I’ve read only one other book by Tamara Leigh and that was Saxon Bride, which I thought was excellent. Her latest effort, Blackheart, is also excellent. Having said that, this book is not for the faint of heart or readers looking for a light and frothy medieval romp. The author poses an impossible and romantically reviled premise (adultery) yet through thoughtful characterizations and a complex and often pitiful villain, she makes it work.
The story opens as Gabriel de Vere, eldest son of a baron, is told that he will be put aside. He will not inherit Wyverly nor its lands nor its title. Shocked and angered, Gabriel blames his faithless mother who, on her deathbed, confessed to many adulterous affairs. Because Gabriel and his brother Blase do not physically resemble the de Veres, their father feels he must assume they are not of his blood. In a fury, young Gabriel leaves Wyverly to make his own way in the world.
Juliana Kinthorpe has been married for three years to the man she loved and worshipped throughout her youth. They married upon his return from the Holy Lands, but on her wedding night, Juliana discovers Bernart harbors a terrible secret. During a battle, her beloved groom was emasculated by the Infidel. Though she could have gained an annulment because of this, he knew she would never shame him by making his impotence public. So Juliana suffers in silence, her only consolation her sister Alaiz.
Alaiz, bright and beautiful, is now damaged goods. A fall from a horse the previous year bruised her brain and now she is slow-witted. The Church, society in general and Bernart in particular shove her away due to her infliction, leaving only Juliana to protect her from those who would do her harm.
Bernart, a profligate womanizer before his injury, decides he must put rumors of homosexuality to rest for once and all. His pride is at stake. He must have an heir to prove his manhood. He holds his boyhood friend turned enemy Gabriel de Vere responsible for his injury (long story), so it is Gabriel who should provide the solution to his problem. He invites his enemy to a tournament and at night, sends Juliana to him to steal his seed. He will have his wife lay with his enemy to produce the son and heir he needs desperately.
It is to this talented author’s credit that she makes it very clear Juliana hates what her husband has asked of her. She wants no part of his horrible plan, but he has sworn he will turn Alaiz out if Juliana doesn’t comply, an act which would undoubtedly lead to Alaiz’s rape or death.
Juliana does as she is bid but whatever love she had for Bernart dissipates entirely in the wake of his demands and threats. She goes to Gabriel in the dark of night and does nothing to reveal her identity, but Gabriel figures it out and swears she will pay for her treachery. When he learns their nights together have resulted in pregnancy, he kidnaps Juliana and takes her to Mergot, an estate awarded him by King Richard. It is there Gabriel and Juliana come to terms with what has happened, including their growing love for each other.
Normally, I don’t like adultery as a storyline. But because it was Bernart who set the entire scenario in motion, it was more a rape by proxy. Juliana hated herself for what she was doing, but had to in order to protect her sister. Juliana is a surprisingly strong heroine. She fights Bernart, argues with Gabriel, and is fiercely guided by duty and a fair heart. Even though she hates her husband for what he has forced her to do, she doesn’t reveal his impotence knowing it would destroy completely the man she once loved.
The secondary characters are all integral to the plot and have complicated personalities of their own. Nothing about this book is stereotypical. Nothing about it is easy. Ms. Leigh poses a hard question and never takes the easy way out in her solutions.
Blackheart is not for everyone. The story is unrelentingly intense and devoid of humor. It’s a character study of three people who are caught in a cruel situation and who do the best they can to work their way out. As a villain, Bernart is no cardboard cutout. You hate what he’s doing, but nonetheless, he’s very sympathetic. I had to put this book down several times and read something else before I could take it up again.
There are too few flaws in this book to even mention, so if you appreciate a well-researched historical, complex characters and a dilemma where there are no simple solutions, I urge you to give Blackheart a try. The ending leaves the door wide open for a sequel and the highest compliment I can think to give this author is to say that I can hardly wait to read it.