Bone of Contention

Bull God

Desiree by Roberta Gellis
(Harlequin Signature Select, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-373-83641-4
When it comes to writing medieval romances, Roberta Gellis is in a league of her own. No one does it better. Her legions of fans have long regarded The Roselynde Chronicles, a series of six medieval romances following a landed English family around the year1200, among the best example of the genre ever written. The last book, Sybelle, was published in 1983. Itís been a long wait, but our patience has finally been rewarded! At long last Ms. Gellis has written a seventh book, one that is second in narrative chronological order.

At the end of the first book, Roselynde, Alinor, a wealthy and forceful young woman, is married to Simon Lemagne, an older man whose fortune is modest but whose honor is legendary. In the beginning of the second book, Alinor, a decade has passed; Simon has died and Alinor is a widow. Desiree is set in time between Roselynde and Alinor Ė a period when King Richard is being held hostage on the continent and Prince John is causing problems at home.

Desiree of Exceat is married to the elderly Sir Frewyn of Polegate. The marriage was arranged to save Desiree from being forced into an unwanted marriage to Nicolaus of Dover. Frewyn has been a loving father-figure to Desiree and taught her much about managing her lands. Recently Frewyn has suffered a stroke and is bedridden. Desiree receives a communication from the sheriff of Sussex, Sir Simon, who instructs her to guard against attack. She knows she is unable to oversee the military responsibility of her holdings so she requests that he appoint a castellan.

Sir Alexandre Baudoin is the youngest son of Sir Simonís sister. As a younger son, his prospects arenít good under his fatherís roof. Moreover, he has reason to fear an older brother, Vachel. After his mother dies, he journeys from France to England carrying a letter of introduction to his uncle. Simon obliges his sister, accepts him as family, and undertakes Alexís training as a knight. When Desireeís message is received, Simon asks Alex to take on the duties of castellan.

Simon warns Alex to be careful in his dealings with the young woman. Alex is aware of the intricacies of the situation Ė Simon himself is married to a much younger woman. As Alex assumes his leadership role, he and Desiree inevitably find themselves attracted to each other, but loyalty and honor will necessarily keep them apart.

Nicolaus of Dover still covets Desireeís land, and as if things werenít difficult enough, Vachel arrives in England.

In the interest of full disclosure in this review, itís only proper that I confess several things.

Before I even started reading Desiree, I knew it would be joining other Roberta Gellis novels on my shelf. For a number of years, I could count on a new Roberta Gellis book being published in September. The month of September just hasnít been the same since her publisher made the ill-advised decision to end this practice. Practically all of Roberta Gellis medievals (and some set in other periods) are presently residing on their own shelf just waiting for this newest installment. I recognize that all of Ms. Gellisís arenít of equal quality, but even one that doesnít achieve a five-heart rating is still a keeper.

Given a choice of a strong hero or a strong heroine, Iíll take both. Iíve read too many romances where the heroineís main task is to look pretty and admire the virile hero. Roberta Gellis heroines are just as smart, just as tough, and just as determined as her heroes. Itís perfectly understandable that they fall in love Ė they deserve each other. Desiree may not be able to order military maneuvers, but she is proficient in managing the many aspects of a large estate. She and Alex may share a fault of some of Ms. Gellisís heroes and heroines Ė they can suspect each other of some of the most convoluted motivation imaginable Ė but they arenít passive.

All I really needed to know about future interests I learned from Roberta Gellis. When I was in law school, one assignment was on future interests Ė an intricate system of property and inheritance that was designed centuries ago to keep the wealth in the family and out of the hands of others. It was my easiest assignment in all of law school. I already knew the material, and it was all because of Roberta Gellis! Other authors may play loose and free with historical facts, political machinations, and legal ramifications, but Ms. Gellis is a meticulous researcher and never compromises the facts. Reading one of her novels is the equivalent of taking a stroll in the Middle Ages with interesting characters and an entertaining story. In Desiree, the rivalry between King Richard and John creates a political climate that is central to the plot.

I have a poor attendance record at my book club. But for those readers who attend much more regularly than I (and that wouldnít be hard), thereís a bonus feature in the back of the book: a recipe for Frumenty, a medieval dish similar to porridge, along with an excerpt from Roselynde. Cook up a pot and discuss away.

I need everyone to go out and buy this book and others in The Roselynde Chronicles. Itís not necessary to have read the previous six novels to enjoy Desiree, but I strongly recommend you do. If you donít have them already sitting on your shelf, you can look forward to collecting them in the future because Harlequin Signature Select is going to republish them. If theyíre a big success, Ms. Gellis may be persuaded to write more in the series. The romance genre needs more books of this quality.

In 1998, TRR polled both contributors and readers for their top 10 all-time favorite romances. (Check it out in the Features section.) Ms. Gellisís The Roselynde Chronicles were on two of the contributorsí lists. They are absolutely superb, and I cannot praise them too highly. Desiree is a worthy addition. I strongly recommend it.

--Lesley Dunlap

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