The Circle of a Promise
In the thirteenth century, Stephen of Bellingham and Amarantha of Ullswater fall in love. He is a powerful baron. She is a beautiful warrior maiden, whose loving parents allowed her to master the arts of war and the hunt. Mara’s parents arrange the match between her and Stephen in order to ward off the loathsome suit of their near neighbor Baldwin, the Earl of Cumbria. Mara first opposes the arrangement, but her resistance crumbles once she lays eyes on Stephen.
Meanwhile, in the twenty-first century, a guy named Steve Bellingham suffers from nightmares and depression. These render him incapable of holding a job, and he has lived with his sister and her family for eight years. His sister, who obviously has the patience of a saint, suggests that Steve visit a woman who does past-life regressions. With her help, Steve begins to relive his life as Stephen. But will he be able to save Stephen and Mara from the tragedy he knows awaits them?
This is an interesting plot premise, and the beginning of this book goes smoothly enough. However, the book soon begins to display a combination of bad characterization, bad history, and bad plotting.
I was initially willing to believe the idea of Mara’s warlike skills:
“By the time she was three, Mara had been able to competently ride a pony; by six she could handle a horse; at ten her instructor declared he had nothing more to teach her. She had learned the art of falconry on her father’s knee and the lore of weaponry by the time she was eleven. She could pick the best pup from any litter, accurately judge a fighting man’s mettle, name all the kings of England, and draw an accurate map of her country. She could read both Greek and Latin.”
Okay, fine. But long after we are given this description of Mara’s skills, she exhibits the intelligence of a cockatiel by going for a pointless midnight stroll that reveals the location of the keep’s secret entrance to her enemies. I don’t care if she can read Greek – Mara is a classic Too Stupid To Live heroine. Also, I just can’t suspend my disbelief high enough to accept that every single person Mara meets falls in love with her muscular form and sword-wielding ways. Absolutely no one has any problem with the fact that Mara dresses and fights like a man.
Stephen is a pretty likable hero – he loves Mara, treats her well, and is generally a nice guy. (And he’s delighted that she can so fully participate in his interests.) The modern-day Steve, however, gave off a distinctly unwholesome vibe. The fact that he’d lived off his sister for eight years was bad enough; when he stopped showering and spent literally all his time in a trance, reliving Mara and Stephen’s lives with them, he definitely started to give me the creeps. He seems more than a bit deranged, as when he looks at the telephone and “it seemed to throb and pulse with a life of its own.” Yeah. Unemployable, smelly men who are incapable of dealing with reality just don’t appeal to me in a romantic sense.
Then there’s the villain, who deserves some sort of award as Most Evil Supporting Character. Baldwin murdered his mother and brother, is obsessed with raping and killing Mara, and generally throws himself into satanic fits of mouth-foaming violence or insane giggling at the slightest opportunity. Every few chapters there’s another long description of Baldwin’s acts of mayhem, just to remind you, in case you’d forgotten, that he’s really, really evil.
I was somewhat surprised at the level of violence here. I don’t mind a bit of gore if it serves the purpose of the story, but I don’t think all the spraying blood and severed limbs in this book serve any purpose at all (except to tell us, again, that Baldwin is evil. Really.)
Probably the book’s biggest flaw is that, in spite of the unusual plot and lots of action, it’s boring. It isn’t a very long book – just over 300 pages – but the pacing is extremely clunky, hopping from past to present in an uneven way, and there’s also quite a bit of extraneous prose to wade through. The author is apparently interested in architecture, and every keep or castle that we encounter is described in detail. There are also long descriptions of the local countryside. The author devotes several pages to the background of Stephen’s servant, Jack – even though Jack is a very minor character, and the story of how Stephen hired Jack is so historically inaccurate that it would have been better for everyone if it had been left out. A lot of this feels like padding, and it’s tiresome.
Helen A. Rosburg had an interesting idea with this Medieval reincarnation story, but the result is a wandering, unpleasant, and dull book. If you’re in the mood for an action-packed time-travel, pick up your worn-out copy of Outlander instead. Sure, you’ve read it before, but even so it’ll be far more satisfying than The Circle of a Promise.