When To Burn opens, our heroine, Melania, is hiding in a hypocaust (a system of flues that helped heat ancient Roman homes). Above her, Saxon warriors are making themselves at home after raiding her house and killing her father. She’s not having a good day. Wulfred, the leader of this band of Saxon warriors, is having a fine day. He’s been able to kill a lot of Romans and that tends to make him happy. Our hero has a real hatred for Rome and all things Roman. But he’s also pretty smart and he’s pretty sure that there is someone hiding close by. And he’s even surer that it’s a woman. When he figures out just where Melania is hiding, he literally tries to burn her out by lighting the fire above her. His aim is to kill her, but before that, to hear her scream and beg for mercy. He waits but doesn’t hear a peep out of her – Melania is prepared to die before submitting to the Saxons.
When Wulfred pulls Melania out of the hypocaust he decides it would be better to torture her before killing her. Oh, he’s not going to beat her or string her up by a body part, he’s simply going to make her live as a Saxon slave after she states that she can think of no worse way to live than under Saxon rule; for her it would be pure hell. He’s going to break her spirit before he kills her. Heck of a guy, isn’t he? Melania has other plans. She’s going to kill herself. In her mind, this is how she wins, even though her tutor Theras points out that as a Christian, killing herself would be a sin.
First Melania thinks to work herself to death. Wulfred manages to stop her. Next she decides to starve herself; Wulfred insists she takes all of her meals with him. It’s a classic battle of wills and honestly, after awhile it got old. These two fight and bicker so much that it’s difficult to believe they’re attracted to each other, let alone falling in love with one another. Melania constantly calls Wulfred an oaf, a barbarian, or a pig. Sometimes she throws the word “Saxon” in front of her insult of the moment. He is constantly calling her a “Roman snake.”
Somewhere along the way, Wulfred gets the idea that if he truly wants to make Melania suffer, he should marry her. Um..excuse me?! He doesn’t like Romans, he doesn’t like her, he wants to kill her but he’s decided to sacrifice himself and marry a Roman and let her bear his children? Okay, whatever. Of course, this is what Wulfred tells himself, but the reader is supposed to know that he’s really doing it because he’s attracted to her and is falling in love with her. Melania decides to marry him so she can kill him on their wedding night. She knows she’ll be killed herself after this but that’s fine with her. Again, the reader is supposed know that this is bunk and that she genuinely fancies him. I didn’t buy it. There is nothing here that makes me think they had anything more than an adversarial relationship and maybe a little lust working for them.
Quite suddenly, as the two are being married during a Christian ceremony, Melania is asked if she will respect Wulfred, she says she already does. Wulfred seems surprised by this, and he wasn’t the only one. Wulfred then agrees to love Melania – again both Melania and the reader are surprised by this revelation as it comes out of nowhere. Never did I feel these two people liked each other. Most of their conversations were heated in one way or another – when exactly did they go from hate to love? Where was like along the way? I must have missed it. Yes, she’s brave and beautiful and he’s handsome and kind to children. Is that all?
Melania is an annoying heroine, shrill, always yelling, screaming, or fighting – even though it gets her nowhere. She comes up with harebrained schemes to get her revenge (like trying to kill herself) and wonders why they don’t work. She is brave though, and I gave her some credit for that. I’m not so sure I could stand up to Saxon warriors if I were in her Roman sandals. Her servant Dorcas tells her she might catch more flies with honey but Melania refuses to see that there might other options to getting what she wants, or thinks she wants. I’m not suggesting she use sex or her feminine wiles, but a little rational behavior might have helped her cause some. Even if it didn’t, she would have come off a lot more mature than she did.
Wulfred for his part is really not so bad, aside from the whole “Saxon warrior killing all the Romans he can” thing. Once the reasons for his hatred are made known, I understood his intense loathing of all that is Roman a little better. His rationale is not difficult to determine, although the reader won’t be “officially” informed until Melania learns of it, rather late in the book.
Among the annoying incidents in the book, one is particularly memorable. The reader is introduced to a male character, a Roman who presents himself only to Melania. She knows him and as readers we are led to believe they might be in love. The reality of their true relationship when revealed is very hard to swallow – I had to re-read their scenes together and found they never rang true. Unfortunately, a lot of this book didn’t work for me. I liked the time period, because it was something different. I also liked the secondary romance between Dorcas and the Saxon warrior Cenred. More of them would have been a good thing. But on the whole, the negatives outweighed the positives. This was my first Claudia Dain book, and while I would be willing to try another, I was not overly impressed with To Burn.