Portrait of a Bride
Portrait of a Bride is a futuristic romance set in a world where women are seldom born. As a result, the men have to import women by creating portraits that serve as portals to the past. It’s an intriguing concept and this is an intriguing read, even if it’s not all that satisfying.
Thousands of years in the future, mankind suffers under the effects of a devastating plague. Almost all the babies born are male, and they are immediately struck by an illness that makes them unable to beget female children later in life. Men greatly outnumber women, and only the wealthiest and most important men are able to have wives. In order to keep the human race going, women have to be brought in from the past. But even as they arrive in this bleak future, they too are afflicted with the plague and can only give birth to males.
The women are brought into the future by artisans who paint portraits of women based on photographs and drawings from the past. These portraits are then brought to life with the help of a mystical substance, opening portals that allow the women to be transported into the future. Conlean is one of the artisans who paint these portraits. When his artistic talent was discovered, Conlean was sent away from his family in order to learn his craft, as is required in this world. This left his father, the Patriarch of the province of Blackfell, without an heir to inherit his title. Now his father wants a new heir. His wife, Conlean’s mother, disappeared several years earlier, and he asks Conlean to paint a portrait so that he can have a new bride.
At first Conlean is ambivalent about helping to replace his mother, especially when her fate remains unknown. Then he learns that his mother is actually in the past, working as a Seeker, someone who finds willing brides to travel into the future. She recently discovered that the plague is connected to the work of a scientist named Jordan. An infertile woman herself, Jordan was conducting fertility experiments. Most believe that that her research eventually led to the creation of the plague. In order to find a cure for the plague, Conlean decides to bring Jordan into the future by painting her as his father’s new bride. But when she arrives, Conlean begins to develop feelings for her, until he is no longer sure he wants to give her up to his father.
With this premise, the author has created a very interesting vision of the future. It’s rather a depressing concept, with women are basically reduced to babymakers and traded and sold like commodities. This future earth is one where technology has been rejected because of the plague, and people live in a way similar to the Medieval period. There were times I would have found it more believable if this was taking place hundreds of years in the future rather than thousands and I had plenty of questions that went unanswered, but the author delivers enough convincing atmosphere to sell her story and draw the reader into this world.
Fobes’s writing is smooth and the story is certainly readable. I was never bored, but also never as engaged in it as I should have been. The biggest reason is that the characters are somewhat flat and underdeveloped. They remain too remote, and never become entirely three-dimensional, which made it difficult for me to become emotionally involved in their story. It doesn’t help that Jordan becomes more passive and wimpy as the story goes on. I really would have liked a stronger heroine, one more willing to challenge the sexism of this period and the way this world treats women – simultaneously exalting and subjugating them. Jordan and Conlean are so flat, that with the exception of an effectively suspenseful climactic scene, I really didn’t care all that much what happened to them one way or another.
Jordan and Conlean’s personal drama just wasn’t as interesting as the larger issues the author poses. Conlean brings Jordan to Blackfell in order to have her find a cure for the plague, yet she almost never does any work to that end. The story mostly deals with Jordan learning about this world, spending time with Conlean, and falling in love. As the chapters went by and they gave almost no thought to the plague, I couldn’t help but think they needed to reconsider their priorities. Nowhere on the book is there any indication that this is anything other than a stand-alone read. Yet the ending clearly sets up a sequel and nearly everything unrelated to the romance is left unresolved in the end.
Portrait of a Bride works better as an introduction to a larger series than it does as a satisfying story in its own right. Neither these characters nor their romance was anything special, but the future world the author develops is an interesting one with a lot of potential for further stories. This book mostly left me frustrated and wanting more than it delievered. Hopefully with this world now established, the next book can offer a more satisfying tale than this one.