The Penwyth Curse
“It was unbelievable, a play written by a madman.” So thinks a character late in this book, and I couldn’t help but agree. Although Ms. Coulter used to be an autobuy for me, The Penwyth Curse is an accurate example of why that has ceased to be so. While once upon a time you could count on a Coulter novel to be usually either very good or very bad, you could always count on it to be solidly written. But the utter lack of rhyme or reason in this book shows that those days are, sadly, long since past.
Sir Bishop of Lythe, a secondary character from Earth Song, is called before King Edward I to receive a reward for saving the king’s favorite illegitimate daughter Philippa, now Countess St. Erth. This reward comes in the form of an arranged marriage to Merryn de Gay, and with it, the title of Baron of Penwyth. Unfortunately, there’s a catch: he’ll be the fifth husband of the eighteen-year-old heiress, the other four having been struck down within hours of their marriage by the Penwyth Curse. It’s now Sir Bishop’s “reward” to become the successful fifth husband, or, more likely, to die trying.
Lady Merryn de Gay is not particularly thrilled to see another “suitor” ride into Penwyth. Despite his handsome face and the new and undeniable attraction she feels for him, she looks forward to the curse taking him as it took all the others before. She is determined that the king should name her heir to Penwyth after her grandfather dies. Now if only she wasn’t starting to like him so much.
Right from the beginning, this story doesn’t make much sense. According to the curse:
The enemy will die who comes by sea.Problem is, for starters, if this land is blessed, I’d hate to see what it looks like when it’s cursed; there’s been a killing drought since the first would-be Penwyth heir forced Merryn into marriage four years earlier. Another problem is that, despite numerous characters wondering whether or not the curse could have been written with Merryn in mind (i.e., whether previous generations of green-eyed redheads have had this problem), we never find out. And then there’s the fact that the curse never mentions what would happen if there was a suitor who wasn’t “the enemy”, and if Merryn were happily wedded and bedded instead of forced – and no one ever wonders about it, despite the many centuries that the curse has been around. This isn’t a spoiler; literally, no one thinks of it, unfortunately. Also, while I don’t want to give away any other spoilers (many of which would poke more holes in the curse), let me just say that the part about the key is completely inconsistent with the way the plot plays out. But, then, if I had to choose a single word to describe this plot, “inconsistency” would be at the top of the list.
The enemy by land will cease to be.
The enemy will fail who uses the key.
Doubt this not.
This land is blessed for eternity.
Maiden’s heart, pure as fire
Maiden’s eyes, green as desire
Maiden’s hair, a wicked red
Any who force her will soon be dead.
Even with the illogic of the curse versus the plot, the book was not yet a failure. Parts of the first 17 chapters were interesting; I’d even go so far as to say there was chemistry, good pacing, and as I was quite interested in what happened next, a certain compelling quality to the plot that was enough to make me overlook the consistency problems. But then came a flashback to “Sometime Else” – for five and a half chapters. The characters we meet there, Brecia and “the prince” (he never has another name, as far as we know) are vaguely interesting, but not involving emotionally, or as connected to Bishop and Merryn as they’re apparently supposed to be. They are previous incarnations of the “current” Penwyth couple, but as I never felt they were the same people, why should I care what was going on with them? All the rambling and barely coherent flashback served to do was to break up the compelling and involving quality that the story originally had.
Characters in the flashback make nonsensical, random decisions and are hard to sympathize with, as their entire purpose is to struggle against an evil wizard. (Oh, did I mention everyone is suddenly a witch or wizard? Well, they are, and that’s all the explanation you’ll get, from me or from the book, I’m afraid.) Problem is, this wizard, Mawdoor, is far more about being eeeeevil than about being bright. The only reason that the prince and Brecia managed to impress me in their ability to outwit him is due to the fact that, given the way they act, I was ready to believe they were even more TSTL than he. The combined flashbacks (yes, there are more multiple-chapter flashbacks after that one) read like a poorly written story by an amateur author who loves fantasy, but uses Conan the Barbarian as his model of a genre classic.
The Penwyth Curse started out as an interesting read merely irratating for its inconsistency and turned into an infuriating mess of characters who behave like morons and then wonder why things aren’t going their way – or worse, they act like morons and succeed. And to top it all off, Ms. Coulter went and involved my favorite of all her previous couples, Dienwald and Philippa in the awful mix. This may be more than I can forgive. Bottom line? Even die-hard fans should think twice before picking this one up. Trust me, you don’t need a “complete set” badly enough to put yourself through this.