Unquestionably, the author’s Roselynde Chronicles are considered a classic in the genre and are well-loved by many readers. Though the story of Alinor, Simon, and those who came after them already seemed complete, when Gellis wrote a new novel set during the gap in time between Roselynde and Alinor, I was curious to try it. Though Desiree does not quite rise to the level of some of the other books in the series, it is still a worthy entry and a very entertaining read. Best of all, the story stands alone very well so that those who have not yet read the Roselynde books can jump right into it.
Desiree of Exceat was married to the elderly Frewyn as a child. An orphan with sizable land holdings, Desiree entered into the marriage in order to protect herself from a neighbor who intended to take her by force. The fatherly Frewyn is fond of his young wife and taught her how to manage her holdings. However, Frewyn is now quite ill and, due to a pending revolt, a castellan is needed to see to the defense of Exceat.
Simon Lemagne, now Sheriff of Sussex, sends his recently knighted young nephew Alexandre Baudoin to be castellan of Exceat. Alex is a truly decent man and when he meets Desiree, he resolves that he will do his job dutifully, act honorably toward Frewyn, and not allow himself to be tempted by the beautiful Desiree. Alex’s intelligence and decency make him a good castellan, but Desiree finds herself drawn to Alex for more reasons than simply his role on her estates. And while she is torn by her fondness for Alex and her earnest devotion to Frewyn, Alex is torn between his own growing love for Desiree and his honest respect for her invalid husband.
Desiree and Alex are both likable and well-matched characters. Each is young, honorable, intelligent and brave – and sometimes a touch naïve. Gellis does a wonderful job of building the romantic tension between them without letting things become anachronistic. Desiree and Alex’s desire and love for one another is obvious, but so is their knowledge of their respective places in the world and of the consequences of any choices they may make. This is no impetuous set of modern young lovers. Desiree and Alex live in a more hierarchical and religious time and their thought processes obviously run within that framework.
Gellis, as always, has written a book rich in texture. She knows the Medieval world well, and the details of everyday life and the political affairs of the day are woven smoothly into the story. As I read, I felt as though I had truly escaped into another time, and found it refreshing to be among characters who actually saw and reacted to the world around them rather than simply being wrapped up in their own internal or contrived disputes. The first half of the plot develops somewhat slowly enough that one may lay down the book a bit more than normal, but, as the external plot of the revolt becomes ever more enmeshed with affairs at Exceat, it is impossible not to be drawn into the tale.
Even without the almost indescribable spark that marks a keeper for me, Desiree is a grand read. Meaty historicals seem to have become few and far between, so this one should be doubly welcomed by historical fans. Roberta Gellis is truly one of the great writers of the genre and I am so glad she is again writing historical romances.