Sanctuary Of Roses (Book II in the Medieval Herb Garden series) by Colleen Gleason reminded me of an Old Skool historical romance. It features a brooding, emotionally unavailable hero, a plucky, remarkably beautiful heroine, and a dollop of historical color and detail.
For all that, I found my reaction to this book to be lukewarm.
The book is set in 1142 and opens with Gavin Mal Verne and his men seeking sanctuary after being wounded in a battle against Fantin de Belgrume. They stumble upon an abbey hidden deep within the forest. The nuns there offer them aid, but with some hesitation. The nuns are keeping a secret.
Madelyne, novitiate, herbalist and healer, is in hiding. She is the daughter of the dastardly Lord Fantin, and she and her mother fled his abuse and found refuge in the abbey ten years ago. Fantin believes both of them are dead, and it’s important that he continue to do so.
Gavin is dazzled by the beauty of the nun who tends to him, and he notices a distinctive birthmark on Madelyne’s wrist. Madelyne is similarly intrigued by Gavin, but she knows she can’t get too close. Once the men are sufficiently healed, the nuns drug them and drop them in the forest so they won’t be able to find their way back to the abbey again.
When Gavin returns to court he seeks out his cousin, Judith, who knew Madelyne as a girl. Judith confirms that the birthmark he saw on the nun’s wrist belongs to the missing Madelyne de Belgrume.
A couple of things irked me here. First, slipping the knights a mickey and dumping them in the woods to keep them from finding the abbey again doesn’t make a lot of sense given that they’ve already found it once in the first place. Gavin had ten men with him, and it seems likely one of them could find their way back to Lock Rose Abbey again.
Second, it seemed unlikely that Gavin would remember his cousin telling him about another woman’s birthmark to the extent that he could identify her by it. Madelyne’s birthmark is three dots on the inside of her wrist—not like a giant mark covering half her face or something. So basically Gavin’s memory is supposed to be crappy enough that he can’t find the abbey again, but so awesome he remembers a birthmark his cousin mentioned to him in passing.
Anyway, Gavin tells King Henry that he found Fantin’s long-lost daughter, and Henry immediately sees Madelyne as a pawn to keep Fantin in check. Generally a pain-in-the-ass and batshit crazy to boot, Fantin is a thorn in the king’s side. He’s also Gavin’s arch enemy. You see, Fantin is quite lovely, with long flowing blond hair, and he plays the lute, making the ladies flock to him (bitches love that lute music). Fantin had an affair with Gavin’s late wife, Nicola. When Nicola fled to be with Fantin she fell from her horse and broke her neck, so Gavin is pissed at Fantin for making him a cuckold and also blames him for Nicola’s death.
For me, Fantin read like a B-movie villain; he does a lot of cackling and has his own dungeon/laboratory (for reals). He’s trying to discover the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone, an alchemic formula that turns base metals into gold and grants eternal life. He believes that God intends for him to have this secret, and that he’s the descendant of Mary Magdalen—the “Whore Saint” in his words. This explains why he gets to be a man-slut and also a man of God (convenient, right?).
Fantin’s search for the Philosopher’s Stone seems to involve crushing shit up and boiling it. I’m not entirely sure I understood what his diabolical plans were all about and I eventually just wrote him off as crazy as fuck.
Following Henry’s orders, Gavin retrieves Madelyne from Lock Rose Abbey and they begin their journey to court. Madelyne isn’t thrilled—she planned on taking her final vows and devoting her life to God. Gavin is also unsettled. He’s attracted to Madelyne and he’s all “Oh Noes! I have the lusty pants for a nun!” But how can Gavin resist? Madelyne is so clean:
“It had been so long that he’d embraced or kissed a woman that did not smell of the farm, or did not need to scratch the fleas and lice that infested her hair.” (Gleason 269).
She is critter-free. How sexy is that, folks?
Madelyne also notices some stirrings beneath her skirts. Gavin frightens most people—he’s distant and stormy and very alphaholish. Being a healer, Madelyne sees that this is all to cover his pain, and she yearns to soothe him. Also to make-out, but mostly to soothe. Although not explicitly stated, I believe Gavin is also lice free, so he’s got that going too. Hot damn.
When everyone gets to court, Madelyne tells King Henry how she and her mother fled Fantin’s physical abuse. Henry is all “meh” and also tells her that she’s too pretty to be a nun and that she must get married. Yay for 12th century misogyny!
King Henry appoints Gavin as Madelyne’s protector and tasks him with finding her a husband. You can see where this is going, right? Oh, the jealousy! Madelyne meanwhile takes her place with Queen Eleanor’s ladies and dazzles them with her nun book-learnin’. Madelyne and Gavin spend some time railing against their mutual desire for each other, all while Fantin schemes from the shadows. This culminates with an action packed ending, complete with heroine chained to a dungeon wall.
My biggest gripe with the book was that Gleason never sufficiently explained how Madelyne was supposed to keep Fantin in check. Henry says:
“In the mean while, ‘twill keep your father from razing the lands of our other barons and causing war amongst them whilst you are our guest at court.” (Gleason 333).
Why would Madelyne stop him? We already know he was abusive and awful to her when she lived with him. Fantin is already cool with not paying his taxes, inciting violence, and stealing other men’s wives, so I don’t think the sudden appearance of his daughter is going to curb his naughty-pants ways.
Another thing that irked me was that once she left the abbey, Madelyne hardly thought of her mother at all. She told Gavin that her mother died of a fever—and no one bothered to fucking check the rest of the abbey—in order to protect her mother’s safety. Since they’ve lived the past ten years cloistered away together, I was surprised that Madelyne didn’t think much about her mother or miss her when they were apart.
My plot-hole related angst was soothed a bit by the rich historical details that Gleason weaves through this book. Sanctuary Of Roses has an amazing sense of time and place. I loved the descriptions of the customs, the food, and, holy balls, the clothing. Part of me was squeeing “Tell me about ALL the pretty dresses!”
“Judith had chosen an emerald green undergown from her own wardrobe for Madelyne to wear. Although she’d initially balked at the form-fitting skirt that laced up the side and along the sleeves, Madelyne had acquiesced and now wore that, covered by a floor length overtunic of sapphire blue. Onda…had shown Peg and Tricky the intricacies of braiding Madelyne’s thick dark hair and looping it in stylish snoods over each ear. The snoods…sparkled with tiny gold beads nestled against the black masses of braids.” (Gleason 302).
Clearly a lot of work and research went into this book. That, topped with some fun secondary characters (and a love triangle subplot between a maid and two of Gavin’s men) kept my interest when the plot made me go WTF.
I wasn’t blown away by this book, but I didn’t dislike it either. I’ll probably try another book in the Medieval Herb Garden series before I throw in the towel. The descriptions of golden snoods alone are enough to keep me coming back for more.