Desert Isle Keeper
Elizabeth Elliott’s fine Montagues series follows another young woman through a new marriage in Medieval times in the aptly titled The Princess.
The widowed-young Isabel Plantagenet of Ascalon, Dowager Countess of Rheinbaden in Germany, possesses a spine of iron – which is a good thing when she meets the muddy, brusque and bearish Sir Faulke Segrave, a knight and her husband to be. Theirs is an arranged marriage and an attempt at consolidating her father Edward’s power in Wales and also a move to quell the recent rebellion undertaken by Falke’s family. Isabel’s first marriage was miserable; she lost the only child she conceived of it, a son who died early thanks to the mumps. The trauma of that loss, together with increasing pressure to provide another heir resulted in Isabel suffering panic spells whenever her husband visited her bed and resulted in the erosion of Isabel’s position at court and in her husband’s physical abuse. It’s presumed that she’s barren and her father rushes her to the next marriage.
Faulke, too, has suffered bad marriages – three in ten years – all of which ended abruptly with the sudden deaths of his wives – two of which are suspected poisonings. Those marriages left him with three daughters – aged nine, six and two – to care for, and they all live at his home, Castle Hawksforth and have not been fostered out; this he expects his new wife to care for them in addition to warming his bed, and he’s angry that the woman he had originally intended to marry has been put aside in favor of Isabel. Lady Avalene de Forshay was everything Faulke wanted in a spouse, so the appearance of Isabel in his life is less than pleasing –Avalene’s choice to marry a notorious Italian assassin and breaking their betrothal notwithstanding. Though neither Isabel or Faulke want the wedding to take place, they are attracted to one another and, beyond that, resolved. They are resolved to become friends, and soon manage to develop a sense of warmth between them.
The night after Isabel’s arrival, Sir Roland, Faulke’s friend and fellow knight, is murdered, believed poisoned, and rumors soon circulate that a jealous Faulke is the one behind the murder. Edward declares that Faulke will investigate Roland’s murder while the wedding preparations continue. Isabel worries that Faulke might be the real murderer, and meanwhile must satisfy the expectations of both her father and her new husband.
The Princess has a sweeping sense of romance to it that does a decent job of taking the reader away from the modern day and back to the medieval era. It’s realistic about the messy politics and even messier medicine of the time without allowing the beauty of the relationship between Isabel and Faulke to dim.
Isabel is a bright woman, understandably fearful of marriage but still strong and capable. She is encumbered realistically by the protocols of her time and the weight of being a princess, and acts as best she can to protect herself and emerge whole from the mysteries around her.
Faulke is the classic beastly hero, brooding and roaring but also sensitive to what Isabel needs and wants out of life, and actually ends up listening to her in spite of his occasional moments of countermanding. He’s the kind of man who snaps the neck of a villain and then takes Isabel for a long walk in the garden.
Their relationship is one of patience, and of two strong-willed people colliding, and it takes a while for trust to truly build up between them in all aspects. Interestingly, the love scenes are a combination of light sub/dom undertones (he likes it when she calls him ‘master’ in bed sometimes), with a strong core of healing and forgiveness.
Outside of the bedroom, a twisty mystery develops and there is court intrigue to spare. This is well plotted and paced, though the identities of the true miscreants are a bit obvious when you sit back and think about it – but aren’t revealed quickly enough to break the anticipation!
There are a few minor blemishes. The story beats aren’t predictable, but the notes are reminiscent of certain traditional tropes, and Isabel’s tendency to exclaim “ach!” when flummoxed made me think of her as a medieval Cathy or an angry Scrooge McDuck. The ending also feels far too abrupt, with an exciting development followed quickly by a wrap-up chapter. But these are minor complaints.
The Princess works beautifully as a stand-alone and slides nicely into the rest of the Montagues series. It’s a fine romance, well-told and smartly written, with a properly swoon worthy hero and a tough and uncompromising heroine.