The Mark of the Rose
Marsha Canham’s work is nothing if not painstakingly researched and beautifully actualized. The Mark of the Rose brings us back to the 1200s with ease, then flashes us forward to the present day, taking us into the lives of one special woman and her ancestor. But the two halves of its story don’t feel truly cohesive, and a series of disappointing wobbles keep it well out of DIK range.
Cecily Ware is a herbwoman who, accused of witchcraft after bringing a newborn back to life through mouth to mouth resuscitation, is burned alive at the stake by angry villagers. Enndolynn, her eight-year-old daughter, is spared and eventually raised by an armsman, but years later, folk tales about Enndolynn Ware, the witch who can raise the dead or curse the living (the accidental deaths of those who killed her mother soon after the woman’s death do not help her case) make her an accessory to her mother’s alleged crime, and she is taken prisoner by King John and dragged back to Nottingham, from whence she’s to be sent to London for her execution. By then she is known as Ellyn the Fletcher, maker of fine arrows. A band of rebellious, arrow-slinging gentlemen (aha!) led by knight Rennwick – Renn – de Beauvoir, arrive to liberate her from John and take her to Burgundy. Renn is intrigued by Ellyn’s beauty and her intelligence (she speaks and/or reads five languages) and she is intrigued by his loyalty and steadfastness. As they begin to fall in love and travel toward France, Ellyn is left to wonder what the man paying Renn to rescue her wants with her – and if they will outrun the fearsome man hired by John to return her to captivity, Luther de Vos, Renn’s previous rival and sworn enemy.
In modern day America, Enndolynn – Ellen – Bowes, Enndolynn’s (natch) descendant, knows little about her ancestor’s passionate life, her father being an only child and an American émigré, and her mother a foster child. Having lost both parents, Ellen feels as alone as one can be.
When she learns she’s inherited an English castle, she heads to Lincoln in England, and soon learns she’s the only living descendant of a RAF flyer – her Uncle on her father’s side and his fraternal twin brother – who was once the ancestral owner of the place, and that she has inherited four thousand acres worth millions of pounds. But to win the land, Ellen must live at Mercy Keep – called The Keep colloquially – for a year and a day.
Ellen becomes intrigued by documents given to her by the solicitor. She is the only one who can read the language – described as “archaic Romany” – in which they are written, though she has no real experience with the language, and she finds a document from the man who was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, dead for five decades before Ellen was born. As Ellen settles into Mercy Keep, she becomes intrigued by the life of her Romany-speaking doppelganger grandmother, the closetful of clothing handed down to her by her uncle’s wife, and makes the acquaintance of medievalist Ben Chase, with whom she begins a romance. Ellen must figure out why her father fled his inheritance and family, and if the ghosts haunting the Keep are real before it’s too late.
Linking the two women is a birthmark – near Ellen’s hairline and on Enndolynn’s inner thigh – a wine-colored rose. What this means – and what kind of effect it has on their happy endings – I will leave to the reader to discover.
The Mark of The Rose tries to wed a traditional and sometimes very darkly old-skool medieval romance with light fantasy elements, to a slightly gothic romantic cozy mystery with blood and splashes of magic. It generally works, but when it doesn’t, it leaves the story frustratingly off-kilter.
The main problem with the book is that the majority of Ellen’s story is fairly dull when compared to to Ellyn’s. Ellen is just not an interesting heroine compared to her forbear. It seems to take her forever to get to Mercy Keep, and when she does, the mystery about Ellyn is wedded to a new mystery about Ellen’s father. Worse, it telegraphs the end of Ellyn’s mystery before the girl can reach the conclusion herself.
I liked Ben and his banter with Ellen, but he was introduced halfway through the narrative, and I’d honestly expected the story to be about Ellen searching out the mystery with the wonderfully-named Wormsley (the solicitor) at that point!
More engaging is the Ellyn side of the plot, if only because she’s an indomitable and bright character, though occasionally she does stomp her foot and storm off. Renn is more steadfast, but also your average alpha type.
A forewarning – yes, this romance does have old skool touches. Renn threatens to slap Ellyn to keep her quiet, and he’s is the kind of ass who peeks up a woman’s shift while she’s unconscious to see if she has a telltale birthmark. When the chips are down they’re a battle couple, but the getting there is a pain in the butt sometimes.
This book is such a see-saw balancing act between its weakest and strongest elements. I loved that one of the Ware family powers is the ability to magically divine languages; I hated that it’s hinted that their magical abilities descend from their Romani heritage, actively using the Magical Romani Trope (and yes, the g-slur is sadly used). I loved the supporting characters and hated the plot’s preference for becoming so complex one needed a scorecard to keep up with its events.
Canham’s unquestionable talent kept me reading, and the beauty of her words kept me going. Her portrayal of the medieval world is unstintingly brutal in the best of ways, but in the end The Mark of the Rose is only halfway perfect.