Not a particularly bad novel, and like BY POSSESSION, BY DESIGN contains the requisite Madeline-Hunter elements: a relationship characterized by a stormy, yet witty beginning, flaring passion, emotional angst and finally, an unattainable, impossible happily-ever-after. This is my third Madeline Hunter novel, after THE RULES OF SEDUCTION and BY POSSESSION.
If you've read BY POSSESSION like myself, there's too much of a feeling of deja vu to ascribe this book its proper due, and it appeared too many things were recycled from BY POSSESSION. There's the impossible love between two people of different statuses (reverse the genders), there's the hero protecting and abstaining from his desires until the heroine consents, and even the love scenes seemed similar to BY POSSESSION, with the obligatory heroine-strips-in-front-of-hero scene. BY DESIGN contains solid plotting and characterizations, but for me, it could not escape comparison with BY POSSESSION. I was happy to see BY POSSESSION's Addis & Moira quite a bit in BY DESIGN, but their presence also drew constant comparisons. In short, I enjoyed BY POSSESSION's romance, characters and plotting more than BY DESIGN.
BY DESIGN's plotting isn't bad; the settings, though nothing special, were adequate; and the romance, albeit wrenching, didn't resonate as much as the other two novels I've read by Madeline Hunter. Rhys & Joan, though well-conceived and poignant characterizations, paled in comparison to BY POSSESSION's Moira & Addis.
In general, I thought the connection between our leading pair was too abstract. I did appreciate a look into the skilled workers and craftsmen of the medieval era. However, BY DESIGN attempts to "join" Joan & Rhys' souls via their craft, having their souls connect from a crafting "by design." I found the entire notion too abstract, and as much as I appreciate Hunter's liberal use of analogies and metaphors to describe something deeper, I thought this particular connection infringed in on the realm of Unable-Suspend-Disbelief.
The Story, possible SPOILERS.
Readers from BY POSSESSION will recognize BY DESIGN's hero Rhys Mason, the skillful and affluent stonemason who courts Moira for a short while. In BY POSSESSION, Rhys helped bring about a rebellion which leads to weak king's abdication of the throne (Edward II), and firmly thrusts a Queen and her lover, the ruthless and ambitious Roger Mortimer, in power. The story is very much based on historical facts, and obviously Hunter takes some liberties with those historical facts to tell her story. In BY DESIGN, the people of England grow weary and tired of Mortimer's pseudo-monarchy and ambition, and plots surface of a conspiracy to remove Mortimer from power and help the rightful heir -- Edward III - seize the throne. BY POSSESSION's Addis finds himself in the middle of these conspiracy plots in BY DESIGN.
Rhys meets Joan Tiler in a market selling her crockery and is immediately drawn to Joan, immediately discerning a beauty and class in Joan beyond his own ken, beyond his own status. After Rhys buys out Joan's indenture and takes in Joan and her brother into his house, the tumultuous and fitful relationship between Joan & Rhys takes off. Similar to other Madeline Hunter novels, our heroine Joan doesn't trust Rhys yet enjoys a very heated passion in his arms short of intercourse -- Rhys will not go that far until Joan truly consents. Another words, Joan's mind and heart are at odds, and she grasps to causes for complaint in Rhys, such as his connection with Mortimer.
I found the ending in which Joan holds the chisel for Rhys and becomes an extension of his soul so he can still practice his craft, too abstract, too vague. I thought the reappearance of the evil and despicable Sir Guy Leighton again and again a bit too much, I mean Joan puts a knife through Sir Guy, and he's perfectly fine afterwards? A tortured and bruised Rhys pounds Sir Guy in a hand-to-hand duel and he still manages a last-gasp lunge at Joan? I wanted to know more about how Addis and Edward III remove Mortimer and Edward's mother from power besides just sneaking in while Rhys has Sir Guy tangled up in a duel, a diversion.
The final chapter speaks of an impossible love and ends too much like BY POSSESSION, despite all the odds. But I thought BY POSSESSION did it better with better characters.