by December Quinn, historical (2006)
Triskelion Publishing, $5.99, ISBN 1-60186-059-5
I find myself strangely mesmerized by the cover of this book. It's not just because the guy on the cover is not an accurate depiction of the hero Gruffydd ap Hywel since the guy is clean-shaven while Gruffydd's moustache is brought several times in the story, I'm also impressed by the details put in by the artist. I can see the veins along the man's powerful biceps and lower arms and - goodness me - even along his girdle of Apollo. I'm tempted adapt the cover as the new wallpaper on my PC but alas, the title and the author's name are in the way.
Anyway, December Quinn's debut historical romance The Black Dragon is a medieval story set in thirteenth century England and Wales. Our heroine Isabelle de Harvington is not pleased when King John orders her marriage to a Welsh lord chosen by Prince Llewelyn of North Wales. Llewelyn and King John are at war again, you see, and because King John's illegitimate daughter Joan is Llewelyn's wife, King John is reluctant to go on an outright war with Llewelyn for his daughter's sake. Ergo, this marriage designed to facilitate some kind of tenous goodwill between Wales and England. Gruffydd isn't happy about his upcoming wedding either. He met his bride-to-be six years ago when Isabelle was a silly fifteen-year old girl who foolishly followed a man into the gardens and Gruffydd came to her rescue when that man tried to force himself on her.
When they meet again at the wedding day, he's rather predictably surprised what a beauty she has grown into while she's reluctantly bedazzled by his brawn and all. The usual, really. So while the sexual attraction is already there, the two will now have to overcome their first impressions of each other and even some political differences between them before they find their happily ever after. A rival to Llewelyn will try to cause problems for our hero and heroine in the meantime.
The Black Dragon is actually a rather familiar story since Ms Quinn utilizes some standard plot devices typical of medieval romances featuring political marriages of convenience. Gruffydd is a standard hero in such a story: quiet, gruff, dangerous, and often stubbornly refusing to open up to the wife due to all kinds of manly issues of insecurity and what-not. Still, he's very nice to Isabelle, even comparing her being alone in his castle in Wales to his own sense of alienation when he was an Welshman alone among the English, and once he finally opens up to his wife, there's no going back for him and he's on the love train all the way to happy ending. Isabelle occasionally displays an annoying tendency to be immature as a way of the author to bring up some minor conflict in order to get the plot moving but on the whole she's a pretty self-aware heroine of reasonable intelligence.
Ms Quinn wisely allows the story to build up instead of hastily forcing some love scenes on the reader even before the characters manage to click. As a result, Gruffydd and Isabelle have some decent chemistry and credible relationship all built up when they finally consummate their relationship. As a result, when Ms Quinn tells me that her main characters are in love, I can believe her. While there is a predictable damsel-in-distress scenario in the end, Isabelle doesn't come off as a victim but rather a pawn between Gruffydd and his enemy.
As a result, I have an entertaining time reading The Black Dragon. I'm not sure about the last twenty or so pages though, where the author allows her characters to explore their feelings before telling each other the three magic words. I can see why the author feels the need to have her characters really realize that they love each other, but these pages drag in terms of pacing, especially after the initial high of Isabelle's rescue and the defeat of the enemy. I find myself thinking that it will make more sense to switch things around: have the characters affirm their grand love to each other and then bring on the dramatic finish. That way, the story can end on a high note instead of slowly meandering around to a predictable happy ending.
Search for more reviews of works by this author: