The primitiveness of 1136 Scotland can make the modern mind shiver. Those pesky Romans were gone from England but the Normans had come and conquered and subsequently left their mark on: the English language (the beginnings of its modern version anyway), the monarchy, and well, sufficed to say, Western history. Outside of the political arena the daily lives of average folks were pretty tough. There was no Costco back then. Which might not matter as there was also no refrigeration to keep five gallon tubs of mayonnaise fresh. For that matter, there were also no cell phones, TiVo, internet, cars, or anything approaching modern convenience. It actually gets much worse than no electricity, there was also no public sanitation (that’s for humans or livestock). It would be another seven or eight hundred years before people started to bathe regularly (and by people, that means: people with money; and by regularly: that doesn’t mean daily). Given the harsh and unhygienic conditions, it’s no surprise that the life expectancy was only in the early thirties. All things considered, it was a dicey time.
It would seem then, that a really good reason would be needed to set a romance novel among such desperation. And, lacking a good reason might be why most romances aren’t set in that time. The need for a compelling reason hasn’t stopped Sarah McKerrigan from setting not only her latest, Captive Heart, in 1136 Scotland, but also its predecessor Lady Danger, and what looks to be the series’ finale, Knight’s Prize. As is easy to guess, there are three sisters, each gets her own book, etc. What isn’t easily sussed out, from the setup or the back cover blurb, is that the action in Captive Heart happens concurrently with the action from Lady Danger (and likely it will be revealed that Knight’s Prize overlaps Captive Heart as well). Setting novels with concurrent timelines and overlapping action is a lot like setting novels in 1136 Scotland: there needs to be a really good reason for it. But, here again, McKerrigan doesn’t have a reason nor the skill to pull off the intricacy demanded of the plot structure of intersecting stories.
Helena of Riverloch is a maiden warrior, the second in command of her father’s holdings. Exactly what a maiden warrior is (outside the presumption of virgin fighter) isn’t really delved into in Captive Heart. Nonetheless, Helena and her two sisters Deirdre and Miriel are maiden warriors. But, then the exact nature of Helena’s father, his estate (or keep or castle), and what Helena is second in command of isn’t really explained either. Nonetheless, she’s something with some supposed authority. As the story opens Helena is being hauled down a flight of stairs, away from Pagan (a Norman come to marry one of the sisters) whom she has, prior to the story’s opening, attempted to kill.
As it turns out, there is a lot of Helena’s story that happens before Captive Heart. The assumption is that all is explained in Lady Danger; the result is a read with some very large holes that force the reader to piece together information in after the fact fashion. It seems that, prior to Helena’s starring role, Pagan Cameliard, and some knights under his command, had been sent to Riverloch to protect it from marauding English forces. A marriage would neatly secure Pagan’s claims to Riverloch, and as the nuptials wouldn’t be a love match, any of the sisters would do. Miriel was chosen, but then Helena and Deidre decided one of them should really fall on their own sword (ie, marry Pagan) to save Miriel from such a fate. The night before the wedding a falling-down-drunk Helena decided instead to kill Pagan. It’s just after this, that readers of Captive Heart will enter the story. But, then perhaps “after this” isn’t as good a summation as “in the midst of this.”
Saving Pagan from Helena’s assault and then hauling Helena down the stairs is Colin du Lac, a Norman knight with an anachronistic sense of chivalry. Or, it could be said that Colin’s gallantry is simply a few hundred years ahead of its time. Or, it could even be said that Colin’s chivalry is told to the reader but not shown to the reader as Colin promptly locks Helena in a cellar. Helena retaliates by kidnapping Colin and dragging him off to a forest hovel. And there the couple waits for Deidre to bring word that the marriage of Pagan and Miriel (which was to have happened in more off the page action while Helena was in the cellar) has been annulled due to non-consummation. The word doesn’t come, of course, because the series’ previous book details the love story between Pagan and his switched-at-the-alter-bride-Deidre.
What comes to pass between Colin and Helena from this point (which at three hundred pages comprises the bulk of the story) doesn’t matter. They are kept apart first by assumptions. Each manages to always jump to the wrong assumption about the other; it would seem the laws of averages would allow for one of them to accidentally come to the right assumption on occasion. But they don’t, but they do manage to fall into bed together, then by morning fall in love with one another. From then on, the book’s conflict lays in misunderstandings that could be resolved with conversations. For example, asking “Are you having sex with the scullery maid?” seems a good way to find out if the man one loves is having sex with the scullery maid. Theirs is not a convincing foundation for lasting love, but then, statistically the hero only has another six months to live and that seems more than enough time for this happily ever after to burn itself out.
The suspension of disbelief necessary to buy into this story, given the ruggedness of the times versus the relative ease with which these characters live, coupled with storytelling that is too often incomplete and distant cripple Captive Heart beyond all hope.
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