Desert Isle Keeper
A DIKlassic Review
originally published on August 10, 2002
Uncommon Vows is my favorite among Mary Jo Putney’s books, more romantic to me than even the wonderful Shattered Rainbows. Putney’s only medieval begins under the omen of an eclipse of the moon whose light is devoured by shadow on the night of a Christmas tragedy. Fifteen year old Adrian de Lancey, a nobleman’s youngest son, is preparing to take a monk’s vows when he learns his family has been massacred. Adrian’s destiny is forever altered when he vows to avenge his loved ones. It’s a doubly dark moment because Adrian entered the abbey at the advice of his mother, who feared his resemblance to her vicious father. While he looks like a silver-haired angel, Adrian has a dark side. Though Adrian had hoped to serve God in peace and light, he must now face not only the violent outside world, but the darkness within himself.
Six years later, Meriel de Vere, a young novice at a nunnery, witnesses a vicious ambush of Adrian and his men. She admires Adrian’s fighting and tells him so afterward. Adrian replies harshly and then departs, and Meriel never realizes he was angry with himself for desiring a nun. As she prepares to take her final vows, Meriel finds herself growing uneasy. She becomes unable to sleep or pray and finally receives a vision of a sword-wielding archangel blocking her path to a holy life.
Five more years pass before the two characters meet again. Adrian has regained his lands, become Earl of Shropshire, and built the impregnable Warfield Castle. Despite his wealth and position, he has lived the disciplined life of a warrior monk, with just one long-term mistress in his past. Meriel, who now lives with her brother, goes hunting with her falcon one day and becomes lost in a forest, where she encounters Adrian’s hunting party and is mistaken for a peasant. Meriel has reason to encourage the false assumption, but when she’s asked to relinquish the commoner-forbidden peregrine, she defiantly sets the falcon free before anyone can stop her. “You should not have done that.” Adrian tells her. For at the moment Meriel released her falcon, Adrian’s own dark forces were also cut free, the reins that control his emotions pulled from his grasp. Though he knows he has no rational reason to hold her, Adrian has Meriel brought to his castle.
After a night’s rest, Meriel presents herself to the earl, expecting to defend her innocence and depart. She is shocked when Adrian suggests she become his mistress instead. The offer would flatter a commoner, but of course the devoutly religious Meriel turns it down immediately. Since he doesn’t know her background, Adrian believes he can change Meriel’s mind. He tells her that she won’t be traveling alone without escort or leaving Warfield until he’s had a chance to convince her. Overnight Meriel finds herself imprisoned in Warfield’s tower, a bird in a gilded cage.
One of the many things that sets Uncommon Vows apart from other captive/captor stories is that the heroine doesn’t fall for her captor. Meriel cannot love in captivity, and the more Adrian pursues her, the more she resists. Her rejection is genuine, and as Adrian insists they belong together, she grows desperate and vows she will never be his. Adrian’s blind obsession almost destroys both of them, and only when it’s nearly too late does he realize this and make another vow – one that offers salvation for Meriel and for his own soul.
Uncommon Vows involves some plot twists that often seem contrived in the hands of a less skilled writer, but they work surprisingly well here because there are hints that unseen forces are behind them, and that their purpose is to test the characters’ faith. Omens, visions and prayers evoke the supernatural and show destiny’s hand, forcing Adrian and Meriel apart and then bringing them together, much as in reincarnation love stories. Without ever being heavy-handed, Uncommon Vows is also reminiscent of a Biblical morality tale. On one level it’s a captive/captor story, but on another level both Adrian and Meriel are captive to fate, to an invisible spiritual bond that exists between them even at their first brief meeting, and to an implacable moral justice. Not until the final vow is fulfilled can the missing pieces of Adrian and Meriel’s souls be restored, along with the freedom to choose their own destiny. The result is a suspenseful, emotional redemption story of a love that triumphs over impossible odds.
Adrian is Putney’s most morally ambiguous hero: angelically beautiful, blond perfection on the outside, but dark, flawed and haunted on the inside. The trials and torments he endures to atone for his wrongs and prove his love for Meriel make the book immensely satisfying. Meriel is gentle and sweet, yet her deeply-held convictions give her a core of surprising strength, like that of the heroine in Kinsale’s Flowers From The Storm. Adrian’s illegitimate but loyal half-brother Richard is a wonderful side character, as is Meriel’s hotheaded brother Alan. The villain and his sidekick are stock characters, but since their role is limited this is only a small blemish. A Jewish family is portrayed sympathetically if a bit stereotypically, and the other characters’ responses to them are refreshingly suitable to the era.
Few authors can pull off a medieval backdrop without stripping the era of its darkness or allowing its dramatic historical politics to overshadow the romance, but Putney makes it seem effortless. There’s no sign of the self-help textbook feel that occasionally over-modernizes Putney’s historicals. The setting is a perfect fit for her best strengths – historical details, battle-weary heroes, and spiritual themes – and the result is some of her strongest and most inspired writing. Uncommon Vows is full of sky-reaching imagery – birds, angels, stone circle monuments, windows and parapets, towers rising to heights. Near the end the story itself soars – it becomes so romantic that I’ve always wished Putney would return to the 12th century (Richard and Alan practically beg for their own books). While I hold on to that hope, there’s always The Wild Child, whose heroine is a descendant of Adrian and Meriel and could have been their daughter. Or better yet I can reread Uncommon Vows, a romance that definitely qualifies as uncommon.