I chose to review Forbidden primarily because the setting, Dark Ages England, fascinates me. But it took me a long time to both get into the story and understand what in the heck was going on with the characters. Readers lacking a great deal of interest in the period would likely be unwilling to invest the time necessary to get to the story’s touching resolution.
The story begins with the Lady Rowena buying a slave for 12 mancuses. Rowena’s companion, Eadward, the King’s Reeve, thinks she is mad to buy such a dangerous looking slave as this Wulf from Northumbria. Everyone knows that northmen such as he are murderous barbarians – he will surely kill her while she sleeps. But Rowena has plans for her thrall – plans to avenge her father’s murder and secure her own inheritance. She will use him to steal documents from Eadward to prove his betrayal of the king and (she suspects) her own father.
In terms of plot description, that’s all I as a reviewer can say because Kirkman takes a long time to reveal what’s going on beneath the surface of her characters. And if you don’t know exactly what a mancus is, or a thrall, don’t expect any help from the author since she explains none of the period detail, nor does she put it into context. The back cover gives a bit of clarifiction of the setting, but unless you know exactly what was going in “England” in 716, that’s unlikely to be a lot of help. Kirkman’s writing makes it difficult to understand what’s occurring even when it’s occurring. At one point Rowena tells Wulf what she has done, and I was grateful for the explanation because even though it was all there in black and white I hadn’t really grasped what was happening to whom and over what period of time.
Additionally, though the plot hinges on Wulf’s “slavery,” he doesn’t act very enslaved. He isn’t subservient to anyone, especially to Rowena. He’s extremely alpha, obviously a warrior of calibre, everyone knows it, and everyone (except the villains) automatically defers to him. This seems more than a trifle unrealistic, and reduces slavery to a conditional experience – it’s terrible to be owned by sadistic villains, but not so bad if you get a nice lady owner.
What was most aggravating about Forbidden, however, was Rowena. At the beginning of the book, she’s an emotional mess, and she repeatedly shores herself up by cutting Wulf down or teasing him sexually. At the point at which she decides she loves him, she consistently deceives him “for his own good.” All this creates such a morass of miscommunication that Wulf’s continually chivalrous behavior toward her seems downright odd.
However, if you make it to the last third of the book, when Rowena’s and Wulf’s backstories are explained, there are a number of tender moments between them, and the healing power of love is well illustrated. Though their relationship still seems rushed, their feelings about each other and their past sufferings rang true and were touching.
However, I’m afraid that I cannot recommend Forbidden. Though it had potential in terms of setting and characterization, it was too flawed and confusing overall. Susan Squires’s Danegeld and Joan Wolf’s The Edge of Light are both better romances in this same rich setting. I’d recommend reading either of those instead.