The word these days is that publishers of romance are rather leery of putting out books that occur in uncommon periods or places. Since The Barbarian takes place in ancient Alexandria, one can only conclude that Leisure either likes to take risks or Judith French is good enough to merit one. I’m not particularly familiar with the thoughts of Leisure editors, but I have read The Barbarian and can only say that, in my opinion, French is most assuredly good enough.
In this sequel to The Conqueror, a book highly recommended by at least two AAR colleagues, Princess Roxanne awakens in Alexandria under the protection of King Ptolemy. Roxanne, who is supposed to have died, instead owes her life to the man. But with her new life comes no memory of her past, so Roxanne is fortunate that Ptolemy is there to fill in the gaps. According to the king, Roxanne has recently lost a husband and a small child. But just because her memory has faded, it doesn’t mean that her personality has changed – Roxanne is still the strong-willed, independent woman she’s always been. At first she welcomes the attentions that Ptolemy lavishes upon her. Yet, as the days pass and Ptolemy becomes increasingly insistent about marriage, the more restless and agitated Roxanne becomes with her new life. When her attendant warns Roxanne that she may be in danger and that there is more going on than she is aware of, Roxanne knows that she must uncover her past in order to have a future.
Kayan has taken on more than his responsibility for his country and for Roxanne, the woman he loves. When word comes that Roxanne died, he feels as if his life cannot go on, yet he has two young children to look after. Just when he has accepted reality, a rumor spreads that Roxanne is actually alive, so Kayan does what he must and travels to Alexandria to save Roxanne, even if it might mean the loss of his own life. But when Kayan is finally in Roxanne’s presence, she looks at him with an aloofness that makes him feel betrayed. Suddenly, the woman he has loved his entire life cannot be trusted and Kayan has to face the fact that Roxanne may not want to be saved.
King Ptolemy will do anything to have Roxanne and her lands, even if it means keeping her hostage under a litany of lies. When Roxanne awakens with no memory, things could not be more perfect. Soon Ptolemy has not only made up a new background for Roxanne, he’s also bedded and befriended her. Still, the intelligent and strong-willed Roxanne begins to question her surroundings and, as her memory comes back, her distrust in Ptolemy grows. When Roxanne finally escapes, Ptolemy will kill anyone who keeps him from bringing her back.
Since the romance itself is even more atypical than the setting, The Barbarian is unique in several ways. Roxanne and Kayan have supposedly been in love since they were children, yet in The Conqueror Roxanne marries another and in The Barbarian she is intimate with Ptolemy. This may upset some romance readers, especially if you like your heroines pure and pining for their soul-mate. In fact, in any other book this probably would have upset me, but this novel is different in that I was not so focused on the romance. In a way, this book straddles the line between being a true romance and historical fiction. The only problem with this duality is that I was never really sure if I wanted more romance or more of a description of the scenery and history. I suppose more of both would have made it perfect.
I did wish I’d read The Conqueror prior to reading The Barbarian because occasionally I was confused about the identity of certain characters, and found them, at times, a tad flat. But my sense is that had I read French’s telling of the story of Roxanne and Alexander first, this would not have been the case. Make no mistake – it’s not necessary to have read The Conqueror to enjoy The Barbarian, but it would likely have made the experience more rich. Still, the setting is so unique and the historical plot so intriguing that you tend to forget about everything else. Romance readers will find interest in the relationship between Kayan and Roxanne and history lovers will admire the details of everyday life in Alexandria. It is a book that many can admire and enjoy.
Writing a historical novel is hard enough because of the detail and research necessary and it takes a strong author to not only go against the stereotypical romance, but also to delve deeply into such an ancient era. Even though Roxanne and Kayan are not your normal characters, they are still thoroughly likable, maybe because they are more human in their flaws and desires. In other words, they are not perfect – nor are their relationships. Although there are minor problems with the book, the unique plot and the interesting historical description will keep the reader immersed. In fact, it is the distinctive setting that really gives this book its individuality.