Dear Ms. Garwood:
Your return to the historical genre has been the subject of romance readers discussions for months now. I would have loved to have written “welcome back” but I can see we have some growth pains here. While some of the classic Garwood moments have returned, there were also some painful speed bumps along the reading road.
Princess Gabrielle of St. Biel has been betrothed to Lord Monroe, a Scottish Highlander, in order for King John to pacify and shore up the borders to the North. Gabrielle is greatly desired. She hunts, shoots, and rides like a man. She has been trained in all the feminine arts and she is uber beautiful. But super nice. Because someone who is super rich, talented in everything, and gorgeous always has zero ego.
Despite being from a small country called St. Biel, formerly known as Monchanceux, which is somewhere in the Middle East, Gabrielle is pure anglo saxon with violet eyes and softly curling black hair and pure creamy skin. (Sounds Welsh to me). I just couldn’t figure out why a) St. Biel had a French origin, Gabrielle’s name is French yet the location of St. Biel is somewhere in the Byzantine Empire. I mean I am guessing that it is in the Byzantine Empire. It is a mountainous region off the coast of some ocean and on the way to the Holy Land. I also wondered why her men looked like Legolas. They all had white blond hair, blue eyes and deeply tanned, weathered skin. Each one had a special skill and they all fought really well without weapons. So, to sum up, we have a French named individuals coming from a French named country that is on the way to Jerusalem and all the guards know some kind of hand to hand combat.
Oh, and Gabrielle and her four guards all speak Gaelic which is super convenient since Gabrielle is being sent to live in the Highlands. While in the Highlands, her marriage to Lord Monroe falls through. Gabrielle’s life is put in danger and her cousin by marriage, Laird Broderick Buchanan, asks his good friend Laird Colm MacHugh to repay a debt and save Gabrielle.
Much of the book is contrived. One of the English Barons who is a suitor for Gabrielle is sent to St. Biel to find out about a treasure of gold that is supposedly residing in St. Biel. Many have tried to wheedle out the secrets of the St. Biel treasure but none have been successful. It was odd that this crass and not very competent Baron would incite a wise old St Biel priest into giving up a secret that endangers Gabrielle. I understand that this is how the suspense is created, but it never felt organic to the story.
In one early scene, Gabrielle kills someone with her bow and arrow because, of course, she is better with the bow and arrow than any of her guards. She is not at all squeamish about killing this person. He needed to be killed after all. I kept wondering why she wasn’t squeamish. she was raised in a keep near London and there was no suggestion that she was part of warfare on a regular basis. Later in the book, however, she is said to be squeamish when she learns of her guards killing a man even though that man needed to be killed.
There were any number of inconsistencies. One of them related to her title. I guess my feeling is if you are going to make something up, you can at least be consistent, right?
"Papa says you're to call my mama Princess Genevieve, and you're supposed to call me Lady Gabrielle.–Ã‚
"Stephen has called your mother Lady Genevieve, but you are called Princess Gabrielle. Was she not also a princess?–Ã‚
"In St. Biel a princess isn't addressed as such. I should be called Lady Gabrielle. When I was a child, the guards called me Little Princess. The name has stayed with me. It doesn't matter now, does it?–Ã‚
A great deal of the story was told in summary fashion followed by a “Reader’s Guide” series of questions. “What malicious reason did the woman have to lie? What was her purpose? And what about the monk? Why did he substantiate her lies? What did he have to gain?”
I was a bit baffled by all the questions. Why does the story have all these questions? Are they rhetorical? Will I be tested at the end? Is there a prize for the reader who answers the most questions correctly? Did you write in a summary fashion so it would be easier to find the answers?
The fact is, I was often confused. At one point, Buchanan and MacHugh feel responsible for the bad thing that happened to Gabrielle even though they had only met her once. Then when she is banished from Britain, she is told by Broderick that her exile means execution. But if that is true, why didn’t the mob kill her when they had the opportunity. Why did the mob allow her to leave only to be killing her later if they catch her? I.e., if banishment = actual death why didn't the mob kill her in the keep?
I admit to liking part of the story. There were some bumbling priests that provided comic relief. The long standing joke of the Highlanders hating English was mined for good humorous moments:
“You admit to having English relatives?”
“Reluctantly, I admit it. I have become more lenient in my opinions, for if you will remember, my wife used to be English.”
When Gabrielle talked back, when she had some spirit, she was the most entertaining. For a great deal of the book, though, she appeared colorless and really ordinary for all her beauty, skill with languages, parlor arts and warfare.
“There is a difference between sweetly asking me for time and telling me the matter was of utmost importance.”
She poked him in his chest. “How as I to know which magical words I should use to get your attention?”
This storyline is a standard Garwood plotline and I’ve loved it in the past. This time instead of comforting, it felt overused. I think that there are a legion of Garwood fans that are glad you are back writing historicals. I am ever hopeful that this return will eventually be triumphant although I am sensing it might take a book or five. D