Desert Isle Keeper
A Dove at Midnight
I have always read romance novels and the Medieval period of history has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. When I realized there was an entire sub-genre of romance novels set in this period, I was truly in heaven. I have followed the genre faithfully through the years, and have been pleased to witness some remarkable accomplishments, both in the richness of historical detail/accuracy, and the ability of the authors to capture so vividly the voices of characters completely different in motivation, experience, and expectation from our modern sensibility.
A Dove at Midnight is not a new book. Its freshness when it was first published may have since been eclipsed by some recent, more nuanced novels set in the same time period. But I still consider it to be an absolutely classic Medieval romance, with believable characters rich in detail, true to their time (at least as we imagine their time to have been), and an emotionally powerful storyline that takes my breath away each time I read it. A book is a keeper when you know what’s going to happen, and you still feel as if you’ve taken an emotional voyage when you reach the end. A Dove at Midnight gives me that feeling every time, even ten years after it was first published.
The dove of the title is Lady Joanna Preston, a young, beautiful, and maligned maiden who for the past five years has lived a content if not happy life at a convent following the suicide of her abused mother. Joanna is pleased to be at the convent, not because she is particularly suited to life as a bride of Christ, but because it enables her to stay far from the father she blames for her mother’s death. The convent also keeps her safe from all other men. The actions of her cold and abusive father have scarred her ability to view men without distrust.
Joanna is a tempestuous heroine, but she walks the line of bravado and defiance without crossing over into the TSTL territory where many heroines of early medieval novels lived. Joanna is a product of her time – innocent but without illusions and beautiful while remaining unaware of her own beauty and self-worth. Unwanted by her family, resigned to her dull lot in life because she doesn’t know it’s possible to even wish for more, she’s a healthy young woman struggling to repress her natural inclinations because that’s what she’s been told to do. Welcome to a young noblewoman’s life in Medieval England.
Enter Sir Rylan Kempe, Lord of Blaecston, a powerful Yorkshire baron with an axe to grind against King John, and alliances he needs to solidify through marriage agreements. When Joanna’s father and his heir fall to a fatal sickness, Rylan seizes what he views as an opportunity to further his cause. Joanna’s newfound status as the heiress to Oxwich Castle (a neighboring castle to Blaecston) makes her a valuable prize, and Rylan is determined to marry her off to one of his allies with all haste, ensuring that King John cannot seize Oxwich and thus occupy a castle so near Rylan’s own power base.
These two meet for the first time at the convent where Rylan goes to tell Joanna of her family’s fate and informs her that she will leave with him for Oxwich. They strike sparks off each other immediately, not the least of which because Joanna flatly refuses to leave the convent, especially not for the hated Oxwich, her childhood home full of bad memories. Rylan is not about to take no for an answer, and he abducts her from the convent. What follows are a series of misadventures, escape attempts, and stirring exchanges (both verbal and physical) between two smart and determined characters at odds with each other.
She shook her head, not wanting to admit her cause was so hopeless. “I… will not marry,” she whispered, unaware of the tremor in her voice.
“What if no man will have me?”
He grinned at that. “What man would refuse you?”
“You mean what man would refuse you,” she countered angrily. “Besides, if I am so important – if Oxwich is – why do you not offer for me yourself?”
The words popped out before she could halt them, and Joanna was aghast. He was the last man she would ever wed!
He clearly found the idea preposterous as well, for the amusement fled his face.
“I cannot,” he clipped out, though his eyes bored into hers. Then he turned his gaze toward the fire. “I assure you, your husband will be a most acceptable fellow. One who will be pleased to have you to wife.”
Joanna forced down the lump that had risen in her throat. “Then he’d best be well pleased with a shrew for a wife, for mark my words, I shall make his life a hell!”
As in many Medieval romances, there is a distinct difference in both the age and experience of the hero and heroine. While I don’t care for this in contemporary romances, I can excuse it in a Medieval romance because it reflects what life was like at the time. Rylan is an intimidating warrior hardened by years of battle, but he is no brute – he is a savvy political player with hidden agendas and a strategic mind. That Joanna is a believable match for him says a lot for her, because Rylan is a compelling and sexy hero. Their chemistry is sizzling. The love scenes in this novel are extremely sensual and powerful, in part because of the emotional surrender they represent for the characters. Each is resisting their unwanted, intense attraction to the other, for societal reasons as well as their unwillingness to give up control. In their own ways, for their own reasons, Rylan and Joanna are closed off from their emotions. Their powerful attraction makes them acknowledge things they would rather not, and it ultimately makes them behave in ways they cannot understand, nor even condone.
“You,” he began in a voice hoarse with emotion. “You would never make a nun.” His eyes raked her with furious thoroughness, causing her to step back in dismay. “No, quite the contrary.”
His bitter words so mirrored her own fears that Joanna wanted to weep. Yet still she denied what he said.
“I will make a good nun. ‘Tis only because you… because you… ”
“Because I what? I’ll tell you. ‘Tis only because I am the one who has forced you from the rigid mold you try so hard to fit yourself to. ‘Tis only because I forced you to let down your guard a little. Now you’re terrified by the feelings that have been unleashed in you.”
She shook from the force of his words – and the force of his direct stare. Despite the distance between them, she felt overwhelmed by him. His gaze. His voice. His very essence seemed to surround her until that was all there was.
“Do you want me to admit I am terrified?” she answered him in a voice filled with pain. “Very well then, I am terrified. Do you want me to admit that you – that you have made me feel… things that I’ve never felt before?” She took a shaky breath, but her eyes held with his. “‘Tis all true. But even with that, you are still wrong about me. I will make a good nun. I have sinned, but -”
“Sinned! Christ and bedamned, woman. That was not a sin. The sin would be to resign yourself to that godforsaken priory!”
The internal and external struggles between feeling/not feeling, and action/remorse are portrayed beautifully. When Rylan and Joanna finally give in to their passion for each other, it is not a romantic, sweet event, but rather an evocative, thrilling one. They are surrendering to feelings greater than themselves, and it is an erotically charged, moving, and soul-baring experience.
After this transcendent experience (or perhaps because of it), their battle of wills escalates over Joanna’s future. She is shocked and ashamed of her behavior, and even more determined to return to the convent. Angry at himself, Rylan is equally determined that their unwise actions should not change his plan. His own secret betrothal to an heiress prevents him from taking the obvious route to forgiveness and marrying Joanna himself.
Joanna foils him, or so she thinks, by allowing herself to be taken into King John’s custody. Unfortunately, her situation worsens, because the king and his cunning Queen Isabel prepare to marry her to the noble of their choice, with much less regard than Rylan for her feelings or preferences. The machinations that ensue under the watchful, unfriendly eyes of the royals, as Joanna attempts to extricate herself from her troublesome situation, and Rylan attempts to do the same (but to his own end, which in no way resembles Joanna’s goal!) are riveting.
There is a point in the story where I despaired the first time I read this book since I could not figure out how Ms. Becnel would be able to give this couple their happily-ever-after. There seemed to be too many obstacles – including their own pride – keeping Rylan and Joanna apart. That Ms. Becnel unquestionably succeeded and brought this pair together once and for all with no bloodshed and a satisfying, though emotionally wrenching resolution, is a triumph of storytelling.
A Dove at Midnight is a wonderful Medieval romance which pits two strong characters against each other in a classic battle of fierce will and passionate emotion. Drawn with a narrative voice that feels true to its time, and brings life to another age, Rylan and Joanna are worth visiting over and over again. If you’ve enjoyed more recent Medieval romances by authors like Shana Abé and Claudia Dain, then I highly recommend that you go back in time to give this one a try. You won’t be disappointed.
LLB: I've waited for seven long years for somebody to write a DIK review of this book! Each time another reader thought about re-reading it in order to write the review, they'd decide that the book didn't withstand well the test of time. I disagree. There's definitely an "old style" feel to the relationship between Rylan and Joanna, and the machinations at court take quite a long time to play out (I think Julie Garwood took a shorter route through similar territory in one of her Medievals), but I've re-read A Dove at Midnight a number of times and love it. Those looking for a poignant ending will definitely find one here. As for the love scenes, oh my...! Thanks, Nicole!