by Gayle Feyrer, historical (1996)
Dell, $5.99, ISBN 0-440-21778-4
A word of caution: readers that have read this book tend to have rather passionate views about this book. Gayle Feyrer's The Thief Mistress is one of those books I really think twice about recommending to anybody because readers that love this book really love it while readers that don't tend to use the trash can most imaginatively when it comes to dealing with this book.
The Thief's Mistress isn't just a retelling of the Robin Hood and Maid Marian saga: the author sets her story and brings to live the dangerous yet colorful early 12th century England, but she rips apart everything else about the folklore. The Maid Marian here isn't a maid - she is a highly trained spy and assassin. Robin of Locksley is actually overshadowed by the real hero of this story, the glorious antihero Sir Guy of Guisbourne. My sole regret for this story is that the author doesn't push the final pieces of the envelope into the paper shredder and make Marian choose Guy instead of Robin. Guy, my sweet, evil, unscrupulous Guy, oh, Ms Feyrer has wronged you so deeply.
The story begins with our Marian of Vitry finally taking revenge on the man that hired men to murder her father and rape her mother before killing her. She has trained long for this momentous event, and her dexterity and swordplay finally put the ghosts of her past to rest... or maybe not quite. Vengeance has drained her of any other motivations in life, and she willingly becomes the most promising spy of Eleanor, the mother of King Richard the Lionheart.
When Richard is held for ransom in the Middle-East (he's playing at the Crusades) and there are signs that Prince John are plotting some mayhem in Richard's absence, Eleanor sends Marian to John's court to be her ears and eyes. There Marian meets Sir Guy, truly her equal when it comes to strategies, plots, and machinations, and they embark on a sexual affair that will eventually tempt Guy into reconsidering his alliance with John. But at the same time, there is an annoying upstart named Robin Hood that is slowly tempting Marian into lowering her defenses and feel alive for once.
This book cheerfully breaks every rule in the formula - this time, it is the heroine who keeps a lover while being tempted by the idealistic hero (reverse the roles and one will get what will be a typical medieval romance), a heroine who never needs rescuing, an antihero Other Man who captures the imagination and never lets go, and real, gritty violence inflicted on even those people the hero and the heroine care for - a devastating dose of bitter realism, that last one, in a truly dangerous time when you can't trust even your innocent-looking grandmother. And I love every minute of this book.
One can argue that this is truly Marian's story. The romance between Robin and Marian doesn't drive this story, but her decision and choices do. A strong woman with cunning and keen intelligence, this is one heroine that will really be able to hold her own among any intrigue and counter-plotting around her. Likewise, the man I believe should be her equal and other half, Guy, is also a brilliant man whose sole flaw is his weakening enough to let Marian move her knight Robin and place herself on the chessboard that is the story to effect a check-mate on poor Guy. And his weakening is because of his recognition of Marian's strength and worth enough to want her to be at his side in his plans of glory. Picture me wondering rather sheepishly if I can keep this guy if Marian doesn't want him.
Ah, Robin, poor Robin. I can't help feeling that Marian chooses him in the end because he reminds her of how her own life could have been if it has turned out different. He's idealistic, attracted to Marian from first sight, and even sometimes being doggedly loyal to her, but such gallantry in the face of Guy's sensual antiheroic magnetism is somewhat lost on me, I'm afraid. Still, he's a good guy, and I guess he's alright. But why is it that I feel that Ms Feyrer chose to have Marian choose Robin only because common folklore dictates this? She developed Guy much more than Robin, I can't help wondering if the author has a better time writing about Guy than Robin.
Guy, that evil man, in fact robs the penultimate scene with Marian from Robin. I'll love to quote that scene, but it's a spoiler, so I'll enclose the paragraphs in spoiler tags. You can read by pressing down the left button of your mouse and highlighting the white-colored text between the spoiler tags.
"Take out the knife, Marian," he whispered. "Finish what you started."
She knelt beside him, looking to see there was no weapon within his grasp.
"Wise," he murmured. He took her hands and fitted them to the handle. "I would have killed you. If I could."
"I could have loved you," she answered, knowing it even as she now knew his greater darkness.
"But you did not."
Marian did not answer. Leaning forward, she kissed him, for what might have been. His hands tightened around hers, pressing them to the handle. She drew back, looking into his eyes. The taste of his blood lingered on her lips.
"If you had, you might still have learned to hate me." His voice was hoarse with pain.
Guy held her gaze, demanding this last intimacy, giving her his life, his death, his love, his vengeance. She took it, pulling the knife free. A pang of anguish twisted her heart. He gasped, and the scent of his blood was hot and metallic in the air. She waited as his strength poured out, never flinching from his gaze. Between one flicker of the torch and the next, there was an answering flame burning within his eyes, then none. Only a pale reflection on their surface. She could not bear their bright gold gone so empty and closed his eyelids. [spoiler ends]
Isn't that the most twisted romantic scene you have ever read? Okay, so it is to me. I actually wept the first time I read that, and subsequent readings sometimes manage to bring a tear to my eye.
The vivid atmosphere of those times is so well-done that I sometimes find myself at the edge of my seat - no, no, don't they dare die, that sort of thing. But this book also blurs the boundaries between brutality and eroticism that sometimes it is hard to draw the line where violence ends and savage, primal, earthy eroticism begins. From Guy and Marian's fiery lovemaking to Marian's coolly dipping her fingers into the clear waters of the river after an erotic interlude with Robin, it is as if with their lives all hanging on the balance as they all plot and counter-plot betrayal and counter-betrayals, this uncertainty drives these people into being their most raw and passionate. Factor in the appealing feminist counterpoint of Geyle Feyrer (both men admire and even love Marian for her intelligence as well as for her ruthlessness that equals theirs) to a tale usually dominated by gallant heroes and damsels in distress, and The Thief's Mistress is a stunning read that breaks all the rules - with spectacular results.
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