Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Lady of the Lake by Elizabeth Mayne

Tala ap Griffin is a princess of the Leamish people, who live near Arden Wood in Avon, England. She is upset and angry that Viking Warriors have decided to leave the Danelaw and take over the land of her people. Especially their leader, Embla Silver Throat. So when a new contingent of Vikings shows up to inhabit the land, she and her brother, Venn, decide to spy on them.

Edon Halfdansson is newly arrived from Constantinople. He is the one who purchased the land on which the Vikings are now living, but he finds that his chosen emissary, his cousin, Harald Jorgansson, has disappeared, leaving his wife, Embla Silver Throat, in charge. Embla blames the Saxons, specifically Tala ap Griffin and her people, for the disappearance, and even death, of her husband. When he finds Tala and her brother spying on him, he orders her to attend him at his home, and Tala does go... after taking care with her appearance first so that she appears as a stunningly beautiful woman.

His sister-in-law, Embla, immediately calls for Tala's arrest, naming her a witch and saying that she has poisoned the wells, which went bad with salt earlier in the day. Tala only laughs at this, and Edon tells Embla to be quiet, which makes Embla leave the table. Tala has come to see Edon at his own request, and he is extremely surprised that this beautiful woman is the same scamp he saw spying on him from above. Tala asks for Wergild for the captured men of her tribe, and contests his right to own the land. telling him to take his men and return the boundary of Danelaw, Watling Street. Edon refuses to do so, and tells her that Wergild would not be paid to her anyway, but to the King, Alfred of Wessex.

He tells her that the King doesn't want to have people fighting over this land any longer, that both Kings, Danish and English, want peace in this land. He is to marry her, and both of them will be converted to Christianity, and hold the land together. Tala cannot concieve that her King would ask her to do this, because as the Royal Princess of Leam, she must remain a virgin priestess for her people. She lays a list of grievances at his door, and when asked about the disappearance of Embla's husband, she says she doesn't know where he is, but she would rather have Harald here than Embla. Harald was at least a reasonable man.

Edon investigates her claims, and frees the Leamish men held captive by his people, who have been using them as slaves. When Embla's guard captain challenges him, Edon fights him and cuts the man's head off, which makes Embla angry. Edon tries to find out more about Tala, but is thwarted at every turn by her cunning and the loyalty of her people.

Tala finds Edon attractive, but she has problems of her own. The land is suffering from a heat wave, and it hasn't rained in far too long. Even the water of the river has gone down, leaving both sets of peoples suffering. Worse, the bard teaching her brother has been telling him that the gods are angry, and the only way they can be appeased is by the blood sacrifice of Venn at Lammas. Venn feels a sort of fatalism about this, and is resigned to his fate.

Tala's sisters have discovered some new animals in the woods, tiny fluffballs that hop. When Tala returns to Edon's keep, she finds out that these are rabbits brought by Edon in his train. Venn's attempt to steal a black rabbit for one of his sisters leads to his capture and Embla's accusation that he was stealing in to put poison in the water supply for the keep. But Tala contests this. Although a bag found near Venn is claimed by Embla to be the boy's, Tala says that as the royalty of Leam, everything she, her sisters and her brother use is made especially for them, and has a specific sigil sewn or worked into it, and all items are of the highest quality. Though she proves her case about the Sigil to Edon, his threat to whip her brother has her sacrificing her freedom and servitude to Edon for Venn's.

Edon makes Tala his lover, with no protests from her, and in the morning, she does not wish to return to her people, because they will see her as soiled and defiled. One of her sisters will now have to become the virgin priestess, as she is no longer qualified. But a quarrel with Edon leads to them both being chastised by their kings. No longer able to stomach her pride and quarreling, Edon approaches her with his belt to beat her, but is blown against the wall by a lightning strike and nearly dies. Only Tala is able to save his life, by interceding with the Gods for his soul.

After Edon recovers, Embla runs off. Venn has found her oubliette, and they rescue Harald, beaten, battered and dreadfully abused, but still alive from its depths. They also find that Embla has been working with Venn's tutor, and has bribed him to kill Venn. Edon and Tala must recover Venn from their hands, and later, after they are married, they must work out what to do with their respective families. But a last minute reappearance by Embla puts all their lives at risk. Can they take care of the mad woman or will their story end just as it has begun?

This was an okay romance. Not especially good or especially bad, but rather standard. I liked the contrast of Saxon versus Viking, as all too many romances set in England seem to go straight for the Saxon-Norman split for their tension. As a result, this was a welcome change, and rather unusual for the Dark Ages romance genre.

Both characters, being royal, or at least of high status, have their high-handed moments, but Embla is a mere cardboard villain with only two dimensions: Naked greed, and boundless ambition, which of course makes her teh ebbul! and nothing else. She shows not a single ounce of morality or softness, and while these category romances rarely have time for a well-rounded villain character, I get so tired of characters who are just unreservedly EVIL as villains. Even villains have lives and something that makes them that way, and I think the "Evil for Evil's sake" villain is entirely overdone.

So, to recap: standard romance, intriguing setting, standard romance-style hero and heroine, stock cardboard villain who is EVIL (all capital letters *not* optional). Not one I'd go out of my way to recommend, but enjoyable if there is nothing else around to read.

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