By Design
by Madeline Hunter, historical (2001)
Bantam, $4.99, ISBN 0-553-58223-2

Hmm, the Contrary Reader strikes again. Everyone is raving about this book. Me, I wonder what the fuss is all about. By Design is the most accessible of this trilogy by this author, and that doesn't necessarily mean a good thing.

Rhys of No Further Name (the book just calls him Rhys) is a freemason who is earning his buddies' wrath by building castle thingies for Queen Isabella and her ambitious lover Roger Mortimer. One day he meets a delicate, lovely woman selling clay sculptures at the marketplace. Her name is Joan of No Further Name Also, and she has a brother named Mark. Mark is turning into a bad seed because he is falling in with the wrong crowd.

When Joan is lynched for selling inferior goods (she is framed, of course, by the no good man she is bonded as a serf to), Rhys saves her and cares for her. Eventually he buys her from her nasty owner. Is she happy? No.

There's also a political element where Rhys is made to spy on his friends by Mortimer to complicate matters.

Rhys is a nice man, no denying it. His nobility shines as he stands over Joan and protects her from the evils of the medieval world. He's a nice hero, devoid of any misogynist nonsense or stupid "hate you, think you a woman ill-repute" crap many medieval heroes think it's cool to have as baggages.

But Joan is a problematic character - she never comes off as anything but an amorphous mass of guilt, denial, and martyrdom. She makes a perfect damsel-in-distress, one that assuages a reader's feminist sensibilities by asserting her non-existent independence even when it doesn't make sense to. (Would you rather be bought by Rhys or by a leering, unappreciative man? Joan likes the latter.)

Add in a political plot that only takes up space, and I never get the chance to connect with Joan or Rhys. I find By Design a good read, but without the substantial characterization and depths that will make me give it my full two thumbs up. On one hand, I can see why this book is so popular among readers - the heroine fits the perfect mold of a supposedly feisty but in all actuality a helpless woman, perfect for those rescue fantasies, and a to-die-for hero is a definite plus. But picky me, I find Joan a blur and the whole story too fluffy for my liking.

Oops, there goes my credibility! Heh heh.

Rating: 80

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