Sunday, June 3, 2007

The Protector, by Madeline Hunter [3]

***/***** (3/5)

Another stellar Madeline Hunter novel with mature and poignant characterizations in the midst of a captivating historical backdrop. I enjoyed the beginning and ending, pleasantly surprised by the action therein. I found the middle portions involving the travel to Windsor and stay at Windsor to see the English King however fairly dry and boring. The negotiation and counter negotiations for marriage were very fun, especially Morvan's counter. After the consummation back in Brittany, the book seemed to relapse a bit again until the finale. Who was the real protector in THE PROTECTOR, our hero or our heroine? I found the ambiguity of this question very intriguing, since even though the hero swears the oath, it's our heroine who does most of the protecting and saving.

I'm not exactly sure what it was but something was missing from the romance. It seemed a bit flat. The middle portions didn't help. The historical backdrop of this novel is probably the strongest of any Madeline Hunter novels I've read so far though. Times of chaos (the plague, war, France, England, etc.) help from a storyline point-of-view, for sure.

I was looking forward to seeing the duel between Morvan and John in the beginning, and later, between Morvan and our villain Gurwant. Unfortunately, Hunter skips relaying both duels and we're just told later on that Morvan won. Very anticlimactic. I guess Anna did all the important stuff in hatching the plans and the rest is rudimentary. Besides playing the domineering lord, Morvan has little to do and I'm not convinced of his prowess with the sword as I was with Addiss in BY POSSESSION.

The Story, possible spoilers.

Tall and lovely Lady Anna de Leon of La Roche de Roald is something of a tomboy, and finds herself heiress to rich and vast lands in Brittany during a time of turmoil and chaos. Both France and England lay claims to Brittany and the young 10 year-old duke of Brittany fosters under the English king's care while chaos ensues in Brittany. Anna however has no desire to inherit her rich lands and even less desires to marry, she's returned home to fulfill her duty until her younger sister marries, and to care for the sick when the black plague runs rampant across Europe.

Anna is probably the strongest of Madeline Hunter's heroines I've read so far, at least from an athletic, warrior standpoint. She's deadly with the crossbow and arrow, a decent sword, tall, lean and finely-toned, and of course, an heiress to rich lands. She isn't one to sit around and wait for the hero to do things, she takes charge, admirably and plausibly. She's also one of the more passionate heroines, abandoning all and giving everything during the scattered but few love scenes with Morvan.

Lowly English knight Sir Morvan Fitzwaryn finds himself in Anna's care at her home in La Roche de Roald after he's contracted the plague. Morvan lost his family's ancestral home in England to the Scots, and now he awaits the King's aid and the chance to reclaim it. The books describes Morvan as incredibly handsome, and only slightly taller than our relatively tall Anna. Morvan suffers from the plague when he first meets Anna, and like other Madeline Hunter novels, Morvan and Anna share an instant spiritual connection from Anna's "deathwatch." After Anna nurses Morvan back to full health, Morvan vows to protect Anna.

When Anna's snubbed former betrothed Gurwant arrives with an army to conquer La Roche de Roald, she devises a genius plan to repel the attack. Of course, Anna implants herself in the thick of the battle and when Morvan returns her to the castle, it's Anna who prevents the inevitable confrontation between Morvan and Gurwant by shooting Gurwant's upper arm. There's some foreshadowing here as Morvan comments that maybe Gurwant lives because he's meant to kill Gurwant. Unfortunately, THE PROTECTOR entirely skips the part at the end which has them squaring off one-on-one. Booo, and very anticlimactic.

Later, Anna & Morvan travel to England to petition the King: Anna wants to join the convent and to pass off La Roche de Roald to Anna's sister to inherit. King Edward however has very different plans for Anna and her lands whose people favor England. Very fun negotiations of marriage ensue reminding me of THE RULES OF SEDUCTION, Morvan getting the better of those dealings. Anna has the last laugh though, making things very difficult for Morvan back at La Roche de Roald when she smiles sweetly and plays the docile, demure lady of the keep -- and fails miserably (knowingly). After a vassal's betrayal, Gurwant captures Morvan, and again it's Anna who comes to the rescue with a brilliant plan of her own. I thought it worked out too nicely without a single drop of blood except for the villain's.

Some additional musings and comments...

In the beginning Anna waves off Morvan's romantic advances as a means to an end, since she's an heiress to rich lands. Later during a moment of heated passion, Morvan stops himself before going further, and Anna believes he was pretending to desire her, that she isn't very attractive to men in general because of her height and tomboy nature. I had to smile, because basically, he's damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. Unlike other adolescent heroine characterizations from other authors however, I understood her reactions and they seemed believable from a passionate virgin. Further, the book adequately addresses her ambivalent and confused reactions.

As much as I find Madeline Hunter's analogies and imagery as a means to impart something deeper, too abstract sometimes, I did feel one particular imagery from this novel squarely hit the mark. It was Morvan's first night at Anna's castle at La Roche de Roald when Morvan faces sure death from the black plague. He looks on a gorgeous sunset and feels an impending dark isolation. Morvan then stretches on a large rock overlooking the sea and feels another profound human spirit touching his "invisible self", his soul. At the same time high up on the castle's gallery, Anna notices a solitary figure on a rock and her heart wrenches with "astounding empathy," empathy and compassion for the isolation and impending death that figure faces. There's rumors of her being saint and having angelic powers, and I thought this was a beautiful connection, and a beautiful way to describe it.

Again, quality material and something I've come to expect from Madeline Hunter. If not for the rather boring middle parts and being deprived of the final duel between Morvan and Gurwant, I'd warm up to this novel a bit more. As it stands, it seemed like something was missing overall, including in the romance.

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