My stack of books is much more varied than it used to be, but it still leans heavily toward historical, category romance and romantic suspense. Rather than dither over it, I just pulled out a historical romance at random and we were off to the races. The book in question? Hidden Honor, a 2004 release from the unforgettable Anne Stuart.
And unforgettable it certainly was. Love or hate them, Stuart’s books tend to be rather distinctive. The normally super alpha hero was a touch toned down here but we still had darkness and drama in spades. This book wasn’t my favorite from the author, but it’s still a pretty good read.
The heroine, Elizabeth of Bredon, basically runs her father’s household but said father and her loutish brothers don’t exactly appreciate her efforts. Now in her late teens, she’s been deemed useless and consigned to a convent. She is a redhead, taller than most men, and has already been jilted by one suitor, so her family did not see any viable marriage prospects on the horizon. A group of friars are passing through the area taking King John’s notoriously debauched son to do penance, and Elizabeth will be travelling with this party.
Elizabeth, for her part, is a rather interesting heroine in some ways. In others’ reviews of this book, I’ve seen her described as TSTL and she does have those moments. However, she also has areas of great competency. I read her more as a very young heroine who has been thrust into a world she doesn’t entirely understand.
I hesitate to call her sheltered because that would imply that someone in her family actually cared what happened to her. It’s probably more apt to describe her as isolated. She has seen little of the world beyond the household of her many times widowed father and on her journey to the convent, Elizabeth suddenly finds herself confronted with all manner of alien situations, not the least of which involves dealing with a traveling party of men and all the various hazards of medieval travel.
On the one hand, as the main lady of her father’s household, Elizabeth knows a lot about first aid, midwifery and herbal medicine. When the group encounters situations such as a lady in labor and in distress, Elizabeth shines. When the group gets attacked by brigands or Elizabeth has to figure out who the bad guys are, she’s not quite so much the superstar. In other words, she’s human and flawed. And she obviously has some growing up to do. This lady has a load of what we today would call self-image issues and she’s working that out at least as much as anything else in this book.
Speaking of figuring out who the bad guys are, Elizabeth has been told from the beginning that the king’s illegitimate son William is bad news. Throughout the book, he is referred to as “Prince William”, which I found offputting because while illegitimate children of royalty have sometimes been given titles, I would not expect to see one acknowledged as a prince. However, leaving that issue aside, Elizabeth does initially take the warnings about William to heart. This becomes increasingly difficult because not only is William very attractive – and obviously attracted to Elizabeth – but he’s quite the tortured man. His time in the Crusades has clearly affected him, and throughout the book he is the sort of man one would find impossible to ignore. Without throwing in a spoiler, let’s just say that not all is as it initially seems here. The author makes some important revelations early in the story, but still, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface.
The story unfolds from there, with the party travelling toward the convent and meeting with various dangers along the way. Elizabeth isn’t as dumb as some think her and she starts to notice something in William that isn’t the dangerous evil she expected. He makes her nervous, but there’s also a protective side. And even though she can’t quite put it all together, there’s quite a bit going on beneath the surface with the travelling party as well. The revelations of character in this novel are at least as interesting as the trip itself.
My one huge quibble with this book wasn’t so much the heroine. Taking her youth and inexperience into account, I could deal with Elizabeth for the most part and at times, I rather liked her because I could see growth in her. What drove me nuts was the manner in which the author demarcated good and evil with broad brush strokes.
The ultimate bad guy in this book is evil with a capital E, and there is no bad act beneath him. By the end, I felt like the author was wracking her brain to find every occasion possible for him to torment innocents, kick puppies and just be nasty. There’s some craftiness but not a lot of subtlety to his characterization. There are some folks out there who really are just plain bad, but a cartoonish caricature of evil just doesn’t do it for me, and that’s ultimately what we get here.
Sneering cartoon villain aside, Hidden Honor isn’t half bad as a road romance. Road romances definitely go on my list of “Plots That Hook Me Most,” so I didn’t regret reading this novel in the least.