This review is written as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team and the book was purchased.
Romance is not to my taste, but historical fiction is. So I decided to dip my toes in the waters of a romance novel set in Wales in the late 13th century. I was also encouraged but the fact that Anna Belfrage is recognized as a prolific writer of historical romance and time travel novels (a favorite genre of mine) and has a large, enthusiastic following. His Castilian Hawk is the first book in her latest series, The Castilian Saga.
The story: Robert FitzStephen has served King Edward I of England, known as Edward Longshanks and the Hammer of the Scots, since he was a boy of twelve. Robert is bastard-born but follows his king loyally and is now riding with him once again to bring the rebellious Wales under control. In protecting Edward at the end of a battle, Robert unknowingly kills an ally of the king, Sir Ralph Outremer, along with his son. Edward decides to make Robert return the bodies to the one remaining member of Outremer’s family, his daughter, and also gifts Orton Manor, home of the Outremer family, to Robert as a reward for his years of loyalty – with one condition. He is to wed the daughter to keep the manor and lands under Edward’s control.
Thus the author sets the basis for an improbable love story. Opposing this arrangement most forcefully is Edith, sister to one of Robert’s traveling companions for many years. She saved Robert’s life fifteen years previously and has been serving as his wife in all ways except formally for all that time. Eleanor d’Outremer, called Noor, is in her early teens when she learns of her father and brother’s death (but not who killed them) and is now entirely alone. She has no choice but to comply with the King’s order to marry the unknown Robert FitzStephan. Her life is further complicated by her blood ties to the Welsh princes, Llewelyn and Dafydd ap Gruffydd, with whom Edward is attempting to negotiate a peace.
Noor is very young and innocent but is also feisty, proud and brave. As she grows from a ‘small brown hen’ to a beautiful woman, she gradually falls in love with Robert and is determined to be a good wife, but she has to face down Edith and deal with the havoc Edward is wreaking on Wales. Robert also falls in love with Noor and comes to call her his Castilian hawk, recognizing her Spanish heritage, spirit and grit. However, when faced with the chance to save one member of the Gruffydd family, Noor sides with Wales. Will Robert stand with his king or follow his heart and protect his wife from both the King and the wiles of Edith? What will Noor do when she learns Robert is the man who killed her father and brother? Who will tell her?
This book is delightfully complex and engrossing with its many conflicts, both personal and royal, and is populated by very real, three-dimensional characters – not handsome, not beautiful, but flawed with inner demons and doubts. I like that these characters evolve over time in the face of increasing pressure from without, and I found myself alternating between disliking and then sympathizing with the various personae, as one might do with people in real life. The dialogue is real and natural, and the author weaves in enough descriptions of the country, the manors and palaces, and the battles to set the historical scene, of which I knew little. It led me to do a little exploration of the history on my own. Thus I can see why this author has built such a following.
However, I have to warn any potential readers: there is a lot of sex in this novel and it is graphic and detailed. Since I don’t read romance novels, but see this in many other genres, I suspect the sex is expected. I did find myself rather bored when it was inserted at various times when I felt it wasn’t really necessary and detracted from the flow of the story.
Overall, I was impressed with the author’s story-telling and ability to plop the reader right into the middle of it. I might even read the next book in the series.
About the author (Amazon):
Had Anna Belfrage been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exist, she settled for second best and became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing. These days, she combines an exciting day-job with a large family and her writing endeavours. Plus she always finds the time to try out new recipes, chase down obscure rose bushes and initiate a home renovation scheme or two.
Her first series, The Graham Saga, is set in 17th century Scotland and Virginia/Maryland. It tells the story of Matthew and Alex, two people who should never have met – not when she was born three hundred years after him. Her second is set in the 1320s and features Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power.