Hidden Honor
by Anne Stuart, historical (2004)
MIRA, $6.50, ISBN 0-7783-2065-0

Anne Stuart returns to the historical genre with Hidden Honor but this medieval is also her most conventional historical romance to date. Alas, "conventional" in this case means the usual trite and often illogical stereotypes that are so popular in bestselling romances. Top of the list on the "Please die, preferably now, thanks" annoyances in this book is an infuriatingly clueless heroine. True, Elizabeth of Bredon is seventeen but since when is age an excuse to make me, the reader, suffer for her cluelessness?

She is a typical medieval heroine in that every man in her family are nasty bastards. So she's more than happy to become a nun to escape the company of these men, only she may have to undergo one more trail before finding God with her having to be escorted to the Shrine of St Anne by Prince William of England and his entourage. The Prince is a complete scumbag, according to rumors, with him debauching women left and right, some of them literally to the death, and it is the death of his latest victim that has Prince William being ordered by his father to go to the Shrine of St Anne and pay some lip service penitance.

But nobody is who he or she seems in this story. "Prince William" is actually our hero, Brother Matthew, a former Crusader who comes with all the predictable mental baggages one would expect from a former soldier. (If you really need a hint, it involves plenty of guilt.) "Brother Matthew" is the Prince. Both of these men are in a charade as a measure to safeguard the real Prince from being assassinated by the men hired by his late victim's father. There are also some clerics that are here to make sure that the real Prince behaves, although this is just another excuse by Ms Stuart to bloat the case with hideous and loathsome males behaving horribly. And on her part, Elizabeth is supposed to be a smart woman pretending to be stupid so that she can escape the wrath of the brutish males around her. Supposed to be, that is.

Elizabeth finds "Prince William" attractive if insufferable and arrogant while she finds the serpent in her garden of Eden in "Brother Matthew". There isn't really a love triangle in this story as it becomes clear early on that the real Prince William is so villainous that the only way a woman can redeem him is by saying a prayer over him after she has gutted him with a rusty knife. Unfortunately, Elizabeth seems to be the last to know when it comes to the real nature of "Brother Matthew". The result is hilarity-free excursions into painful consequences of being stupid when it comes to judging male character. The real Brother Matthew is also infuriating because this is a character who uses his twisted concepts of "honor" to justify his continuing to keep Elizabeth in the dark about Prince William even as he tries to save her again and again from the villain.

Through a nice balance of telling and showing, Ms Stuart manages to almost succeed in creating empathy in me towards Elizabeth. Yes, Elizabeth is sheltered. Today, we'll call a young lady like Elizabeth book-smart but lacking in street-smarts, which is not a crime in itself. But Hidden Honor soon falls into a tedious rut when it becomes clear that the story is going to be taking on a pattern - Elizabeth will keep being susceptible to "Brother Matthew" when everyone else can see through him, a tedious plot contrivance indeed, and the real Brother Matthew will keep trying to protect her while agonizing over his honor preventing him from telling her the truth. Brother Matthew reminds me of a truly idiotic hero in a really bad Bollywood movie where the hero just stands there and watches the heroine get gang-raped by a bunch of thugs because the national anthem of India is playing and our hero, the honorable man that he is, of course has to stand at attention and respect the anthem when it is being played! (To add insult to the injury, the "hero" gives a salute as he stands there while the anthem is playing.)

While Brother Matthew never becomes totally devoid of intelligence as the "hero" of this wretched Bollywood movie, I wonder whether Anne Stuart has seen that movie. Heroes with rigid sense of honor that often turn into tiresome plot contrivances in their own right are a complete pain in the bum.

Also, for a story where Brother Matthew has plenty of religious conflicts to have him pushing away Elizabeth again and again, the author drops the ball when it is time for the happy ending and suddenly religion doesn't matter anymore when our hero decides to stop being a monk and just walk away as if he has just tendered his resignation to his employer.

Hidden Honor reads like a well-written Anne Stuart story but the repetitious push-and-pull dynamics of the main couple along with the heroine's often clueless behavior and the hero's musguided temerity all come together to make this book one tiresome bundle of plot contrivances. If only the main characters exhibit some common sense, if the heroine isn't made to be so blind to the obvious for so long, if the hero isn't so inflexible in his morals that he creates more conflicts than he should have, if, if, if - so many if's, really. Sigh. Oh well, welcome back, at least, Ms Stuart. Now go and write me a good book, will ya?

Rating: 59

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