By Arrangement

By Design

By Possession

The Protector by Madeline Hunter
(Bantam, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-553-5835-9
In the past, I have been critical of some romance novel titles because many are non-descriptive, misleading, meaningless, or downright silly. (Who can forget the classic Sweet, Savage Love? Who wants to remember it?) The Protector is a rare and welcome exception. This title is a model of ambiguity. Who’s protecting whom? Who is the title character? After pondering that question for a while, I’ve decided it’s unanswerable. It would be nice if more romances had titles that left one thinking ... nice but unlikely.

This is not an easy story to synopsize. Unlike many romances where once the hero and heroine have overcome the conflict between them the happily ever after is only a few pages away, in The Protector, as in real life, the hero and heroine confront one challenge after another. The basic theme of the book is how a woman fits into a world that expects her to be what she’s not when most of those expectations are formed by a world of men.

The story is set in mid-fourteenth century Brittany. The fourteenth century was a period of great strife and political turmoil in Europe. When its duke died without a child to inherit, Brittany was without a recognized overlord. There were two contenders to the ducal crown - one supported by the English, one by the French. This resulted in a fierce civil war. But more disasters are to befall Brittany. Plague walks the land.

Sir Morvan Fitzwaryn (the brother of the heroine in the author’s ,b>By Arrangement) has remained with his dying squire while his troop of men has gone on. His fears of death at the hands of a peasant mob are relieved when two knights arrive. Once is a priest-knight Ascanio; the other whom he first mistakes for a tall young men is in actuality Anna de Leon, the lady in charge of her family’s lands. In this lawless time, Ascanio has trained Anna in weaponry at the request of a convent abbess.

Anna has taken command of the land and its people upon her brother’s death, but she intends to return to the convent and turn over the lands to her sister and her intended husband; she believes that because of her height no man will want her for a wife.

Sir Morvan knows he will soon be suffering from the plague and expects to die, but Anna reassures him that some survive - she did. Due in large part to her care, Morvan does survive. In contrast to her belief, Morvan finds her very appealing and, landless as he is, is equally appreciative of her valuable property.

Anna has a broken betrothal in her past. Her betrothed husband Gurwant and his father had attacked her, and she had fought them off. The betrothal was broken two years later for political reasons. Now, however, in the wake of her brother’s death, Gurwant is determined to seize Anna and the property. With the aid of Morvan and his troop of men, Anna is able to hold out against Gurwant’s attack. Morvan, however, knows that one victory is not conclusive. She will need stronger aid to hold: she will need support from England. The support she receives is not what she asks for nor expects and will bring new challenges to face.

This is a novel for readers who are fed up with the helpless romance heroine who needs the big strong hero to save her. Anna is a strong woman more than capable of handling things without depending on some man to do it all. Morvan is a good match for her. He respects and appreciates her strength.

My sole criticism of The Protector is that too much of the conflict between the hero and heroine is based on Anna’s conviction that no man would ever want her because she’s so tall. For this reason, she’s willing to bury herself in a convent and let her younger and prettier but less capable sister take charge. Why does she have to suffer from this cliched if-I’m-not-gorgeous-count-me-out mentality that’s afflicted so many romance heroines? Clearly Anna does not lack intelligence. She ought to know she has the foremost attribute for an eligible medieval bachelorette catch: she’s got property! OK, she had one bad experience, but since in other respects she comes across as a very competent, confident woman, this attitude seems contrived simply for the sake of providing plot conflict. Moreover, if she were to look around, she’d see that Morvan isn’t the only man who admires her.

That objection aside, I strongly recommend The Protector. I have read all Ms. Hunter’s romances and think this is her best so far. Her books are solidly grounded in the historical period and are more than mere costume dramas; her characters are well-developed and convincing; her plots are creative. Her publisher has actively promoted each of her books; it’s obvious they recognize that she’s a very promising talent. If you haven’t read one of hers yet, this is a good time to start. You’ll soon be searching out her backlist and looking forward to her next.

--Lesley Dunlap

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