationship. I especially adore how the hero gets really turned on by the sight of our heroine beating the crap out of her opponent. Then again, this is a pretty dark and nasty medieval romance. Don't expect the author to sugarcoat the wild savagery of the men of those times, the powerlessness of the women, and how the concept of justice is often determined by winners who have brutally defeated their opponents.

My only complain about this story is how the sequel bait future heroes of this series are so indistinguishable here that they come off like clones serving our hero. The more the author tries to shove them down my throat, the more I feel like screaming, "Come on, give them a little personality, at least!" There is this Viking, I think, but the rest of them are a bunch of nondescript alpha beef on parade.

Still, this book is a job very well done indeed on Ms Tabke's part, I must say. I am really taken by surprise by how well I enjoy this one - and if you read my reviews of her previous books, you'd know why - but hey, I'm not complaining at all. Sometimes romance reading still manages to give me a few pleasant unexpected delights, and how wonderful it is that this book manages to be the one that accomplishes it.

Rating: 93

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