Desert Isle Keeper
The Secret Swan
The Secret Swan by Shana Abé contains several elements frequently found in those old-fashioned bodice-ripper-style romances: an innocent child bride, a tormented alpha hero who wrongs her, an adversarial relationship, a couple of Big Secrets. Abé magically weaves these not-so-promising threads together to create a story that’s both original and lovely.
We first meet Lady Amiranth St. Clare when she is a terrified, brave fifteen-year-old, about to wed Tristan Geraint, Earl of Haverlocke. Although the two have never actually spoken to each other, Amiranth has adored Tristan from afar since she was nine, and is trembling with fear and excitement at the thought that she is about to become his wife. Tristan is noticeably less enthusiastic, and doesn’t waste any time about breaking her heart and leaving her to seek glory on the battlefields of France.
He doesn’t find it. After eight years of torture and solitary confinement in a French prison, Tristan comes home, hoping to find succor in the arms of the wife he remembers. He goes to the castle where he dumped her so long ago and finds everyone there dead of the bubonic plague – everyone except a beautiful woman who somewhat resembles Amiranth, but who says she is Amiranth’s cousin, Lily.
Lily – or is she Amiranth? – and Tristan travel through a Britain ravaged by plague. This dreadful setting, and the way people behave because of it, is rendered very convincingly by Abé. On this journey Tristan falls hopelessly in love with Lily, who does not conceal her dislike of him for the way he treated Amiranth. Eventually they make it to Tristan’s castle Glynwallyn, where his brother, Liam, has ruled as Earl for these many years. Here Tristan has a problem: most of the people who remember him have died, and his brother’s men are loyal to Liam only. So he asks Lily to pretend to be Amiranth (who is the king’s cousin) just long enough to help establish his legitimacy as the real earl.
Amiranth (Lily?) is a great heroine. She’s both vulnerable and very clever; there are a couple of wonderful scenes in which her quick thinking saves Tristan’s bacon. Abé does an excellent job of showing how, in medieval times, a woman had no choices; her entire life was arranged for the convenience and benefit of others. Our heroine’s desperate act made sense in this context, and did not seem like a plot contrivance at all. And I loved Tristan. After his years in prison, his rage at fate, his aggressive desire to regain all he lost, and his hopeless longing for Lily all make him tremendously compelling, even when he is not (as he often is not) terribly nice.
Although none of the love scenes are terribly explicitly rendered, they’re delightfully sexy. My favorite scene is one in which Tristan kisses our heroine while she’s asleep – I almost melted reading that scene, and one of the characters didn’t even wake up for it.
There’s something dreamy and brilliantly-colored about Abé’s prose. This book is paced in a dreamy way, too, and it moves in its own sweet time, but I never felt that this dreamlike quality removed me from the characters or from the immediacy of the action. This is the kind of book that makes you want to stop and savor certain passages.
We here at AAR have been known to complain about some of the plot devices in those old-fashioned romance novels. In The Secret Swan, Abé does better than make them work – she makes them sing. The Secret Swan also has the sort of epic feel that some older romances had, that sense of two souls who are destined to be together, moving amidst the great pageant of history. If you’ve been missing that sort of romance – even if you haven’t – I heartily recommend this book. I know I’ll want to read it again.