The Maiden & the Unicorn

The Knight and the Rose
by Isolde Martyn
(Berkley, $14.00, PG-13) ISBN 0-425-18329-7
You may remember that nearly two years ago I wrote a rave review about Isolde Martyn’s second book (following the RITA award-winning The Maiden and the Unicorn) but then informed you that it was only available in Australia. The last line of that review stated, “Maybe some American publisher will wise up and give us up here books of the same quality those down under are enjoying.”

I have wonderful news! That very thing has happened. Ms. Martyn has a new publisher who is issuing The Knight and the Rose in trade paperback format (that’s the larger size). When I finished reading The Knight and the Rose, my first thought was, “This is a wonderful book,” and I was tempted to turn to the first page and start it all over again. It is so exciting that others in North America can now experience the same thrill.

This is an absolute must-read book for fans of historical romance. The writing is simply superb. Everything about this book works: the plot is original and intriguing, the characters are dynamic and multi-dimensional, and the setting is vivid. I loved The Maiden and the Unicorn, but I may have enjoyed this second one a little bit more. When you’re comparing two terrific books, it’s a tough call.

Geraint is fleeing the Battle of Boroughbridge where the forces of Edward II defeated the rebel army of the Earl of Lancaster in 1322. His companion Edmund Mortimer is severely wounded, and their hiding place is soon discovered. Disguised as a scholar, Geraint gives his name as Gervase de Laval. Lady Constance of Conisthorpe threatens to inform the king of Edmund’s location unless Gervase agrees to help her youngest daughter.

Lady Johanna is married to the brutal Sir Fulk de Enderby. Lady Constance has devised a scheme where Geraint will claim that he and Johanna were secretly wed before she was forced to marry Sir Fulk thereby invalidating the later marriage. Having been given virtually no choice, Geraint reluctantly agrees to the plan even though he is opposed to remaining in the area for long.

Lady Johanna’s problems go far beyond having an unwanted husband, and as he becomes more acquainted with her, Geraint slowly comes to care for her. In turn, Johanna’s hard-learned distrust of men will inevitably yield in the face of Geraint’s honorable character. What Lady Constance had thought would require only a short period of time threatens to become a life-long commitment.

This is a very superficial synopsis of a multi-level plot; there are several major subplots that contribute the richness of the story. The author has successfully interwoven the actions of her fictional characters into the historical events of the period. Conflicts abound - both real and fictional - and from the opening scene, the story’s pace never slows.

Far too frequently medieval romances seem little more than contemporary stories in medieval costume. Not so with Ms. Martyn’s novels. The depth of her research into the period is apparent. Reading The Knight and the Rose is as close to immersing yourself in fourteenth century England as is humanly possible. The myriad of details which add up to the realistic feel of the setting are all there - the political upheaval, the social attitudes, the power of the church. The author used a real medieval divorce case as the inspiration for her plot, and I was particularly impressed by the clear description of the convoluted procedure necessary for invalidating a marriage in that time.

It is, however, the character development which really distinguishes this book. These characters come to life on the page - even the secondary characters are vivid and multi-dimensional. But it is the portrayal of the hero and heroine that captures readers’ hearts. Geraint is a hero who is faced with conflicting loyalties. The reader knows all along there’s a mystery as to his identity -his scholarly disguise doesn’t fool anyone - but the nobility of his character makes it impossible for him to avoid the responsibilities foisted upon him. I fell in love with him a lot faster than Johanna did.

Johanna is a most memorable heroine. Her intelligence and courage in the face of the abuse she’s suffered are remarkable. Her reluctance to accept that Geraint is a man she can trust is understandable in light of her ordeal. There is mystery surrounding Johanna as well, and even though there were numerous clues, I confess I was stunned when the truth was revealed. Few scenes in fiction have made a stronger impact on me than the one where Geraint remedies Johanna’s predicament.

Similarly, other characters are well developed. The brutal Fulke is horrifying and repulsive. (You may have read about other characters who abused their wives, but Sir Fulk is among the very worst.) The historical personages come alive.

As a writer, Isolde Martyn ranks among the very best in both the romance and historical fiction genres. Readers who have admired the works of Roberta Gellis, Sharon Kay Penman, and Diana Gabaldon will be pleased to discover another author whose talent is on a par with theirs. And I’m not alone in my opinion. The Knight and the Rose won the Romance Writers of Australia’s Romantic Book of the Year Award 2001. Furthermore, her new publishing company is recognizing the quality of The Knight and the Rose by taking the unusual step of issuing it in trade format.

Clear your calendar and find a comfortable chair because you’ve got a rare treat in store. Even though it’s still early in the year, I feel confident in heralding The Knight and the Rose the best romance novel of 2002. They don’t get any better than this. This is a book that truly deserves the five-heart designation ‘keeper.’

And it’s finally available in North America!

--Lesley Dunlap

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