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A Year and Day by Virginia Henley
(Delacorte, $19.95, R) ISBN 0-385-31817-0
****
I liked this book. Could the reason for my reaction be the fact that I learned Bobbie Burns' Scots Wha Hae at my father's knee? Or that a plaque with the words Frae Scotland hung on our family room wall? Or because William Wallace and Robert the Bruce were my heroes before Mel Gibson made Braveheart?

Or could I have enjoyed this book because it is the closest thing I have come across in recent months that is, in my mind, a real historical romance? I have always believed that historical fiction (of which I count historical romance as a sub genre, differing only in its assured happy ending) is the most enjoyable way to learn history. I blush to admit how much of the interpretation of 12th and 13th century England that I present to my students is rooted in the novels of Roberta Gellis.

Well, if you want to learn a good deal about the history of English-Scottish relations in the early 14th century, about the personalities of the old Edward I and the young Robert the Bruce, about the political machinations of the Scottish nobility when faced with a popular rising led by a commoner, about the ugly realities of medieval warfare, then read Virginia Henley's recent novel, A Year and a Day. By the way, you will also experience a compelling love story and some really steamy love scenes.

The hero of A Year and a Day is Lynx de Warenne, nephew and heir of Robert de Warenne, Edward I's trusted military leader. He has accompanied his king to Scotland to (once again) take the necessary steps to convince the Scots that Edward is their overlord. He is given control of the important royal castle of Dumfries, in part to forge an English presence in the area, in part to keep an eye on the local Scots noble, Robert Bruce. Robert and Lynx have been friends since childhood, but Lynx is not blind to the fact that Bruce's loyalty to Edward is rooted in his own self-interest and ambitions.

The heroine is Jane Leslie, daughter of the steward of Dumfries Castle. I often wonder why every second Scot heroine has to have mystical powers. Still, Jane's healing powers do play a significant role in the story. Jane had hoped never to marry, but rather to use her skills and knowledge to heal both humans and animals. She certainly never planned to become handfasted to an arrogant English lord, however much he may resemble the mighty lynx she has dreamed about.

Henley manages to create a scenario whereby the handfasting of a powerful English lord and a young Scots girl makes sense. De Warenne had been married but his wife had never conceived nor had his long time mistress ever borne a child. He desperately wants a son, and the fertility of Jane's family (nine brothers and sisters, thirty nieces and nephews) suggests this young woman might prove the answer to his prayers. He agrees that should she become pregnant, he will marry her and make the child his heir.

Thus, we have a fairly standard romance plot: King Copheta and the beggar maid. Of course, Jane comes to love her Lynx (even his unusual name is accounted for by the canny Henley; his name is really Lincoln), but realizes that he sees her only as a brood mare. She has the cooperation of her husband's sister in turning her from a naive maiden into an alluring lady so that her husband will come to love her for herself, not merely her childbearing capacity.

Add to this mix a jealous mistress and a rival bent on destroying Lynx, a romance between his sister, Marjory, and Robert Bruce, and the dramatic political and military events that were chronicled in a different fashion in Braveheart, and the result is an exciting tale that kept my interest throughout.

I will admit that Henley's writing style tends toward the pedestrian and she occasionally uses language that is anachronistic. (I doubt a 13th century nobleman would ask that his sister "cut to the chase" or speak of returning to the front, and I found the frequent use of the phrase, "you are so bad" annoyingly inappropriate; but maybe these were excised in the final version.) Yet, Henley did keep the story moving, and, for the most part, got the history right.

One listmember, commenting on A Year and a Day, sang the book's praises, but remarked that she ignored "that political stuff." What a shame! The "political stuff" is one of the real strengths of this book. The love story, the plot, even the characters, are all quite familiar to readers of medieval romance. Henley's interweaving of "that political stuff" into her story is what moves this book beyond the average category.

Another listmember noted that, unlike other romance authors who have moved into hardback, Henley did not tone down her love scenes. She sure didn't! The love scenes are hot enough to warm up even the cold Scot climate. So A Year and a Day has a little bit of everything for every reader. Enjoy.

--Jean Mason


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