by Betina Krahn, historical (2004)
Berkley, $6.99, ISBN 0-425-19645-3
The last two books in this author's medieval "Horny Warriors Seduce An Almost-Nun" trilogy doesn't work with me thanks to the idiotic premises and too-stupid antics of the characters in those books. I'm happy to report that The Marriage Test is a far more enjoyable book. Oh, and it is mostly about food, although don't expect the main characters to do naughty things with bananas and watermelons anytime soon.
Julia of Childress has a dilemma. She's a very good cook and she dreams of opening her own eatery one of these days. Oh, and she'd have to toss in a husband into the mix, but hey, as long as she can be free from the Convent of the Brides of Virtue and cook big banquets for everybody, she's happy. The thing is, the abbess is in no hurry to marry Julia off because she too wants to eat. So Julia is instead promoted to the head of the kitchen. Julia gets her chance at freedom when the Count of Grandaise learns from his men about this wondrous cook. Griffin has an odd problem: his sense of smell is so sensitive that he has to wear a metal band across his nostrils (the medieval era can be quite smelly, after all). When he smells Julia's cooking, however, he is lost. For the first time, he can eat without having to throw up after a few bites. He must have her! As a chef, that is.
The abbess reluctantly lets Julia go in exchange for a large sum of money. Julia is supposed to spend a year cooking for Griffin as well as training a replacement to take her place once the year is up and Julia returns to the convent. Little do both Griffin and the Abbess know that Julia has no intention of going back to the convent once she's out of the premises. If she has to cook her way into the man's heart via his mouth and down into his stomach, so be it. Bring it on!
I really enjoy the initial repartees betwen Julia and Griffin. Julia is sweet and polite but she knows how to subtly get things done her way. Half the time Griff doesn't know what has hit him. Griff is a more standard hero who is lusting after Julia but trying not to show it, but his over-the-top giddy reactions to Julia's cooking are just adorable. These two are one fun couple. Also, the author painstakingly detail the dishes Julia prepare to the point that I have to call for a pizza while reading this book.
It is when the external conflicts start to pile up during the second half of the book that The Marriage Test begins to drag. These conflicts are standard half-baked betrayals and marriages of convenience thingies that bog the story down with predictable twists and turns. The momentum of the charming first half of the book is nearly dissipated by the time the story reaches its predictable denouement right on schedule. Where once I was laughing or feeling hungry, now I just yawn and wonder when everybody will just kiss, make up, and call it a day.
The Marriage Test is therefore a book that could have been so different and exciting, only to chicken out when it realizes what it is doing and quickly brings on the mundane and formulaic plot devices instead. It's quite a fun book, but once I'm done with it, I have to work a little to remember why I was so excited while I was reading the first half of the book. This book cannot sustain its initial momentum and the magic isn't always there. It is sort of like biting into a delicious slice of tiramisu only to discover that it's actually a slice of cheap chocolate cake that, while still yummy, isn't as delicious as a real tiramisu would be, I guess.
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