The Welsh Blades series is darker and significantly more complex than most of the historical fare I read; its heroines are strong and powerful - far from cookie cutter in every way. Clever, complicated and thought-provoking, each of the novels in the series has engaged my heart and mind in equal measure, staying with me long after the last page.
Desire Lines is the same, but somehow different too. Lighter maybe, less steeped in political intrigue than the earlier novels, and more narrowly focused on the developing romance between its principal players than on the machinations at King Edward I’s court (although they do play a part in this story too). The author (wisely) explores the darkest parts of our heroine’s backstory in a companion prequel, Nan, but the repercussions of her traumatic past inform and reverberate in this story, shaping the woman she is when she meets Gryff, a stranger with a painful, traumatic past of his own. Although Desire Lines can be read as a standalone, I would urge you to read the earlier Welsh Blades novels, and/or Nan (if you were lucky enough to download the latter from Kingston's newsletter - the novel is not available for purchase) before starting this one. Those novels enhance this marvelous book in every way.
In Nan, we discovered how a beautiful, lowly serving girl at the court of King Edward I came to know and love Eluned and Gwenllian, (heroines of the previous books) counting them as her closest friends. Her traumatic past - including time in captivity, and the various women who interceded and helped her at key moments, shaped her into the silent, watchful and lethal - purposeful - woman she has become by the time that story ends and Desire Lines begins. Nan, who has finally made peace with her past, has left Morency on a mission to locate her younger sister, from whom she was separated as a small girl. She’s traveling with a small group on business for Ranulf, Lord of Morency, when their caravan comes under attack. With (minimal) help from the armed knights in the group, Nan systematically kills eight men using the blades hidden on her body, leaving only one in their party alive.
Gryff, whom we discover was a hostage of the gang, believed the attack on the traveling party would proceed as others he’s witnessed: Baudry and his men, vicious criminals, would attack the knights first, and then turn on the women and the children. It doesn’t.
It began in beauty and blood.
He saw her face in an improbable moment, amid chaos and carnage – startling blue eyes and a soft mouth set in perfect, graceful lines – and then he saw the blood. Not a drop of it touched her. It was all around her, and all of her own doing. Ferocity and beauty, that’s how it began.
He’s mesmerized by the beauty of the woman who saves his life, killing his captors, and suddenly - literally - frees him from the rope that binds him to a nearby tree. Gryff (and the two falcons he’s managed to keep alive during his captivity), joins the small traveling party, convinced he must keep his true identity a secret from his companions. He’s warned by an injured knight in the party:
“When next you think to look on her with lust, remember it. She’ll cool your blood by spilling it, and let you live with the shame and the scar.”
From this point forward, the story jumps between Gryff and Nan’s points of view, and flashbacks of Gryff’s life before he was rescued by Nan. The brutality of his captivity haunts Gryff’s nights, and regrets and doubts plague his days. Forced by his Welsh father to live as a hostage among the English after Llewellyn’s first failed uprising, Gryff escaped and fled to an abbey when the Welsh princes went to war again. He lived peacefully with the monks until the day Baudry and his gang attacked and burned the abbey, taking Gryff hostage with the valuable falcons he was able to save from the fire. He knows nothing about what happened to his family, and longs to return to Aderinyth, his home in Wales, but dreads what might await him there, or in England, if his identity is revealed. He’s also struggling with his growing attraction to Nan.
Desire Lines is the best kind of slow burn road trip. Yes, there is a romance. It’s clear to everyone but Gryff and Nan they’re destined for each other, and their evolving relationship and what it reveals about them grounds the story - but it’s the difficult and often elusive path they each must take to find ‘home’, that enriches this story and makes it so powerful. Gryff’s past is deeply tied to Wales and its troubled history. The author slowly parcels out his complicated backstory in parallel with his own gradual discoveries about Nan. Nan’s strength, even in the most grim and harrowing of circumstances, shames him, and Gryff struggles to reconcile the man he is with the selfish, naive boy he once was. He wants Nan, but he also wants to deserve her. Gentle, kind, and passionate, Gryff is overwhelmed by his love for Nan, even as he keeps his true identity from her.
Nan doesn’t know quite what to make of the Welshman - she’s attracted to him, but leery of men and their motives, and their secrets. He clearly has them - she does too, but she also knows their power and lets him reveal them on his own terms. Nan struggles to reconcile her attraction to Gryff with Eluned’s command to put herself first, to be selfish. He’s leaving her; he’s going home. When her trip doesn’t go as planned, it forces Nan to re-evaluate her vision for the future. Could her home be with Gryff? She knows he’s different; after making many of the same mistakes other men have - mistaking her words and actions as consent for ‘more’ - he apologized, admitting he was wrong. Nan decides it’s okay to want him, and without words, she invites his touch. Gryff disarms her - literally and figuratively - and their physical relationship is passionate and tender and sexy and lovely and... nope, not going to tell!
Desire Lines unfolds along twin themes of love and loss, regret and hope. No one gets an easy time of it, but the healing journey our principal characters take - metaphorically and physically - is poignant and lovely, bittersweet and romantic. FOLKS. THESE TWO DESERVE HAPPINESS. TOGETHER. Secondary characters - both people and animals (falcons!) – are expertly written, as is the introduction of court politics and intrigue late in the second half. Ms. Kingston skilfully and seamlessly incorporates period detail and settings into all of her novels, and I was fully immersed in this world and this relationship from start to finish. I didn’t love the resolution of a family subplot related to Gryff near the close of the novel, but that’s my only complaint.
Despite its heavy subject matter, Desire Lines delivers an ending that’s hopeful, romantic and deeply moving. I wholeheartedly recommend the book - and all the Welsh Blades novels, to readers of historicals and romances alike.
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