A Dark Champion
A Dark Champion is the first full-length story in Kinley MacGregor’s new Brotherhood of the Sword series. It looks like the series technically began with the novella Midsummer Knight in the Where’s My Hero? anthology, although several characters from some of the author’s other earlier books are mentioned in this one too. However this book fits in the overall scheme of things, it feels an awful lot like the beginning of a new series (the prologue ends with the words “And now here begins the official tales of the Brotherhood of the Sword”), which is the story’s biggest problem.
The Brotherhood is a group of men held prisoner during the Crusades who survived their ordeal together and returned to England with a close bond. Each of the men has a nickname. Stryder of Blackmoor is known as the Widowmaker, a knight who knows no match on the battlefield. Physically, he is such a glorious specimen of a man that he can’t escape from all the women trying to corner him into marriage. When he goes to tournaments, women literally throw themselves at him. King Henry II is inundated with requests from noblemen that he order Stryder to marry their daughters. Stryder has no interest in marriage or being saddled with a woman, but Henry is tired of dealing with the issue. And so, the queen (Eleanor of Aquitaine) concocts a scheme to match Stryder with a noblewoman Henry needs to see married off, Rowena de Vitry.
It looks like an impossible match. Stryder is a knight. Rowena hates knights. She is a musician and poet who writes songs decrying knights as awful warmongers. Stryder hates minstrels. But when they are forced to spend time together, the reasons for their respective prejudices come out and they begin to thaw toward one another. Trouble emerges when another knight at the tournament is murdered, and Stryder is suspected of the crime. It looks like someone is targeting members of the Brotherhood for death. But who? And why?
The romance and character interactions between Stryder and Rowena are the best parts of the book. Their relationship unfolds in a very nice and, more importantly, believable fashion. MacGregor does a strong job showing how their initial antagonism toward each other slowly fades. They each gradually become aware of the real people behind the initial conceptions they have of one another as they learn more about each other. For two people who believe they couldn’t be more different, they form a connection and a deep emotional bond that felt right. We’ve all read romances where the only reason to believe the characters are in love is because the author keeps telling us so. In this case, the author provides several long scenes that take place just between Stryder and Rowena so readers can see for themselves that these are two characters who click. They just feel right, and the intimacy of their scenes together feels earned.
There’s a real evolution to their relationship that is very rewarding. The longer the story goes on, the more likable the characters become. Rowena’s disdain for Stryder turns to fierce protectiveness when everyone begins to turn against him. Stryder’s desire to never marry turns into possessiveness and ultimately, a determination to win her. The queen’s scheme is so convoluted the premise didn’t really work for me, but the end result and final scenes are still satisfying.
For the most part, the story moves quickly (more on that in a second). The action is snappy and steady and the plot progresses without any slow spots. In terms of the mystery, the author does telegraph some of her twists a little too obviously. She doesn’t hint at the revelations so much as she drops them like anvils on the reader’s head. She tips off several revelations a while before they come, which makes them seem anticlimactic. It would have been nice if they’d been kept surprises. But key emotional moments do develop from some of these twists. At least one was striking enough that I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to see how it unfolded. MacGregor also nicely reveals unexpected layers about several secondary characters that work quite well.
However, the book is somewhat difficult to get into at first. The hero and one of his friends spend most of the first chapter talking about The Brotherhood. The reader barely knows the characters in this story. Isn’t it a little soon to be talking about a bunch that won’t even be seen in this book? Several plot threads are left hanging, including one that’s awkwardly dropped in the middle of the book. Presumably it will be picked up in the next book, but the way it’s abandoned here while the story shifts in a completely different direction is jarring. While the romance comes to a definitive conclusion, the rest of the story feels unfinished. To make matters worse, the story ends in the final chapter, then MacGregor tacks on an epilogue about a minor character that has no purpose in this story and simply serves as a cliffhanger leading into the next. While some readers may find this a tantalizing glimpse of the next book, others may find, as I did, that it was simply annoying.
There’s also a complete lack of description and period detail that makes the story less vivid than it should be. Reading the book is much like watching actors perform a play on a blank stage. The characters mainly run in and out of the castle’s rooms and various tents on the tournament grounds, and I couldn’t really picture any of it. I didn’t even catch what year it was set in. It goes unnamed, although the identity of the king and queen at the time should help some readers nail down the era at least.
A Dark Champion is an entertaining story with a number of minor weaknesses that detract from it at times. The author spends too much time with her eye on other stories, but even those distractions can’t take away from the strong romance at this book’s core.