The Holding

The Marriage Bed

Tell Me Lies

 
To Burn by Claudia Dain
(Leisure, $5.99, R) ISBN 08439-4985-6
****
This is not so much an original story as it is an excellent demonstration of how some old romance conventions can be used in a way thatís compelling and real instead of hackneyed and preposterous. On the surface this may sound like the same old Saxon-takes-a-slave-girl story - but it isnít.

Having captured a Roman villa in Britannia, Wulfred and his Saxon cohorts are systematically destroying it - partly for the pleasure of smashing everything Roman and partly to find the Roman woman Wulfred is convinced has escaped their axes.

When he finally discovers Melania, the daughter of the house, she tries to goad Wulfred into killing her. His hatred of Romans is such that, when he realizes she would prefer death to a moment in the company of a barbarous Saxon, Wulfred decides that revenge will be much sweeter if he lets her live - as his slave.

Thereís just one problem. Wulfred canít find a way to break Melaniaís spirit. He canít threaten to kill her because she isnít afraid to die. When he puts her to work, she not only throws herself into the most difficult tasks, she tries to work herself to death. When he forbids her to do strenuous labor she tries to starve herself to death, so he finds himself taking every meal with his slave to assure himself that sheís eating enough. When he discovers Melaniaís next suicide plot he decrees that she must spend as much time as possible with him, and be watched by one of his men the rest of the time.

Let me say right here that this is not one of those tedious hate/lust relationships. In the beginning, itís pure loathing all the way. Each is a two-dimensional stereotype to the other; he sees only the arrogant daughter of the despicable Roman oppressor and she sees only the slavering barbarian - hairy, huge and crude.

But then something interesting starts to happen. It turns into a battle of wits (and arenít both of them surprised to discover the other has any!). The only way Wulfred can continue to torment Melania is to keep her alive so she can watch him take over her home, but the only way he can keep her alive is to watch her almost every moment. In order to deceive him, Melania has to learn to understand him.

Everyone starts to understand some very surprising things. She cares about the people of her household, so Melania is forced to recognize that Wulfred does not mistreat them, that he is kind to the children, that his men respect him and that he does not abuse anyone - including her - physically. He doesnít even chew with his mouth open. Not at all what she expected from a Saxon pig.

Wulfred begins to appreciate Melaniaís courage, her honor and her honesty. Not what he expected from a corrupt Roman. Only then, on the heels of this reluctant understanding, does an unwilling - and at first it is very unwilling - fascination develop.

Because itís a battle of wits, the reader also has a chance to gain a deeper appreciation of both these characters. Theyíre not just pretty bodies rubbing together (although theyíre both certainly very appealing); we get to watch them think and plan and react, and the intelligence of both is crystal clear. I love smart characters.

And, because Wulfred and Melania come to know each other so well, when their trust and feelings for each other are tested, their reactions are extremely satisfying both for them and the reader.

If I have a complaint, it is that things lag a little in the middle. The pacing of the first half of the book, while satisfying, is not exactly break-neck, so I didnít need a breather. In fact, I was more than ready for things to pick up a bit. Something does eventually happen to kick the story into high gear, but by the time it arrived I was champing at the bit.

As a whole, however, I found this an entertaining, satisfying and absorbing read from an author I am coming to depend on for all three of those things.

--Judi McKee


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