To Touch the Knight
Medieval stories have long been a favorite of mine, yet they seem to have fallen out of favor with publishers. And the few recently published ones I have read I considered lackluster at best. To my most pleasant surprise, Lindsay Townsend’s latest did not fall into this category.
When Edith’s overlord Giles feared the pestilence, he ordered the peasants of Warren Hemlet sealed inside the church. Edith, her brother Gregory the priest, and the rest of the peasantry were sealed inside. Sensing the direness of the situation, Edith smuggled her late husband’s smithy tools swaddled like a baby into the church. Fortunately the peasants were able to break out. Now Edith travels to tournaments posing as a princess from the Far East, veiling her face and hair and traveling with an entourage of her familiars from Warren Hemlet. Because a peasant pretending to be a member of the upper class was such a serious crime, this is a risky venture as the penalty is death should her masquerade be exposed.
Ranulf of Fredenwyke is a noble knight, a widower who enters tournaments adorned with the favors of his late wife Olwen. When a tournament brings him in contact with the “Princess,” he is immediately intrigued. Edith finds the handsome knight compelling as well, though she realizes becoming closer to Ranulf puts her at greater risk of exposure. A whole new level of danger is added when Ranulf’s friend Giles enters the tournament and sets his sights on the Princess as well. Though Giles is more classically handsome than Ranulf, Edith knows the breadth and depth of his brutality and knows she must carefully guard the secret of who she really is.
This could have gone very badly. The whole “heroine masquerading as someone else” plot device has been done to death, oftentimes in such a silly manner that it is impossible to take the story seriously. Edith’s deceit, though, worked for me because a) there was a real element of danger involved, and c) she does an excellent job of remaining in character. Edith hatches this plan as a way to ensure that she and the villagers live a reasonably comfortable life in the face of being virtually ousted from their fief. And though Edith may lapse at times, like forgetting her gloves, she is always aware of her position and the grave consequences of discovery. All of this illustrates Edith’s intelligence and resourcefulness as the reader learns how and why the idea for the masquerade comes to her.
The overall feel of the novel was very authentic for me. The Middle Ages were brutal, difficult times and the author does not shy away from that. The specter of the Black Death looms ever present, to the point that it almost feels like another character. The characters have witnessed the devastation it has wrought over the land and are terrified of its power, particularly Edith. Her brother Gregory died of the pestilence after they escaped confinement in the church. Though deceased, his presence haunts Edith throughout the story in the form of her conscience. This, as well as her openly agnostic beliefs, adds an interesting dimension to her character.
Ranulf also hears the voice of his late wife Olwen in his thoughts, however, in sharp contrast to Edith, he has retained his traditional belief system. I found the contrast in their beliefs unusual, but welcome, territory for the author to explore and I give kudos to her for each character maintaining their stance throughout the novel. Edith does not suddenly resolve her doubts and anger with the discovery of true love, though Ranulf makes great strides in easing her troubles. For me this helped to make her a believable character and I appreciated that she maintained her independent way of thinking.
At times, the pacing of the story felt slightly off to me with the story lagging in a few spots and the ending occurring abruptly. Somehow the climax of the novel felt kind of anticlimactic. I think maybe I just needed a few more pages for this couple as they had certainly earned their happiness over the course of the novel. Minor criticisms aside, I would recommend To Touch the Knight to lovers of medieval stories, especially those with fascinating, well-characterized heroines.