Tuesday, March 25, 2008

My Valiant Knight by Hannah Howell

Ainslee of Kengarvey is a most unusual Scottish lady, able to ride, and fight like a man. These are skills she needs to survive considering that her father, the leader of the MacNairn clan, is a treacherous outlaw whose people live in fear of what he will do next. Ainslee's mother is dead, slain in an attack on Kengarvey castle while her daughter was only a few feet away, hidden under and behind some rubble. Her father had fled before the battle, and Ainslee is the last remaining reminder of his shame.

As such, her father set Ronald, a crippled warrior, to see to her raising. This was actually supposed to be a punishment, but Ronald was a better father to Ainslee than her own. It is when the two of them are out riding that they are captured by Gabel de Amalville, an English warrior sent by the King of Scotland to bring down Ainslee's father and her clan. Ainslee is captured because Ronald is wounded and she will not leave him. However, she does wound Gabel's cousin Justice with a well-timed knife throw before she is taken prisoner by Gabel and his men. And then she proves to have better wound-tending skills than anyone in Gabel's party.

Ainslee finds that Gabel is a most valorous and gentle knight, and is attracted to him almost immediately. She aorrows over the fact that she will never be able to be his bride, for her own clan is poor and outcaste due to the actions of her father. Too, there is another clan who wants to ally with Gabel and his family, the Frasers. Lady Margaret Fraser and her father have come to Gabel's castle of Bellefleur to marry him to the Lady Margaret, but the MacNairns and the Frasers are bitter enemies, so when Gabel seems to favor Ainslee over Margaret, the lady has her kidnapped and left in the woods far from Bellefleur. Actually, she wanted Ainslee killed, but Ainslee killed one of the men, and the other fled. She manages to make it back to Bellefleur despite a heavy snowstorm, which leads to Gabel throwing both Frasers out of his castle.

Ainslee realizes she has fallen in love with Gabel, and bemoans the fact that she will soon be ransomed back to her abusive father. But does Gabel care for her in that same way, and will be spare her clan when the king asks him to take their lands for his own and kill her father, as well as all the other MacNairns he cares to? Will Lord Fraser, also assigned to the raiding force, strike Ainslee down along with her father and brothers?

This was a rather unusual romance, with a female character who can do all the same activities that the men can and do. Yes, she has the usual romance job of being an excellent healer, but she can fight with a sword and dagger well enough to kill other men when she is being menaced, and manages to get herself rescued by walking miles, barefoot, in the snow. So, not the usual sort of historical romance novel heroine.

I also liked her for the fact that once she had sex with Gabel, there wasn't the typical "Ohmygod, I am no longer a virgin! I am a horrible person who should be killed" kind of attitude from the heroine. In fact, Ainslee is like, "I lost my maidenhead to a man I loved. I know my skills aren't the kind men look for in a wife, so it's unlikely I'll be married off anyway. I'll just enjoy this relationship as it happens." Not quite period, perhaps, but refreshing nonetheless.

Most of the conflict in the novel actually came from the hero, who has a list, in his head, of what he wants his wife to be, and doesn't realize what he has until Ainslee is ransomed by her father, and by outside forces, such as her abusive father (who beats her savagely, twice, within a week of her coming home for disagreeing with him, and the last time, has her tossed in the dungeons to starve to death) and the Frasers who do their level best to try and kill her twice, and try to kill her hound in retaliation when she survives.

I also like that, in the end, Ainslee doesn't wait to be rescued, but escapes on her own, and is only injured in saving Gabel's life. It was rather refreshing to read such an unusual historical romance heroine, and I enjoyed the novel very much.

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