Desert Isle Keeper
I wanted to do something special for my 50th review for AAR. After reading Susan Carroll’s magnificent Winterbourne (originally published in 1987), I knew this was that something.
The Medieval Romance is one of my favorite sub-genres, and they are few and far between. Good ones are hard to find…great ones even more rare. Susan Carroll has made a good name for herself as a writer (with this review she’s received five DIKs out of seven books reviewed here). This tale – of Jaufre, Melyssan, a beautiful castle, and the fate of a nation under tyrannical rule – blew me out of the water. I never wanted it to end. This book is rare, indeed.
Lady Melyssan is a beauty with a clubbed foot, thus making her unfit in a world that looks down upon all deformation as a devil’s mark. That doesn’t stop King John from lusting after the young girl. Melyssan is destined for the convent, but in order to stop the King’s advances claims she has been secretly married to Lord Jaufre de Macy, the Dark Knight without Mercy, and takes shelter at his castle, Winterbourne, while he is away.
Jaufre was the champion to a nine year-old Melyssan years ago, before life made him bitter. He remembers the sad little girl with much affection – she remembers him as her dashing Launcelot. Years later, as Melyssan awaits the knight’s return, she is not sure what type of reception she will gain from a man who supposedly hung his first wife.
While on the continent, Jaufre watched as his beloved grandfather died. With a promise to the old man to one day restore his Norman castle to the de Macy bloodlines, Jaufre heads back to England to discover who the deceptive woman is whom has been posing as his wife. When he sees it is the young Melyssan, he is disgusted since she is the one woman he still held some respect for. Jaufre was besotted with his first wife and was ultimately betrayed most cruelly by her.
After a tempestuous start, Melyssan and Jaufre grow to love and need each other. There are a few things that stand in the way of their happiness: Jaufre’s affliction of foot-in-mouth disease, for one, and Melyssan’s low self esteem. Not to mention the constant threat of King John looming in the background.
How much did I love these characters? So much it hurts. What intrigued me the most was how Ms. Carroll created authentic medieval characters that possess timeless human traits. Melyssan is strong and intelligent, but her foot is a major sore spot for her and she easily falls prey to unintentional hurt caused by Jaufre because of it. Like any person who suffers from a serious flaw, she is vulnerable because of it. Jaufre, too, has his own issues. He always says the wrong things and never knows exactly how to make up for it. The right words never seem to roll off his tongue, so instead he gets all broody and belligerent.
The story is an epic one spanning many years and staying true to English history. Any one who is familiar with the infamous John Plantagenet’s reign will be impressed with the accuracy. There is enough mystery surrounding John’s death and the events that foreshadowed it to make one think maybe our dashing knight really was there and played a role.
There is a plot point that needs to be singled out: the age difference. It isn’t harped upon, only being mentioned very briefly near the beginning, but there is a significant one. Melyssan is only 17 at the beginning with Jaufre in his mid-thirties. Given Susan Carroll’s authentic storytelling, it is easy to overlook. In the 1200s, females were considered women at 17, where the average age for marriage was somewhere around twelve. Melyssan never acts like a flighty teenager who is TSTL. The one instant she did do something rather rash, she made it through with barely a complaint, earning even more respect from me.
To sum up, Winterbourne is the quintessential medieval romance. This may be out of print, but well worth the hunt. I am currently awaiting delivery of the sequel, Shades of Winter. Even half as good, it will still be a winner in my book.