Mystique: Sir Hugh

As you probably know by now, when I read historical romances I tend to stick with the Regency period (or the decades immediately preceding or following). Medievals don’t tend to make on my list (though I read plenty of fantasy/sci-fi with medieval-esque settings). But this one caught my eye because (a) I’d read one book by the author and wanted to read more and( b) the description talked about a dark knight coming for a mystical jewel and a scholarly heroine. It’s like it knew just how to draw me in. (I think anything that reminds me of a childhood cartoon like some sort of magical jewel will probably draw me in the same way any book about a “wicked” hero does.)

And so I went in hoping for adventure and came out reading a love story that took on the dynamics between men and women, the effect of revenge and feuds  on families and yes, featured a dark knight.

Mystique is the story of a knight known as Hugh the Relentless, a great knight who dresses only in black, who never bows to his enemies, who is forever loyal to the man who took him in (enough so that he will not directly challenge the man a long-standing family feud has taught him to hate, because this other man is also a knight to Hugh’s surrogate father). He recently inherited his family’s manor and lands but there is unease among his people. There is a green stone that has gone missing and his people believe that without the stone, the manor is cursed with bad luck. Hugh himself doesn’t believe this but knows how important a symbol is for confidence in one’s ruler and sets out on a mission to find it. The last person known to have the stone is Lady Alice.

Lady Alice is a scholar of natural sciences who lives, unwillingly, with her uncle (who robbed she and her brother of their inheritance). She has a temper and refuses to bow to her uncle’s commands that she must help manage his household. (She is fully capable of doing so but resents him for taking everything away from her and her brother). While did have the green stone in her possession, it was stolen. Alice has a plan though: she’ll help Sir Hugh find it if he helps her and her brother get out of her uncle’s home.

Well Sir Hugh is very very miffed that the stone is gone and that Lady Alice seems to think of the item as hers and not his. But he is intrigued because she doesn’t seem afraid of him and appears intelligent. And he’s in a position to have a wife and the pretty, smart Alice is someone who will suit his needs.

But Alice isn’t on board with this. Her life plan is to get her brother set up in his studies (he injured his leg long ago. In the society they’re in, his best chance is as a lawyer) and then to go join a convent. She fears that if she gets married, she won’s be able to continue with her studies or have the independence she loves. And I don’t blame her: I’m no medievalist but I do know that in those times, a woman was meant to be whatever her husband or father wanted her to be.  Hugh realises this and so tells Alice he wants her to act his betrothed only for the winter, in hopes that she’ll eventually decide she wants to stay. Slightly sketch, I’ll admit. And could be indicative of a very bad turn for Hugh but I think he keeps from turning into a creep in the book.

(This is a bit of a sidebar so feel free to skip over but lately, I feel like I’ve read a lot of historicals (this one included) where the hero notes how slender the heroine’ waist is. And not just in these older novels, it’s also in some more recent books. I mean if you are a slender/willowy woman then awesome. I don’t want to trash on you. But I wouldn’t mind seeing more historical heroines with some meat on them because I have some meat on me. I don’t need a heroine to be exactly like me or anything like me but…deep down I’m still irked when the only heroines I see for a period have physiques I never will.)

I found myself really enjoying the dynamic between Alice and Hugh. They play well against each other–telling each other when they’re being foolish, admiring each other’s strengths, defending the other against naysayers. One of the best early parts is where Hugh takes a break from their search to joust against his enemy Vincent of Rivenhall (the one his family feud tells him to hate and his loyalty tells him not to attack in real combat.) Alice, frustrated, goes off to get the stone and does, but runs into some trouble. Hugh ends up not taking the field to keep her from harm, saving her from getting killed. Later that night, a troubadour starts singing a new song about how cowardly Hugh is for running away from the joust.

He saw Alice in the light of the campfire. She had her skirts clutched in her hands as she went briskly toward the neighboring encampment. Her chin was angled determinedly. His men stared after her in consternation.

” ‘Tis obvious that neither you nor Sir Vincent knows the true facts concerning what happened this afternoon.” Alice paused to glower at the circle of listeners she had collected. “Hear me, all of you, and listen well for now I shall tell you what really happened today. Sir Hugh was obliged to miss the joust because he was occupied with a hero’s task.”

A tall man dressed in a red tunic walked into the circle of firelight. The flames revealed his aquiline features.

Hugh groaned as he recognized the newcomer.

“What heroic task took Sir Hugh from the field of honor, my lady?” the tall man asked politely.

Alice whirled to confront him. “I would have you know that Sir Hugh saved me from two vicious thieves this afternoon while Sir Vincent was playing games. The robbers would have murdered me in cold blood, sir.”

“And who are you?” the tall man asked.

“I am Alice, Sir Hugh’s betrothed wife.”

A ripple of interested murmurs greeted that announcement. Alice paid them no heed.

“Are you, indeed.” The tall man examined her in the firelight. “How interesting.”

Alice fixed him with a quelling glare. “Surely you will agree that saving my life was a far more heroic deed than engaging in a bit of nonsensical sport.”

The tall man’s gaze went past Alice to where Hugh stood a short distance behind her. Hugh smiled faintly as he met eyes that he knew were very nearly the same color as his own.

The tall man turned back to Alice. He swept her a sardonic bow. “My apologies, madam. I am sorry if the troubadour’s song offended you. And I rejoice to know that you survived your encounter with thieves this afternoon.”

“Thank you,” Alice said with icy politeness.

A similar moment comes later when they come to Sir Hugh’s estate for the first time.  There is a convent run by Prioress Joan but there is also a monk named Calvert who takes it on himself to rule over the convent (though he isn’t allowed to live there). He is not happy with the fact that Sir Hugh’s new betrothed is not a “meek and proper wife” and from his words you get the sense that he thinks all “daughters of Eve” are inherently evil without his guidance. Hugh dismisses his words the first time, declaring that he likes his outspoken wife. (Hugh scored major points in that he never has any intention to change who Alice is, just as Alice doesn’t try to change who Hugh is. Though they both try to stop each other’s faults: Alice’s recklessness and Hugh’s thirst for revenge. I think there’s an important distinction.)

Later when a disgusted Calvert uses the morning service to rage against women in general and Alice specifically (without naming names of course), Alice has had enough.

Calvert’s face contorted with fury. “Your red hair and green eyes bear witness to your wild nature, lady. I can only pray that your future lord and master may crush your unruly will with his own before you cause grave harm to his house and his soul.”

“Lord Hugh can take care of himself,” Alice retorted. “Begone, monk.”

“I do not do the bidding of a mere woman.”

Hugh stirred. It was a very slight move, the barest shift of his powerful shoulders, accompanied by a gathering coldness in his eyes, but it instantly riveted the attention of everyone present.

“You’ll do the bidding of this particular woman,” he said very calmly. “She is my betrothed. The ring she wears on her finger is evidence of her authority. A command from her is the same as a command from me.”

A soft aaaah of whispered satisfaction echoed through the tiny church. The people of Scarcliffe grasped their lord’s meaning immediately. Alice’s power had been firmly established.

Alice was dazed, not by what she had just done, but by the fact that Hugh had supported her with the full weight of his authority.

His action had been no small gesture of indulgence, she realized. It went much deeper than that. He had made it clear to one and all that she wielded true power on these lands.

This was the second time that he had demonstrated respect for her decisions. The first occasion had occurred yesterday afternoon when he had allowed her to reinstate Elbert as steward. And now he had defied a representative of the Church itself to uphold her choice of preachers.

He had shown her great respect, she thought, elated. Such respect from Hugh the Relentless was surely a hard-won prize. He would award it only to those he truly trusted.

The modern woman in me of course, would have wanted Alice to get that power on her own. But given the time period, I think its important that Hugh shows that he has total faith in whatever Alice does and will stand by her, instead of undermining her commands.

Alice’s feelings for Hugh are very jumbled. She grows to like him very much and be glad that he values her opinion but is put off by the fact that she was chosen as his bride because it would be convenient for him. He has to learn to love her for more than what she can do for him and she has to learn to trust that.

So the theme of them defending each other/trusting each other continues through the book, taking them from dealing with matters of the estate to dealing with Vincent of Rivenhall and the family feud that has made them hate each other for so long. Alice’s decisions force Hugh to do good by Vincent and in one of his crowning moments, Hugh stands by that choice (despite his anger at having to do something good for his sworn enemy). I think his loyalty was what made me fall in love with both Hugh and the romance. (If I don’t like one of the leads, its difficult for me to fully enjoy the romance between them. Since I liked both Alice and Hugh, the romance was just great to read).

Amanda Quick does a great job of tying up the obstacles between the two and happiness along with the other subplots weaving in and out (including Alice and a stylish messenger named Julian tackling Hugh’s oppressing love of black,  Alice coming to terms with her mother’s death, Hugh’s similar family troubles and several assassination attempts).  I found Mystique to be enjoyable and while it kept me in suspense, didn’t ever make me want to throw something. I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to venture into more medieval romances and anyone who likes brooding dark knights with hearts of gold and brash, scholarly heroines.

Breakdown

Appearance: long black hair, brown eyes, tall, not “comely” but attractive

Personality: at different times brooding, serious, sarcastic, loyal

Best Quality: When he gives his word, he does not renege on it

Worst Quality: He has a great temper though manages to control it. I’m not thrilled he initially means to lure Alice into being his wife but I feel like his later behavior makes up for it

Grade: A-. He is a good solid hero with great qualities though I didn’t find him as exciting as other book heroes. But he is an excellently written character in a well-written romance which always gets great marks with me.

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