It was sheer coincidence that the last book I read from my TBR pile before reading this one was A Kiss to Die For, a Western also by Claudia Dain. Reading the books back-to-back was an interesting experience, and it certainly cemented my favorable opinion of Ms. Dain’s storytelling prowess and skill for characterization. Neither book is perfect, but both are high quality, extremely enjoyable, and unique reads set in completely different time periods – a feat for any author within the same year.
The Temptation is what might best be called a “quiet medieval.” The bulk of the action takes place in the minds and hearts of the characters, not on a battlefield. This isn’t a sweeping epic, spanning a wide territory and featuring exciting journeys on horseback or sieges of stone keeps. Instead, the book is a tale of internal struggles between long-held beliefs and fears against changing realities and possibilities. Ms. Dain has shown herself to be adept at this kind of story before, with such stellar efforts as The Holding and The Marriage Bed. If The Temptation didn’t quite live up to the standard of those other medieval novels by Ms. Dain, it was compelling all the same.
Elsbeth of Sunnandune is a most reluctant heroine. Raised by her mother (who died in childbirth with Elsbeth present), and long-ignored by her absent, playboy father, Elsbeth has determined that her calling is to God. Not quite 16 years old, she clings most tenaciously to the vow that she will be no man’s wife and longs to enter a cloister, thus avoiding the unpleasant tasks of dealing with real live men and enduring the pain and sorrow of childbirth. She has been well-and-truly indoctrinated against men by a mother who was seduced into marriage and childbed many times by Elsbeth’s father, only to be cast aside and suffer his indifference for years to come.
Elsbeth’s father, the powerful Lord Gautier, has little interest in his daughter’s wishes, refusing to allow her to enter the convent. Instead he has formed a marriage contract with Hugh of Jerusalem, a Levant warrior close to King Baldwin of Jerusalem. Hugh is everything a 12th century knight should be – chivalrous, handsome, intelligent, and good-natured – in short, everything Elsbeth has been taught by her mother to fear and mistrust most. But she has no choice. Within hours of meeting Hugh, our young heroine with a calling to serve God finds herself wedded to a most mortal and pleasing man. This is the worst challenge Satan himself could have served this young woman. Elsbeth is beset by her temptation to get to know her new husband – attracted by his smiles, challenged by his conversation, and intrigued by his exotic homeland – while clinging desperately to what she has always believed to be true.
Hugh finds himself in a quandary, as well. Though the prayerful man respects Elsbeth’s abiding faith and is content to have a wife devoted to God, Hugh finds, to his growing surprise, that he cannot accept his wife’s continued avoidance. Hugh begins to seek her out, wooing her in a manner most unlikely and earning his father-in-law’s scorn in the process. This, of course, has the opposite effect as he intends since his attentive, lover-like actions serve to reinforce the teaching of Elsbeth’s mother and add to her confusion. Is this gorgeous, chivalrous, golden man to be believed, or is he in truth a test of her faith? Will she wind up no better off than her poor mother or can she resist the temptation and achieve her ultimate goal of entering the cloister or retiring to her dower lands?
In their budding relationship and conflicting needs, Elsbeth and Hugh struggle to move beyond what they have always believed to be true and attempt to reconcile their expectations with reality of the hands they have been dealt. In the meantime, they struggle with an unnamed threat. For reasons unknown, someone besides Elsbeth doesn’t want Hugh to succeed in his quest to seduce his bride into his bed.
Though I can only allude to a major plot development near the end of the novel for fear of spoilers, I can say that it is a heart-wrenching revelation shedding much-needed light on Elsbeth’s character and her motivations. The development shocked me, though, upon reflection, there were more clues than I’d noticed.
Like many of Ms. Dain’s previous novels, this one contains some provocative explorations of God and religion and the relationship of medieval people to the same. Her ability to do this, without anachronism and without obvious injection of her own beliefs, makes this a powerful and successful thematic element. If the religious framework wilts a little at times under the weight of the novel itself, the discussions are nonetheless usually engrossing.
There were times when Dain’s latest moved too slowly for me and some of the discussions between Hugh and Elsbeth seemed repetitive, especially in the first half of the book. Even Ms. Dain’s stellar prose lost my interest on a few occasions and I started wishing for something – anything – to happen besides talk. These were minor quibbles on the whole, however, and I enjoyed The Temptation. It was one of the better medievals I’ve read this year and I hope Ms. Dain will continue to explore the medieval world with her next novels.