Master of Torment by Karin Tabke is the most enjoyable historical romance I have read in some time. I liked it so much that I was sorely tempted to buy the first book in the series, Master of Surrender. Only the sorry state of my bank balance prevented me from doing so. The story had adventure, intrigue, humor and romance.
Tarian is Xena, Warrior Princess, Saxon Style. She fought beside her uncle, Harold, at the Battle of Hastings. She forces her betrothed to keep his promise to marry her at sword point. She is fierce and determined to remain in charge of the home and lands she gained from marriage after the death of her husband, (whom she killed – with good reason.)
Wulfson of Trevlyn is a member of the Blood Swords, a select band of knights whose first loyalty is to the William the Conqueror. He is sent to kill Tarian because she is a potential threat to William’s crown due to her parentage – related to Harold on her father’s side and to Welsh royalty through her mother’s family. When Wulfson arrives at Draceadon, he finds that Tarian has been placed in the dungeon and was beaten and tortured by Rangor, her dead husband’s uncle who wants her and her lands for himself.
Rumor has it that Tarian is pregnant with the heir to Draceadon, and her execution along with the unborn child’s will be just the excuse her Welsh relations need to engage in open rebellion against the King. Wulfson, a skilled warrior, concedes the truth of this argument, which allows him a reprieve from a duty he is increasingly reluctant to carry out.
Tarian’s old nurse, Edie, decides the best course of action is to make the pregnancy real and the best way to do that is for Tarian to seduce Wulfson. Edie, the nurse, gives him a potion so that he will think his encounter with Tarian is but a dream. Wulfson realizes soon after that his hazy memory of that night was real and not just his imagination at work.
Tarian is a very interesting character. Why she turned to swords is explained superficially, but at least it was not the normal “I want to do what men do” argument. Her father kidnapped her mother (an abbess) and kept her for over a year, during which time she was conceived. She is the physical embodiment of her father’s crimes and she has paid for them all her life, treated like an outcast and often called a nithing (rough translation via Wikipedia: malicious witch). Thus, she has been afforded the freedom to do as she pleases because no one really cared enough to tell her no. She understands that the opportunities afforded by her upbringing are rare and the price was high. Her childhood was lonely, and she was shuttled between relatives. As a result, she is loyal to anyone who has shown her kindness.
She is used to rejection and doesn’t hold it against the Dunloc villagers when they throw garbage at her; it just makes her more determined to prove that she is the one best suited to hold the land and make it prosper. She is wise enough to know to she has a prize that others covet and therefore she must whatever needs to be done to hold onto it.
I found Tarian to be a more complicated character than Wulfson. It is not that he is a weaker character; he has a presence on the page. He has also survived abuse and torture during a stay in a Saracen prison. This gave him a steely determination and ruthless nature, both of which help him become William’s right hand man. He finds himself unexpectedly captivated by Tarian’s eyes – even tortured and bruised as they are. He recognizes the strength in her and admires it because he understands the fortitude that is needed to withstand such pain and still have the will to survive. He is impressed with her desire to learn and to better her fighting abilities, as he and his men are disciplined in maintaining their skills.
Tabke keeps the tale moving along. In between the intrigue and swordplay, the author does add the occasional flashes of humor – such as the time Tarian overhears herself called the “most fearsome knight in England” in jest and then proceeds to declare herself as such to the jesters. There are a few more light-hearted flirtatious moments as the two get know each other. I do admire an author who can juxtapose lighter scenes against serious elements. She also gives the love scenes an emotional intensity that has been missing in the books I have read lately.
I did have a few issues with the book. When Tarian stated, “In my two score years”, I was totally thrown out of the story, started mentally recited the Gettysburg address and doing the math to make sure that a score was indeed twenty years I thought it was, which would make the heroine forty years old!
I also felt that the last line of the book was ambiguous, unsure if it referred back to the previous novel or is hint of further novels to come. This was a feeling I had throughout the book, that the author was leaving out certain details, dropping hints about things that would be explained later in the Blood Swords series.
Overall, though, I thought Master of Torment was a really fun read and the author will be one I look forward to reading in the future.
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