Lady Alice Scarcliffe, the heroine of Mystique, is exactly the kind of woman I would want for a best friend. In fact, she reminded me of my own best friend, right down to her flame-red hair and independent spirit. And, reading Mystique was much like a conversation with my best friend – fun but not exciting, blending in with thousands of other conversations we have shared throughout the years.
As the book begins, Alice is forced to live with her uncle after he has stolen her inheritance. Her brother, Benedict, is crippled, and unable to become a knight, and she is too engrossed in her studies to find a husband. Her only hope is to strike a bargain with the dreaded knight Hugh the Relentless, Lord of Scarcliffe. She will help him find a mythical green crystal if he will provide for Benedict’s education and grant her a dowry so that she may join a convent and continue her research. Once Hugh hears about her bargain, however, he dreams up other plans. If he is going to provide a dowry, he wants the bride to go with it. As a result, Alice finds herself married to Hugh. Together they set off for Scarcliffe, finding the crystal and answering a number of questions about Hugh’s parentage and family background.
Mystique could have been a fast-paced book. Alice and Hugh are engaged in a number of adventures, from jousting tournaments to kidnapping attempts. However, the novel never rises above the level of being merely pleasant to read. Hugh and Alice fall in love, but they don’t reach any major revelations on the way to happiness. Instead, they simply move through the struggles of their lives, and the reader takes part in each mundane detail. And, when I say mundane detail, I mean mundane detail. When a new refuse ditch is installed at Scarcliffe, we’re right there to see it. When Alice oversees kitchen preparations, the reader is present. These diversions aren’t bad, they simply make all the more obvious the fact that, for all it’s swordplay and chivalry, this isn’t an exciting book. It’s simply a nice book.
Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing bad about a nice book. I was happy for Hugh and Alice when things were going well for them. I was upset to hear about their disappointments. But I wished they could have experienced more together. Problems were solved in a pat, sitcom fashion, and an evil character is so stereotypically drawn that he might as well twirl his mustache and laugh maniacally.
I liked this book. But, as I read, I couldn’t help envisioning a novel that might have been. As it is, Mystique is warm and comforting, like a conversation with my best friend. But I would have preferred the danger and excitement of a meeting with a dark knight.