Roman is a medieval tale set partly in the Middle East and partly in Europe. I was really looking forward to reading it, but unfortunately, it ended up being a disappointment. The romance is lacking and the story is both short on historical detail and full of inconsistencies and impossibilities. It was a book I struggled to finish.
The story opens in Syria in 1179 at the fall of Le Chastellet, a stronghold on the river Jordan, built by King Baldwin IV as part of the defenses against the armies of Sultan Saladin. Roman Berg is a stonemason who came over from England to help build the fortification.
During the battle at Chastellet, two of Roman’s close friends are captured. With the help of another friend, he manages to escape from the carnage and make his way to the fortress in Damascus where his friends are being held captive. He breaches the castle gates easily.
You have to now understand this: Roman looks like a Nordic god with silver-blond hair and light eyes, towers well over six feet in height, and is well-built. Imagine him in this city of Middle Easterners of various hues but none approaching Roman’s height. For the life of me, I don’t know how he escaped being noticed by the guards. But he does evade them.
As he’s trying to figure out how best to ferret out information about his friends’ whereabouts, he’s accosted by a small, half-Egyptian woman-of-the-night, named Isra Tak’Ahn. She shows him where his friends are being held, and she gives him hints on how he can overpower the guards and make his escape with his friends in tow. Her help is invaluable to him, but even though her life is in danger and she has clearly been recently tortured, he leaves her behind. Why? We’re not told.
Roman’s two friends Adrian and Constantine have now been declared persona non grata by the King of England, who believes them to be in league with Saladin and thus responsible for the fall of Chastellet. Somehow Isra finds out about this, but once again, the reader is left in ignorance as to how she knows and why the English king thinks that the men are working for Saladin.
Accompanied by their friend Valentine, the men escape to a monastery in Melk, Austria and form the Brotherhood of the Fallen Angels Abbey, where they live in exile.
Two years pass, and Roman is out walking through the forest when he comes upon a Saracen torturing Isra. No explanation is given as to how or why she is in Austria.
Roman kills the Saracen, rescues Isra and brings her to the monastery. Constantine is greatly disturbed, wondering how in the world she knew where to find them. Because if she could do it, so can their enemies. He’s ready to murder her. Roman demurs. And that’s enough to stay Constantine’s hand.
There’s a lot of intrigue in the story. Isra’s recitation involves Saladin’s men in Damascus, Abdal and Hamid, an English Lord – Glayer Felsteppe – and a go-between English lord in the Holy Land who knows Baldwin and who’s in league with Hamid in order to kill Baldwin.
When asked why she was being chased from Damascus to Austria, Isra says, “I killed the man [Abdal] who was to lead the party meant to kill [King] Baldwin. Certainly when they found him dead and me missing…”
For a prostitute – a lowly person in medieval Muslim society – to have access to a great general in Saladin’s army so she can kill him is a very big feat. In addition, the story at one point says that her accomplishment might also have brought her to the notice of the great Saladin. This is all rather unbelievable.
Anyway, Roman is convinced that he and Isra are the only people who can set off to rescue Baldwin and restore the good name of his Brotherhood. Along the way, Roman is disguised as a monk and she as a leper lying in the bed of the wagon. They figure this will keep both of them from being scrutinized too heavily. The first step of their journey to Damascus will take them to Rome.
Some of those inconsistencies I mentioned occur in several scenes which, inexplicably, feature tigers. In one of them, Isra encounters an unleashed tiger and observes that by showing no fear and showing mastery over it, the beast has no incentive to maul anyone. In a later scene, she uses these tiger-taming skills to persuade another tiger to return to its cage of its own accord. I found these scenes so completely unlikely. I don’t mind implausibility in my stories, but not impossibilities. And what did these tigers have to do with the rest of the story? Who knows?!
As I said in my introduction, I was looking forward to reading this as I’m fond of learning about the history of the places I read about in books. However, Roman lacks a strong sense of time and place and would have benefitted from the interweaving of more historical details throughout to allow the reader to get a real sense of the background. I had to research the history on my own to get a grip on the story.
I also found the romantic aspect of the story to be severely lacking. For a story categorized as an historical romance, there isn’t much chemistry between the characters. There is some mental attraction, but no sexual tension. They grow to care for each other as friends and upon occasion they have some impure thoughts. That’s the extent of the romantic relationship for much of the book. I don’t need detailed love scenes in a romance, but I do need to see sexual tension between the characters if I’m to believe in their romance and their HEA.
I was surprised at all the editing errors contained in the book. I read a finished product, not an advance copy, so I was not expecting this. Some of the errors are copyediting ones, and some seem to have been left behind for style/voice purposes. Yes, rules can be bent to suit the prose, but rules can’t be blatantly broken, thus rendering that prose unreadable.
Overall, Roman just wasn’t for me; not the story, not the characters, not the romance, and not the writing. The premise was most certainly very interesting – a medieval story set in Syria – and I was disappointed that the story didn’t deliver.