The BrideThe Bride by Julie Garwood is set in the year 1100. It features Jamie, the youngest of four daughters of an English lord, who is forced to marry a Highlander for political reasons. Only the brief intro takes place in Jamie's home - very promptly Alec has dragged her north into a "strange land". Along with the traditional getting-to-know-each-other romance there's also a background of the mysterious death of Alec's first wife. Sinister clues indicate that the first death was not an accident, and that Jamie is next in line to be slain.
I love medieval romances in general, and in particular I love romances that feature women who stand up for themselves. So The Bride had many points in its favor as I read it. The heroine, even though she's the youngest, is the one who keeps everyone calm, who runs the household, who does the hunting. Much is made about her great skill with the bow and knife. She's one of the few people - male or female - to stand up to Alec. While he has period-appropriate ideas about the place of a woman in a household, he soon comes to appreciate Jamie's talents.
I liked that Jamie's older sister Mary comes along as a fellow bride, and the contrast between their characters. Both present realistic females who had differing outlooks on life. I also liked at the beginning that they have what appears to be a Down's Syndrome character - Annie - whose "perpetual child like state" was appreciated by the community. It is incredibly rare to have disabled or alternately-abled characters in stories, and I'm always thrilled when not only do they make a presence but they're shown in a positive light and not as the "damaged villain".
Now, for the issues I had with the book. There is a spoiler at the very end, but I'll be sure to alert you before I get to that point, in case you want to avoid it.
First, the writer chose to hop back and forth between characters' minds. Certainly that is a valid way of writing, but here it is done so abruptly that often you're half-way into a paragraph before you realize the author has done it. It is quick and random. Usually an author provides breaks and signals so the reader knows what is going on. The same thing happens with dialogue. You can be reading along in what seems a quiet conversation, and only after something is said are you alerted that that line was actually shouted or screamed. It means there's a fair amount of "re-reading" as you have to re-imagine the scene properly.
Minor scenes are painstakingly drawn in great detail, but critical scenes are often barely skimmed at. A critical fight scene has the action zip to her capture. A character is very upset, and zip it's over. This happens fairly regularly.
Then there comes the historical issues. The copy of the book I own seems to have an 19th century bride in a Victorian white lace dress on the cover. This story was set in 1100! There's no way they would wear ANYTHING like this dress in 1100. In addition, many times in the story people are talking about "white wedding dresses". People did NOT wear white wedding dresses back in medieval times. That was a tradition that came in many centuries later. In the middle ages, people wore wedding dresses in their favorite colors, or in family colors. It would be like going to a high school prom in modern times. The women there wear colors they adore - not all in white. The same was true for medieval weddings. If anything, blue was the color of fidelity and loyalty.
A big deal is made about a knight not being able to accept a dowry for a bride. I can't find any record of that anywhere. Marriages in medieval days were often about money and land exchanges. They were political and financial arrangements. Money and land were both a common part of that exchange. I would be very curious to read where it is documented that a knight could not take money - that doesn't make any sense to me. And since land is equivalent to money in medieval days, it makes even less sense.
A key change Jamie wants to put into place is to attach the kitchens to the main house. However, in medieval days the kitchen was *always* kept separate from the main house because the biggest fear was fire. A fire could destroy a household and the protection of all people within in a matter of minutes. It is similar to medieval Japan - fire was their biggest fear. A woman who ran a household in medieval days would have been extremely aware of this fear and issue. She would not have worked to make the kitchens attached to the house. She would have made them separate and then worked to shelter the area between. But a covered short hall? With the amount of smoke generated by kitchens, that would not have been appreciated either.
I was also fairly disappointed by how Jamie's immense skills with bow and knife are not put to use. The bow and knife were played up to be a key feature of her skill set early on. However, all we get to see is Jamie "wow" the troops late in the story with an arrow shot in a casual setting. Her knife skill barely gets more than that. The main thing we see about her skills in life is that every man who comes near her practically falls into a dead feint at her beauty. OK I exaggerate a bit there :) She is a talented healer, and I appreciate that greatly. But that should have been her main focus then, not that she is some sort of super healer - best archer of the realm - superb knife-woman - fantastic horsewoman - most spectacular beauty known to mankind - fluent in multiple languages - etc. etc.
So while I thought there was great potential here, I thought the writing style needed polishing, the historical editing team should have fixed the numerous issues, and that her character should have been more focused to be realistic and relateable. But still, one of my greatest concerns comes with what is now a spoiler, so I'll warn you:
SPOILER ALERT - READ NO FURTHER TO AVOID THE SPOILER
The character Annie seems to be a fantastic one. Her introduction is made like this: "Jamie continued to watch Annie a long moment. She understood what was wrong with the girl. She was one of those special people who stayed childlike all their lives. Jamie's heart went out to Annie and to Alec as well, for he'd shown such kindness." Alec is gentle and kind with Annie. The household is sweet to her. Annie is shown repeatedly to be intellectually slow, and to simply do whatever the person near her is doing. This is handled respectfully and the characters around Annie never fault her for being like this. They are always understanding and supportive. I thought this was a wonderful portrayal of a woman with special needs, and I was prepared to overlook the other flaws in this book to praise it for this character.
And then we reach the end of the story - and it turns out Annie is the person who has been "ranting" in anonymous glimpses throughout the book, talking about slaying the previous wife and Jamie! She comes complete with maniacal laughter and statements like "I'll kill again and again and again until you've learned your lesson." Adjectives used about her include horrid and inhuman.
All of my fears had come true. Not only was this similar to the many other books which single out "different" people as the arch-enemies, but this one even took it one step further. To say I was disappointed when I reached this ending would be a vast understatement.
Julie Garwood is a prolific author and has rabidly enthusiastic fans, so I fully understand that some readers will be unhappy with my review simply because I did not ravingly adore it as others do. However, I would ask those fans to honestly look at this issue I'm raising, and to see if it does not cause even the slightest twinge of uncomfortable feeling.
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