I know an author is really talented when she makes me enjoy a book with a premise that I basically dislike. By Possession is a medieval romance about a knight and a woman who was born a serf, bound to his lands. Though her status as a serf is in question, she spends much of the book as his bondwoman. Fundamentally, master/servant romances make me very uncomfortable, usually because of the inherent inequalities between the hero (who always seems to have the upper hand in these scenarios) and the heroine. That being said, By Possession is a very good read, and Madeline Hunter addresses the troublesome inequality issue with thoughtfulness and insight.
Addis de Valence has spent the last six years in the Baltics after being captured during a crusade. When he returns home to England, it appears that his problems are just beginning. His wife has died, and his step-brother has seized his lands after accusing Addis’s deceased father of treason. Everyone has long presumed that Addis died on the crusade, and his return comes as a surprise to many. Moira Falkner is one person whose life has been disrupted by Addis’s return. Her mother Edith was Addis’s father’s lehman, and on his deathbed he freed Edith and Moira from serfdom and gave Edith some property. Edith died shortly thereafter, leaving the holding to Moira. But when Addis returns, he will not accept her claims of freedom and commands Moira to stay with him as his servant. Furious, Moira attempts to escape, but she is attacked on the road and Addis rescues her. At this point their romance, and their struggles with the concepts of freedom, equality, and servitude, begin.
Initially, Addis appears to be selfish and tyrannical. He has no reason to doubt Moira’s claims of freedom, which many of the villagers are willing to corroborate. But his need to keep Moira by his side is more complicated than it first seems. For her part, Moira has been half in love with Addis for years, even though he married the woman she served. Though their attraction to each other is almost instant, the relationship between Addis and Moira develops gradually, and is very complicated. Moira truly loves Addis, but she is reluctant to give up her freedom and the chance for an independent life. She would like to use her property and what money she has as a dowry to marry a successful craftsman. Marriage to Addis doesn’t seem like a realistic possibility; they are from different classes, and his marriage must be a carefully chosen alliance. Moira is constantly tempted to take whatever happiness she can have with Addis, but she doesn’t want to live the life her mother lived as a nobleman’s lehman.
While all this introspection is going on, there is plenty of action as well, tied to this rebellious and dangerous time when alliances and treason went hand in hand. Addis’ attempts to reclaim his heritage from his step-brother involves him in an exciting plot involving the king. Moira and Addis come to terms with their love against a backdrop of national intrigue, and the final resolution to their problems is both dramatic and romantic.
By Possession is a satisfying book; one of those romances you can really sink your teeth into. The setting is richly crafted and has a very genuine feel, and the characters actually act like medieval people, with outlooks and concerns that make sense for their time. There are some fascinating details about medieval London. At one point Moira is caught on the streets after dark and is branded a whore. The resulting scenes reveal much about the state of women at that time. The political details also add both interest and intrigue to the book. I was not at all familiar with the Baltic Crusades, but Hunter provides interesting information about them, and the characters have some fascinating conversations about religious and cultural differences. Addis has been very changed by his experience is the Baltics, and his attitudes reflect that.
Addis and Moira are both interesting and likable. I thought I would have a tough time liking Addis at first because of his high-handed treatment of Moira. But as the novel progressed, the author added more insights into his character, making him very sympathetic. Both Addis and Moira have been shaped by birth and upbringing, and the thoughtful examination of class, equality, and freedom is the best thing about this book. Author Hunter takes a very difficult subject and crafts it into a masterful conflict. Addis and Moira have many choices to make throughout the novel, and their introspection is realistic and thought-provoking.
My one quibble with the book is that it takes a long time – virtually the whole book – for Addis and Moira to truly be together. It’s nice that the relationship isn’t hurried, but I wanted more time to enjoy their relationship. After all the agonizing, I thought they both deserved it too. Overall, however, By Possession is a compelling read with a difficult but well-handled subject matters. Fans of medievals will particularly enjoy it – especially those who crave “meaty” reads.