Desert Isle Keeper
Fair, Bright and Terrible
Fair, Bright, and Terrible is a companion to The King’s Man, the first of Elizabeth Kingston’s Welsh Blades books. It’s not absolutely necessary to have read that book first, although I found it helpful and would certainly suggest doing so to anyone interested in reading this one. Fair, Bright, and Terrible tells the story of Eluned of Ruardean, who has lived a life of compromise and sacrifice in service of her beloved Wales. With the country now conquered by the English, and her daughter, Gwenllian (heroine of the previous book) happily married and expecting a child rather than fulfilling Eluned’s dreams of leading the Welsh people to freedom, Eluned is consumed by bitterness and a desire for vengeance.
Fair, Bright, and Terrible opens with Eluned emotionally devastated by King Edward’s ruthless suppression of the Welsh rebellion and learning shortly afterwards of her death of her husband, who spent most of their married life crusading in the Holy Land. When her son, William, visits her at Ruardean and asks her to marry Robert de Lascaux in order to strengthen William’s position at King Edward’s court, Eluned sees it as a last chance for vengeance on her enemies. William’s intention to claim Ruardean – after Eluned has spent the whole of her married life as its de-facto leader – leaves her with limited options.
When Robert de Lascaux is asked by his scheming father to marry Eluned of Ruardean for her lands and connections, he barely hesitates before agreeing to the union. Eighteen years earlier, Robert had fallen desperately in love with Eluned, and despite knowing she was married to the volatile and powerful Walter of Ruardean, Robert found he could not stay away from her. Flirtation gave way to stolen kisses and it wasn’t long before they were sneaking away for passionate afternoons alone together. Months later, when Eluned was compelled to return to Ruardean and her husband, she and Robert finally confessed their love for each other but parted in anger. Robert begged Eluned to come away to France with him, and Eluned argued that she couldn’t leave her husband, but that she would find a way from them to be together at Ruardean, if only Robert would follow her. Robert, still hopeful Eluned would leave Walter and unable to stay away, arrived at Ruardean a few short days later. But instead of the happy reunion he hoped for, Eluned abruptly ended the affair and implored him to stay away. Bewildered and devastated, he honored her request, though he never stopped loving her or dreaming of the chance to be with her once again. Marriage to Eluned is an answer to his most fervent prayers.
Up until Robert and Eluned marry, Fair, Bright, and Terrible is mostly a dark, sombre and bitter reflection of all Eluned feels she’s lost in her pursuit of an independent Wales. Now a closed off, cold stranger – even to herself – Eluned’s entire focus is on vengeance, and there’s no room for happy reminiscing about Robert or the bright, beautiful love and desire they shared long ago. The mood is dismal and the narrative chilling as we learn of the choices and sacrifices she’s been forced to make in her life since turning Robert away years ago.
But once Ms. Kingston introduces us to Robert – happy, eager, thrilled to be with Eluned again – small sparks of light start to glimmer through the story, despite Eluned’s anger and remoteness. This is a long, fraught middle stretch, with Eluned and Robert at a court filled with intrigues and gamesmanship, married – yet strangers to one another – and overwhelmed by memories of their doomed, youthful love affair. These romantic and sensual flashbacks, juxtaposed against Robert’s naïve and frustrated hopefulness and Eluned’s profound unhappiness, are bittersweet. Robert clings to the memory of the passionate Eluned he never stopped loving; Eluned struggles to resist her desire and her memories, and remain committed to her plans for vengeance. Oh reader! This love story will break your heart.
Ms. Kingston wisely doesn’t rush the middle section, instead using these chapters to gently fan the embers of love between Robert and Eluned, and detail the intrigue and scheming behind Eluned’s murderous plans for revenge. Her plans are complicated by her long suppressed love for Robert, his relationships at court, and the repercussions of her actions on his future. I admit I found keeping up with the large cast of characters and all the scheming/plotting a bit difficult at times, and I struggled along with both principals to recognize friend or foe – but Ms. Kingston rewards the effort. Just when all the intricate plotting seems to coalesce, and I was convinced all hope for Eluned and Robert was also lost, an unlikely savior makes a surprise appearance and the story abruptly moves out of the dark and into the light.
I fell hard for Robert (Robin to his closest friends, and deep in Eluned’s heart). He’s a wonderfully nuanced hero whose enduring love for Eluned (and his friends) is a pleasure to read. Gentle, affectionate and oh, so vulnerable to her and her affections (or lack thereof), I just wanted to spend more time with him. I hated Eluned in The King’s Man, and really, though Fair, Bright, and Terrible redeems her character by the time she and Robert get their HEA, it’s Robert who makes this romance a DIK. His love for Eluned finally warms her cold, bitter heart and reveals the fiercely passionate and beautiful woman he once loved. I was so glad when she finally let down her guard. Though there isn’t a whole lot of steam (to my regret), there is great chemistry between the principals, and fans of slow burn romances will delight in this pair.
I worried over how Ms. Kingston planned to fill out the last few chapters, and once Robert and Eluned reunite romantically, I was concerned things were going to end too perfectly and completely out of keeping with the overall tone. But the author saves her best writing for last. A pervasive sense of danger lurks throughout the novel, and when she masterfully unveils one last twist, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. The conclusion is a tightly plotted, intense and a delicious pay off for all the machinations at Edward’s court. A sweet and satisfying epilogue wherein Eluned is reunited with Gwenllian provides a delicious contrast to the preceding chapters and one last swoony gesture by Robert ends the book on a high note.
Medieval Wales and Edward’s scheming court provide a sinister and treacherous backdrop to the love story Fair, Bright, and Terrible purports itself to be. Part history lesson, part romance and wholly engrossing, this book is fair, bright and wonderful. I loved it, hated it and in the end, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Readers new to Ms. Kingston – clear your book queues and get ready to immerse yourself in her medieval world. You won’t regret it.