Though I appreciate a medieval-set romance, I’m aware of its challenges. It is difficult for a romance author to capture the strangeness of the medieval world and still make the romance familiar. Thus far, only two romance authors I’ve read achieve this successfully (mind you, I haven’t read much medieval romance, these are the ones who work for me): Blythe Gifford (Secrets At Court is my favourite) and Elizabeth Kingston. But, like Kingston’s mentor’s books, Laura Kinsale’s, it took me a long time to warm to Desire Lines.
To look to the novel’s opening, “It began in beauty and in blood.” A beautiful, knife-laden young woman, Nan, rescues a Welshman, originally sent to the English King Edward I as obeisance from the young Welshman’s father, Welsh royalty.
(England’s 13th-century conquest of Wales is the historical context of Kingston’s novel.) Gruffydd ab Iorwerth has been knight, prisoner, and captive. He’s lived in the luxury of the English court, then hid for years in a monastery, made friends and enemies, tamed and hunted with his beloved falcons (his marketable skill, important to English lords) and been chained, starved, and beaten.
His rescue by the servant-assassin-girl Nan sets them on a course of love, desire, and divided loyalty. Nan and Gryff are complex and damaged, compelling in their woundedness, yet also survivors. They travel together, at first out of necessity, which grows to wary alliance, to comfortable companionship and affection, with a simmering, ever-present attraction plaguing them, to loving and becoming lovers. They meet friend and foe, confront their past, what holds them together, what tears them apart, and how to rebuild it all.
At first, Nan and Gryff are victims of their past. They’re defined by history, class, ethnicity, and gender. When the Welsh and Gryff’s father and brothers rebelled against the English king, Gryff became victim and pawn. Even now, when he’s “no one,” a wanderer on this journey with Nan: “Long gone were his days of chivalry. He was no one now––in the muck, as she [Nan] said.”, should his identity be revealed, his life may be forfeit. When Nan meets Gryff, he’s a broken, frightened man. Their journeying and love heal him, make him whole again. Nan makes him whole, with care, silence, beauty, and mystery. But Nan doesn’t come to this journey without her own troubled past. It is a familiar story of being a young, beautiful servant-girl, of men reaching for what they can take without asking. Nan carries violence, fear, and hurt, as much as Gryff does. The backward movement of their lives is as significant, however, as the forward: Nan goes looking for her sister, Bea; and Gryff, now that’s he’s tasted freedom and is free of fear, looks for a friend and maybe the possibility, the question, of returning to Wales.
As Kingston delved deeper into Nan and Gryff’s journey, I bided my time, sensing that the road less travelled would surprise and delight me. The transition in the text and my enjoyment of it came when Nan found her sister. Until this point, Nan’s goal was more important than her attraction to Gryff. The events around Nan’s sister, without indulging in a spoiler, leave Nan without a raison d’être, but leave room for Gryff, a newer, bigger, less vulnerable Gryff. When Nan leaves purpose behind and Gryff feels free of his identity as the Welsh nobleman who owes fealty to the English king (always suspect, a traitor’s son), they are free to wander, explore their bodies, minds, and the open road. A short note about Nan’s faithful and adorable dog, Fuss, who accompanies them everywhere and lightens the story’s darkest moments.
The strength and attraction of Kingston’s romance lies in this wonderful, love-filled wandering of hero and heroine. This is where Kingston fulfills the promise of her title, “desire lines,” when history’s shackles fall away from Nan and Gryff (like that moment under the oak-tree for Jane and Rochester) when they are elementally man and woman, joined in love, a new-born Adam and Eve
“… they journeyed the same path now, and it was not the one the world had set out for either of them.”
“They drifted westward, and she found relief in having no driving purpose beyond finding nourishment and shelter every day, wandering in the direction of Wales, and simply being with him.”
“Like her, he did not want reminders of the world. They were outside of everything here. There were no masters, no family, no duty––there was only each other.”
Kingston brings the world screeching back into Nan and Gryff’s idyll with a doozie of a scene. As you may already know, I’m convinced of, and fascinated by, the betrayal I believe at the heart of every romance’s dark moment, when hero and heroine are torn asunder and the reader, if the romance is great, knows there will be an HEA and yet cannot envision its possibility. Kingston made the betrayal so painful, my heart broke; I could not see how Nan and Gryff would or could make their way back to each other. How and why they do is surprising, fit, and wonderful. Like I said, it took me a while to engage with and be immersed in Kingston’s Desire Lines, but when I did and was, Kingston held me in thrall. With Miss Austen, we say Desire Lines is made of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Elizabeth Kingston’s Desire Lines is self-published. It will release today, March 21, and may be found at your preferred vendors. I am grateful to the author for an e-ARC.