The Warrior's Bride Prize
A book set in Britain during the time of the Roman Empire, hooray! Widow Livia Valeria’s brother has sold her in marriage yet again. This time, it’s to a young man named Lucius Scaevola, whose gaming debts to her brother are to be forgiven in exchange for his excellent, high-status family connections. When half-Briton Livia and her daughter Julia arrive near Hadrian’s Wall, she mistakes the strapping centurion Marius Varro for her intended. Despite some predictability, this is an enjoyable comfort read.
The author paces the story well. Many would have rushed into their hero and heroine’s dice-game betrothal, but here, we see a nice balance between the physical attraction Livia and Marius feel for each other and their comfort with each other as individuals as a build up to Marius’ impulse to risk his fortune on winning her. By the time he risks his entire fortune for a chance to free Livia, he’s seen both Livia’s good qualities and Scaevola’s hostility and weakness enough that his decision to gamble everything he has felt believable. I wish the marketing hadn’t presented this plot turn so aggressively, however. I’d have enjoyed being able to experience the tension of ‘how will they get Livia out of this arranged marriage? It’s not the author’s fault, but if anybody from Harlequin is reading this – think before you spoil!
Dialogue is believable, as for example, when Marius’s inability to praise Scaevola to Livia reveals as much as outright criticism, which would have been unrealistic from a military subordinate. I also appreciated that Marius forms a credible rapport with Livia’s daughter Julia. The child herself is also a realistic four year old who, shockingly, seems to exist out of reasons of historical accuracy (after a ten-year first marriage) and not as a mere plot device. I laughed when Livia warns Marius that promising the little girl the doll of her choice will result in her choosing the most expensive one she can find.
Livia is part Briton, and it was interesting to see social class snobbery developed here between the Rome-Romans like Scaevola, the frontier Romans like Livia’s father’s family, and assimilated Romans like her mother’s side. Livia’s red hair, legacy of her Briton ancestry, triggers racist insults of “barbarian” and revulsion from Scaevola, who doesn’t want to sully his bloodlines. There’s also more to Livia’s story than just her Briton mother. Unfortunately, the author allows this to develop into a Big Secret, which Livia repeatedly makes excuses not to disclose. It might be realistic in a character, but it is really frustrating in a book, where in addition to being able to predict how Livia’s engagement will end, you can now predict exactly what Livia and Marius will fight over in another three chapters’ time.
I’m an admitted history dork, so if you don’t mind something a bit superficial, you can skip this part. Otherwise, here are my main concerns, historically: not enough diversity among the Romans (Africans, Spaniards, Germans, etc., rather than just Italians and Britons); the heroine’s anachronistic rabid abolitionism and the hero’s easy acceptance of it; the complete absence of religion, and Marius’s inauthentic treatment of a military prisoner.
The Warrior’s Bride Prize doesn’t break new ground, but it’s a comfort read, and I like the unusual setting. I am always on the lookout for category authors I like, and Jenni Fletcher is now on my list!