The Grail King
There was a time not long ago when a Druid hero would have held little interest for me. However, reviewing for AAR has somewhat redefined my reading tastes and I’ve discovered that categories I once avoided are full of books very much to my liking. There are at least a dozen authors whose backlists I have devoured after writing an AAR review and now that I have read The Grail King, Joy Nash joins their ranks.
As a storm of magnificent proportions hits the mountains of Cambria in the year AD 130, the lone Druid who calls those mountains home knows it is no simple act of nature. Only a Druid can drive this type of storm and there is comfort in knowing he is not the last of his kind as he had believed for years. But why the storm calls out to Owein is unclear and the vision of things to come that grips him while the storm rages staggers him as few things have before in his life – a life full of sorrow, unbelievable pain, and death.
One of many Celts uprooted from their beloved home by the Roman army, Owein is not one willing to surrender. When the invading army deprived him of the opportunity to fall on his sword in battle, he was sold like a beast and eventually sentenced to die under the lash – a punishment he barely managed to survive. His eventual escape from his captors is of little comfort to him and he lives alone in the burned out hut he once called home before the Romans burned the Celts’ villages, raped their women, and murdered many others – including Owein’s pregnant wife. The Romans are more than his enemy and as a former warrior, Owein knows that the responsibility of any battle and its aftermath of pillaging and killing lies with the commanding officer. In his case it is the hated Sextus Sempronius Gracchus.
As the storm recedes and Owein recovers from his nightmarish vision, he discovers a young woman laying crumpled in the snow. Her clothes and coloring place her as Roman, but why she would be alone in the mountains so far from any Roman settlement is a mystery. Once she wakes from her slumber, Owein discovers that the lass, Clara, is seeking a Druid reputed to have a kind heart and the ability to find things that have been lost or stolen. How the lass would know of him is disturbing, but not as disturbing as the fact that she sees him “wreathed in light.” No Roman should be able to sense his Druid power and certainly not now that he lives in pure darkness.
Clara’s mission is to heal her father from a serious ailment and she begs Owein to help find a magic cup that was stolen from her. Owein recognizes the cup as a sacred Druid relic steeped in the power of the Deep Magic and he cannot understand how a Roman lass can wield its power to heal. Yes, he will help Clara retrieve the cup, but will he keep his ultimate purpose for finding the relic from her? And, of course, Clara also has a secret of her own.
The Grail King with its parallels to the legend of the Holy Grail, definitely falls into the category of Road Romance and a high quality one at that. Even with Clara’s irritating insistence at being included in everything, regardless of the danger, this particular portion of the book is A material. The development of deep mutual trust combined with the inevitable betrayals are seen through a thick layer of chemistry that at times smokes the pages.
Although this is a touching romance throughout, fantasy elements eventually make Owein and Clara’s relationship second to the evil versus good battle. A number of interesting characters are introduced along the way who add significantly to the story and who are sure to play lead roles in the future as this book represents the first in the Druids of Avalon series. Fortunately The Grail King does not read as a setup for a series despite its numerous secondary characters and unfinished story lines.
Ultimately it was Owein’s character that carried the story for me. He is best described as a wise yet rugged man true to his calling, but he is also a highly sexual warrior who just happens to have red hair and a braided beard. His attitude toward life can best be summed up as, “Comfort. It only leads to weakness.” Owein’s past suffering at the hands of the Romans is recalled in enough detail to know it was severe as well as inhumane. But Owein’s degradation is not over and was carried too far for my comfort.
With its fantasy elements, the battle of good versus evil, and the quest to save mankind, I often heard bits and pieces of the Lord of the Rings soundtrack playing in my mind – not that I am making a comparison of stories, but rather the underlying elements of both. It was a book I found hard to put down with a romance that totally captivated me. Its intriguing side stories built successfully toward an ending that promised yet more in the future, but alas not the deeply satisfying HEA I longed for.
And darn, Nash doesn’t have much of a backlist so that makes me even more determined to follow her into the future and, hopefully, read more of Owein and Clara’s story.