I am an avid reader. I am also a cheap bastard. Also, also (not a real phrase, don’t care) I am a Kindle owner. So I think you can see where I’m going with this: The Amazon Top 100 Free Book list. Man, that list has been both a blessing and a curse. I’ve found myself reading such tripe because, well… it was free, and the library is WAAAAAY over there and also closed at 10 PM. But recently the AT100FB (catchy!) showed up with a historical romance blast from the past: Roselynde by Roberta Gellis. So I downloaded it and re-read it for the first time in decades.
Roselynde is book one of The Roselynde Chronicles, a romance series set in the 12th century. Playboy Press (!) published the series in the late 1970s and Alinor Devaux, heroine of books one and two of the series, meets many of the standard requirements of a romance novel heroine of the time: feisty, headstrong, exceptionally beautiful, and about to fall madly in love with a ManlyMan who would “tame” her. Luckily for the reader, Gellis rises above the tropes and creates a delivers a fast-moving adventure.
The plot, in short: Lady Alinor Devaux is a young but very wealthy landowner in England who was raised to run her estate, Roselynde, and manage her castellans and vassals by herself instead of relying on a husband. When her grandparents die, Alinor becomes a sought-after marriage prize due to the wealth of her holdings. She comes under the protection of Queen Alinor (you may be more familiar with her under the name of Eleanor of Acquitaine) who wants to allow Alinor the younger to remain unmarried for two reasons: First, she sees herself in the younger Alinor and feels fondly toward her as a result. Secondly Queen Alinor knows that her son, King Richard, will be able to tax Alinor for the right to remain unmarried and that Richard desperately needs funds to support his Crusade. Queen Alinor places the honorable but poor Sir Simon Lemangne in the role of guardian to Lady Alinor. When they fall in love, the political realities of their time make their love seem ill-fated and even potentially dishonorable, given Simon’s role as guardian. But Alinor, being a Spunky Heroine™ plots, schemes, and overcomes numerous setbacks (and Simon’s qualms about honor and their age discrepancy) until she gets her man.
First the good: The plot itself is a rapidly-paced blend of court intrigue and adventure with the romance almost taking second fiddle. Gellis moves the characters from Roselynde to the court of King Richard, to skirmishes in Wales, and even through various battles in Richard’s historic Crusade. All of the locations are deftly described and it’s easy to imagine yourself there with the characters, from the damp cold of Wales to the sumptuous wealth of the Court and the bleached heat of the desert.
According to her bio on Amazon.com, Gellis has a Master’s degree in medieval history and the book certainly seems to back up that claim. Gellis spends far more time discussing the political atmosphere in England and detailing the realities of life in medieval times than she does describing heaving bosoms or swollen…other parts. This is a plus, to me, as I feel like I learned a great deal while being entertained the entire time.
Gellis avoids the common trap in this genre of giving her lead characters morals and mores more at home in today’s time. Gellis’ past is a smelly, louse-ridden era where most women are little more than marriage pawns or chattel and war is brutality and starvation. While I can and do enjoy some historical romances where the story is filled with, essentially, contemporary characters wearing fancy dress, I very much enjoy Gellis’ more historically accurate approach. In the preface to the Kindle edition, Gellis makes the point that Alinor herself is not an anachronistic character by mentioning several documented medieval females who were independent and strong willed enough to accomplish the kind of landholder status that Gellis has given Alinor.
Of course, some behaviors that were accepted in the twelfth century and now considered repellent. Simon slaps Alinor at one point and also mentions having “taken” women unwillingly in his past. Alinor assumes that Simon will visit prostitutes in the army camp and sees it as nothing to do with her. Gellis explains how the characters view these and similar actions, placing them into the context of the time, but I can see where some readers may have a hard time overcoming contemporary distate.
The not-so-good: While Gellis does a fantastic job (in my opinion) of creating the world in which Alinor and Simon move, the love story itself is not honestly that great. Simon’s love for Alinor is believable and sweet, but Alinor’s love for Simon is more problematic. Her turn from viewing him as a convenient friend and protector to a love interest is sudden and out-of-the-blue. Even worse, Alinor frequently compares her love for the much-older Simon with her love of her grandfather! Because of that, when Alinor defies reason and custom time and time again to pursue him… it seems almost more a sign of her wilfullness than it does a symptom of their Grand Passion.
Final verdict: The characters are enjoyable, the plot is fast-moving, and the historical detail is impressive enough for this to remain as a favored book, if not a FAVORITE. And it’s the stepping stone to Alinor, book two of the series, which has all of the good qualities of Roselynde PLUS a ridiculously hot love story! (If you like the idea of this series, I would recommend starting with book 2, to be honest.)
Overall, I give it four stars. There’s enough there to make it an excellent read, even all these decades later.