I can’t be the only person who looked at the rock-solid pairing of Catelyn and Ned Stark and thought: “Damn, where did I put those Elizabeth Lowell medievals?”
Set in Northern Britain in the harsh eleventh century, Untamed, Forbidden, and Enchanted follow the pacification of the “Disputed Lands,” some uncertain, borderline pagan territory that the Norman King Henry wants to control and the Saxon locals are none too keen to cede. So how do they hold up, almost 20 years later? Not too bad!
Dominic La Sabre is back from the First Crusade, and he’s looking to put down roots. For that, he needs land and a wife. (He’s all set financially, due to his participation in the Holy Land’s ransacking.) Luckily, he’s a great favorite of King Henry, who wants the Northern end of his kingdom brought under control. So he awards him Blackthorne Keep, which is located in the back of beyond and controlled by a bitter, nasty old man. Protocol demands that this be achieved by marrying Dominic to Meg, the witchy green-eyed daughter of the aforementioned old crank.
He arrives to find that Lord John isn’t going to hand over Blackthorne without a fight. The bilious old bastard is dying of some unnamed wasting disease and wants his illegitimate son, Duncan (AKA: the Scots Hammer) to inherit. He tells Meg to marry Duncan instead. Oh, and he also informs her that she’s not entirely legitimate, either; it seems her mother was already expecting upon her marriage to Lord John.
So this poses a question: why doesn’t John have any free-and-clear legitimate heirs? That’s because his wife was a “Glendruid,” a mystical bunch of ladies with preternatural healing talents who can only bear children if they’re beloved and well-treated by their husbands. A male heir hasn’t happened in generations. Problematic!
Dominic is skeptical, but he’s also observant enough to realize that the people of Blackthorne Keep adore his wife, and if he treats her poorly, there’s no way he can hold the territory. He’s also none too confident that Meg isn’t carrying Duncan’s child. (Spoiler alert: She’s not. Duh.) Because this is the Middle Ages, before the advent of the pee-stick technology, he decides to wait around until her period before they consummate the marriage. Rather than avoid her, he decides it’s an awesome idea to lock her in their bedroom and feed her by hand until she’s mad with lust for him.
Sidebar: This book is weirdly kinky. I don’t mean that the sexy scenes are unusually graphic—they’re pretty euphemistic, actually, though certainly not shy. No, I mean interaction between Dominic and Meg is just... kinda bent. He covers her in falconry-style “jesses,” with lots of talk about captivity and submission and freedom therein. None of the other books in the trilogy are like this, either! Is it possible that Elizabeth Lowell snuck an eleventh century version of a D/s relationship into this book? Given that Meg wears those jesses like an engagement ring, I’m going to say yes.
So Dominic and Meg go back and forth and all around. There is some swooning. The plot culminates in a kidnapping and Meg’s near death, which she gamely accepts with the attitude that, “He doesn’t love me anyway, so there’s no point in living!” then passes out. Eventually, the pair resolve their differences, and we’re on to Untouched and ensuring the happiness of Duncan, who’s grudgingly pledged fealty to Dominic. At the opening of book 2, he’s discovered half-dead in a ring of standing stones under a magical ruin, deep in the most Disputed sections of the Disputed lands. Also, he has amnesia. (Of course he has amnesia.) He’s given over to the care of a Learned woman named Amber, who has the useful—but excruciating—talent of reading a person’s emotions and truthfulness when she touches them.
Duncan and Amber’s story is very emotional and romantic and star-crossed, but their thunder is completely stolen by Erik, the local lord, secondary character, and pagan dreamboat. Erik has a big problem, because he’s the heir to a Saxon lord and working his ass off to preserve his father’s precarious hold on his far-flung territories from internal rivals and the Normans to the south. He stumbles across Duncan and immediately realizes they’ve got one of Dominic Le Sabre’s vassels in the clutches and is determined to get him besotted and married off to Amber and dedicated to defending the Disputed Lands before he recovers his senses.
His plan fails spectacularly, but it also kind of doesn’t, because by book 3, Erik and Dominic are grudging allies with a grudging respect for one another, Duncan and Amber are happily joined, and Simon is engaged to Ariane, a wealthy Norman heiress. Unfortunately, she’s also hauling some heavy emotional baggage. Not for nothing is she referred to as Ariane the Betrayed; Amber touches her and nearly passes out.
Here’s where I’ll pause to say: Good God, the assumptions these heroes make. Dominic is SURE Meg isn’t a virgin and that’s she’s making the beast with two backs with Duncan. When it’s his turn to fall head-over-heels, Duncan is SURE that Amber isn’t a virgin and that they’re already lovers and she’s just not telling him, despite the fact that assumption makes exactly zero sense. Then he’s sure that she’s a villainous betrayer. Of course, neither of ladies has anything but the best intentions. It’s enough to make a girl want to scale a soapbox and hold forth about communication skills. Maybe straight talk wasn’t invented until the Renaissance. That would explain a lot.
Simon is the worst of the lot. On the one hand, he’s intensely loyal to his brother and actually something of a beta male. He’s not in the Disputed Lands to claim and hold a keep. He’s there to support Dominic. Another mark in his favor: He’s a cat lady. Felines trail him everywhere he goes. Kittens climb his chain mail. That said, assumptions might make an ass out of you and me, but they mostly make an ass out of Simon. He decides Meg, Amber, AND his own betrothed are all untrustworthy whores out to ruin everyone’s lives. Then we get stilted apologies like this: “I no longer think of you as the devil’s tool.” Thanks, pal! You’d think he’d learn after the first couple of times not to jump to conclusions, but he walks around offended that Ariane doesn’t want to touch him. He comes around eventually, but lord have mercy it takes forever.
These books are rife with early-’90s touches. The euphemisms are quite purple. There’s at least one mention of a woman’s “sensual rain.” (I don’t want to turn this into overshare-hour, but “rain” isn’t the noun I’d’ve gone with.) Beards abound. The heroines where colors like violet and silver and generally give off Dynasty vibes. The jewelry is awfully aggressive.
The magic is also, well, kind of hokey. No heirs without love! Druid types who can read emotions and communicate with animals! This can be tough to swallow, especially given the paranormal boom of the last decade or so. At this point, the average romance reader is accustomed to some very high-quality world-building, and Lowell’s mysticism just isn’t that sophisticated. It’s often very fun—ie, Erik’s Dr. Doolittle act—and sometimes used to great effect, for example Amber’s struggles with her abilities. But compared to any given Kresley Cole or J.R. Ward novel, the supernatural elements are a weak spot.
Nevertheless, at their core, these books are still great, because they offer the absolute finest in Lowellian angst. Keep your copy of Pearl Cove, because nothing else in her oeuvre can top this. There are serious external conflicts in each book, but the focus is always on the internal tensions between each couple. And while there are Big Misunderstandings driving each novel, what they really have to overcome is competing desires. Dominic wants a keep, which requires heirs; Meg wants love and respect and can’t give him his heirs without them. Amber wants Duncan, but knows it’ll tear him apart when he remembers his divided loyalties. Simon can’t see past his own hurt to realize that Ariane is hurting, too.
These are high-stakes alliances, so everyone reacts to every slight and setback with extreme emotion. Make no mistake: the protagonists’ behavior is often unrealistic. Most of us just can’t flail like these when our romances go awry, because careers don’t pause for heartbreak and the catbox still needs cleaning. But we sure want to react like characters in an Elizabeth Lowell novel, parading around with clenched teeth and wasting away into poetic nothingness. That’s the genius of her work: Vicarious romantic anguish. And this trilogy still delivers.
If there’s one complaint, it’s that the mysterious Erik never gets a book. WTF! He’s a cute blond guy with a beard! and a falcon and a giant wolf! He’s also a die-hard romantic, despite protestations of cynicism. The end of the third book even sets it up, with mentions of a talented, reclusive weaver named Serena. Apparently their history pops up in one of her later romantic suspense novels, but it’s merely secondhand history. That’s simply not enough. Erik remains one of the greatest romance heroes who never was.
By day, Kelly Faircloth covers innovation and technology. She spends the rest of her time reading and writing about books. Her work has appeared at io9, Inc and The Big Money, and she blogs intermittently at www.NoKindaLady.com. Follow her on Twitter @KellyFaircloth.