Ah, there’s nothing like a good conflict. I knew I had come upon a satisfying one when I read these lines in the second chapter:
“Hell.” He barely breathed the word.
He had been commanded to marry Genith, a sweet, innocent virgin. But he had almost made love last night to her older sister, Nesta.
And not just any whore.
The King’s whore.
An experienced heroine and a hero in love with the sister of the woman he is supposed to marry, a woman who has actually slept with the king – who could ask for anything more?
Marcus of Anglesmore is the brother of Joan, the heroine of By Design. During the course of that book readers watched him grow from a resentful teenager living on the streets to a man vindicated, as the king restored his father’s lands to him. At the beginning of this book he is a powerful man in his own right, and an ally to King Edward, who has bid him to marry the daughter of a defeated Welsh rebel in order to restore peace to the border. Genith is in London but she continues to feign illness so that Marcus cannot see her. He decides to steal into the garden of her home one night, and he ends up stealing some kisses with the woman he thinks is his intended. As the quoted passage denotes, he soon discovers that his partner in the garden was Genith’s sister Nesta, a woman reputed to have slept with King Edward. Bards have spread the songs about Nesta and Edward across England and Wales, but no one knows precisely which version of the song is true. In some, Nesta is a virtuous, innocent rape victim. In others, she seduces the king.
Marcus is annoyed to discover that Genith was not the woman in the garden. Compared to her sister she seems insipid and cowardly, and the thought of spending a lifetime with an unwilling woman in his bed is less than palatable. Nevertheless, he intends to do as the king has asked. Nesta has other intentions. She has spent the years since her disgrace in marriage to a Scottish lord and then in a convent, but her purpose has always been to fulfill the dream of her father – a dream that has Wales rising against England and seeing the old lines of nobility restored. Genith’s marriage to an English baron will do nothing to further her plans, and she is determined to thwart it.
But the attraction that Nesta and Marcus felt in the garden seems to have a life of its own. Both of them are intent upon doing their duty as they see it, and their courses of action are completely opposed. They initially see their attraction as an annoyance, then as a danger they just can’t avoid. Although Nesta and Marcus are strongly loyal to their opposing causes, they are each able to admire the other for his/her conviction.
How will this all be solved? That’s the beauty of the whole thing. It’s hard to work up an interest in a romance with an inane conflict, one whose solution is easily apparent from page ten. Stealing Heaven is one of those books without a simple solution. I love when an author creates two characters who are clearly meant to be together, and then makes the reader wonder how that union can ever be possible. In this case, Hunter thoroughly examines the political loyalties of both characters. The choices they must make are not easy ones, especially when the fate of their love lies hanging in the balance. The intricate plot and eventual solution to the essential problems did not disappoint; it lived up to that initial excitement I felt when I read the words “the King’s whore.”
The characters are at once complex and likable. It helps that many of the secondary characters were already known to me: Joan and Rhys from By Design, Moira and Addis from By Possession, and David (at this point unmarried) from By Arrangement are all there, and Addis and David play integral roles in the plot. I especially enjoyed seeing Addis, who was formerly Marcus’s guardian, and serves as more of a friend or an advisor in this book. But don’t let the presence of recurring characters scare you off if you’re new to Hunter’s books; Stealing Heaven stands on its own just fine.
Although it’s nice to see characters who are old favorites, Marcus and Nesta never get upstaged by them. In By Design Marcus was in the “teenage troublemaker” stage, and here he is all grown up and very patient. The plot calls for Nesta to be disloyal to him, but he doesn’t throw temper tantrums over it, as is the wont of so many alpha males. Instead he seeks to subvert her without conquering her or psychologically beating her into submission. It makes him quite a worthy hero. I found Nesta to be a heroine with spirit and courage and also loved that she was an experienced woman – and one who, at first, is not above using her sexual allure to her advantage. More than that, though, I enjoyed her complexity. Nesta’s loyalty to her father’s dream was understandable and admirable to me; as someone who lost both parents early in life, I easily understood the desire to cling to a dream/mission of a dead parent, even when it appears to fly in the face of all logic. Nesta’s loyalties become increasingly divided as the book progresss and she falls more in love with Marcus. That Marcus understood this, and respected Nesta for her loyalty to her father was why I liked him so well. It takes a lot of love to accept someone with all their imperfections.
There are some small things that made this a more “put-downable” book than Hunter’s others. While none of the period detail seemed “off” to me, it wasn’t quite as rich as it was in By Possession when Moria was stuck outside the city gates and considered to be a prostitute or in By Design when Joan was in the stocks because of some inferior tiles. There was a very strong “fly on the wall” feeling at those moments in these earlier titles that just wasn’t quite there in Stealing Heaven. Perhaps if more attention been given to Nesta’s tapestry designs, Hunter would have achieved the same level of richness. Then too, the language seemed maudlin at times. Marcus’s repeated remarks about “stealing heaven” sometimes across as heavy handed, contrived, and romance-y. So while I thoroughly enjoyed this book, it wasn’t quite up to her earlier efforts.
That said, these are small flaws in a book that overall I enjoyed without qualification. This period in history is not my favorite for romance reading, but Hunter proves the exception. If you haven’t tried this author’s books, you’re missing a real treat. She combines quality research with sympathetic characters who touch the heart. If Medieval romances are not your cup of tea; you’re still in luck; her next four books are a series set in the Regency Era, and the first will be released in October of 2003. Since that’s a setting I prefer, I’ll be there with bells on.