Thursday, July 19, 2007

Stealing Heaven, by Madeline Hunter [5]

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

"Besides, I always said, if a thief is going to hang, it might as well be for a horse and not an apple."
"When did you always say that?"
He smiled slyly. "When I was a thief."
"So now I am a horse?"
He shook his head. "You are the stairway to the stars. It is heaven that I am stealing here [with you]."

I'm completely spellbound. Bewitched. Enthralled. Mesmerized.

A singularly memorable Madeline-Hunter novel, STEALING HEAVEN rises high above romance stereotypes and its tendency to dwell on characters' appearances. STEALING HEAVEN chronicles a fervid romance, a heart/gut-wrenching romance, an impossible romance, a romance that you simply cannot forget. There's a few books you read once in a blue moon that just never leave you. STEALING HEAVEN is just such a romance. Once I started reading, I literally could not stop. I smiled, I laughed, I cheered, and the novel even brought me to tears. Madeline Hunter throws the gamut of emotions at her unsuspecting readers like me in STEALING HEAVEN.

With BY POSSESSION (****), BY DESIGN (***) and finally STEALING HEAVEN (*****), Madeline Hunter appears to raise the stakes on impossible loves each time. Whereas status and birth seemed to separate our star-crossed lovers in BY POSSESSION and BY DESIGN, there's a lot more at stake in STEALING HEAVEN dividing our hero and heroine. A lot more. As STEALING HEAVEN's heroine Nesta reminds her hero Marcus more than once, "What I want is a small thing in this. In any of it. In all of it."

STEALING HEAVEN's prose and settings could be better given BY POSSESSION, THE SEDUCER (**) and THE RULES OF SEDUCTION (*****). But lord, did the poignancy of the characters, love and story make up for it in STEALING HEAVEN. And I mean make up for it big time. I thought this novel was more passionate and sensual than other Madeline Hunter novels; or maybe I felt that way because of the characters, it's tough to tell now. The chemistry and passion between Marcus & Nesta crackles with a profound intensity.

Marcus of Anglesmore. I don't think I have the words to describe this hero. Marcus lays it all on the line, he risks everything to win his heroine. He's handsome of course, but he also exudes power and cunning. He's experienced it all: being groomed for a lordship as a young child, then having brutally lost it all, watching his sister forced so he could live, living in poverty and thieving to earn a cold, hard piece of bread and then having his lordship returned to him again. Marcus isn't a warrior in Addis's league at the peak of Addis's ability, but still no push-over in that department either. When Marcus arranges to dupe Nesta into a betrothal, it really hits you what he's risking in order to win Nesta considering all of Nesta's dangerous connections. If anyone were to discover what Marcus intentionally fails to report about Nesta's treasonous activities, Marcus would lose everything, he would lose it all again and his life in a blink of an eye. As he tells Nesta from the start, "I would fight to claim you..." And fight he does, even using Nesta as an instrument to claim her. Marcus doesn't care about Nesta's past, he doesn't blink twice about Nesta's promiscuous reputation, and even after their first time he doesn't ask her about it.

What Marcus risks for Nesta considering how little he knows for sure about her shady history and considering what he suspects regarding her treasonous plans for the future makes his plight to win Nesta that much more moving, that much more soulful. Not to take anything away from Nesta, but STEALING HEAVEN belongs to Marcus.

Towards the end, Nesta realistically points out, "The King's man should not be so easily swayed by passion, Marcus." Marcus confidently replies, "The King's man did his duty. If he found a way to do it and avoid a war, he is content. If he found a way to do it and keep the woman he loves (Nesta), he is satisfied. If that woman takes his hand willingly, he will consider it the greatest victory of his life." Later, Marcus admits he's no poet, yet his heartfelt words strike a cord: "I am not good with pretty words, Nesta. Telling you that I love you is easy, but it will never express what is in my heart...I am honored that you gave all of yourself to me...Loving you is the best part of my life. Holding on to you became the most important thing to me after [our first meeting]."

Yes, Marcus sure has grown up from BY DESIGN. Wow, his character is realistic, sensual, cunning and honorable. And yes, romantic beyond any words of expression.

I don't think I've ever read a heroine quite so mature, quite so confident, quite so bold, quite so shrewd, quite so unafraid of the world of men as Welsh-born Nesta verch Llygad. She doesn't blush and melt at Marcus's every touch, she doesn't back down to Marcus's "maleness" and deploys her own female weapons in return, and boy does she give him a run for his money in the battle of wits and deception. Usually even if the heroine is a widow, her first marriage was loveless. In this case, Nesta has actually experienced pleasure before Marcus. It takes courage to write such a heroine as Nesta verch Llygad in a genre chock full of virgins or near-virgins, and I doubt most romance readers warm up to a heroine like Nesta, confident, beautiful, cunning, promiscuous, unbelievably smart and not above using her "weapons" (beautiful figure) to get what she wants. And you have to be beautiful if you caught the King's eye. Nesta has tons of dark connections and a ton of dark history. STEALING HEAVEN's Nesta reminds me of Guy Gavriel Kay's Dianora from TIGANA, the only difference being Nesta's happy ending. Just like Nesta, Dianora too anguishes over her divided heart and divided loyalties. Duty and love wrench Nesta's heart, and her journey as a worldly-wise and cynical woman to actually realize her little girl's dream of true love with a dashing, handsome knight was simply breathtaking. She's totally worthy of Marcus in every way. Marcus is totally worthy of her.

Even though THE PROTECTOR's Anna is the strongest of Hunter's heroines from an athletic and leadership point of view, Nesta verch Llygad is the boldest and most cunning of any Madeline-Hunter heroines I've read to date. As far as the combined realms of brains, beauty and experience goes, Nesta wins hands down, no contest.

Although the title of the book literally refers to Marcus stealing heaven, I thought it could have gone the both ways. In the subtle ways Nesta thwarts Marcus's attempts to marry Nesta's sister in the beginning, she steals heaven for herself too. Only a strong-willed, extremely cunning woman like Nesta could steal heaven in Marcus's arms, every bit his equal in their battle of wits.

The Story.

King Edward has arranged Lord Marcus of Anglesmore's marriage to a Welsh girl with royal blood. After delaying the meeting with his intended for weeks, Marcus finally steals into the garden on a moonlit night for a glimpse of his future bride. Following an electric meeting, Marcus promptly steals some heaven right then and there with some kisses. Marcus anxiously returns the next morning for a formal meeting with his intended bride only to find that he stole kisses with his intended bride's sister Nesta last night. Marcus is livid. The witch didn't tell him who she was when he was kissing her last night!

Readers from BY DESIGN will remember Marcus "Mark" as Joan's younger brother, the heir to Anglesmore. Marcus and his sister Joan had to escape Anglesmore and live an impoverished life in London after Mortimer's man Sir Guy Leighton terrorizes Anglesmore. BY DESIGN ends with Anglesmore returned to Marcus and Addis de Valence (BY POSSESSION) serving as Marcus's tutor and warden. Marcus has already led a scrappy life going from riches to rags back to riches. He's been a thief, fighting in a gang, learning to be a lord, and training to be a knight. The roots of his vast street-smart experience shows clearly in STEALING HEAVEN, and god, has he ever grown up! Under Addis's guidance so too does he demonstrate his honor and cunning as a capable lord.

While Marcus fumes over Nesta's true identity and his strong reactions to her, Nesta schemes to escape London with her younger sister Genith while the King is out of the country. Welsh-born Nesta has surreptitious plans for herself and her sister, and they don't include marriage to the English lord Marcus. She dismisses her own reactions to Marcus as a magical foray from another world, and completely impossible. Marcus has other ideas. Marcus gives chase and finally captures Nesta and Genith after much hardship in spite of Nesta's clever plots to throw off any pursuit. With Nesta and his future bride Genith in tow, he heads to his seat in Anglemore. He also decides to quickly marry the sister Genith as the King arranged and be done with it.

Again, Nesta thwarts him.

After Nesta plots an escape again, Marcus is left with just one sister, Nesta. Marcus's emotions and reactions to Nesta boil over and he resolves to walk a very sharp double-sided edge as the King's loyal baron by tricking Nesta into a betrothal. A betrothal the King could very well disapprove of given the King's connection to Nesta. A betrothal that could could cost him everything. A betrothal to a rebel that could end with his life. Nesta's furious reaction to the betrothal is too fun.

The story rages on in intensity and poignancy as Marcus and Nesta spar in a battle of wits and deception, a battle surrounding a rebellious plot with Welsh freedom at stake. A Welsh autonomy and freedom Nesta will do just about anything for. A worthy cause, to be sure. Both Nesta and Marcus understand each other, both anticipate each other, both accept in each other a conflicting and betraying call to duty, and yet, both still manage to find heaven in each other's arms. Impossible love, you say? It doesn't get more impossible than Marcus and Nesta. At times, this battle of wits is very fun, at other times, very heart-wrenching. At the end of the day, it's all worth the price of admission.

I'm going to be re-reading this one.


Anonymous said...

Harin, I am happy for you! :-) This is what we romance readers read these books for: that feeling of being totally immersed in the story and being blown away by the romance.

Caine said...

No doubt, it was good to see MH take a chance on writing such a heroine.

So I was curious, seton, what did you think of STEALING HEAVEN?

Anonymous said...

Harin, I liked it but the machiavellian manueverings interfered with the romance for me. I did like how Mark grew up from BY DESIGN and I liked Nesta. Overall, I thought that Hunter ended her medieval book period on a good note after two subpar (for her) books. SH is also her RITA winner after being nominated since her first book.

Caine said...

Cool, yeah I can see that (the maneuvering). At least it was clear to both of them from the onset where the other's loyalty lies, and they seem to understand/anticipate each other so well in their games. You can always count on Hunter for maturity.

Did not know SH was a RITA winner, nice!