Anyone who is a fan of Stephanie Laurens’ Cynster saga is familiar with her Regency heroes referring to their Norman heritage, usually in the sense of being conquerors both of land and of the ladies. Finally, this writer has gotten a chance to refresh her perspective and dive into the bold men and women of this particular time period with her offering, Desire’s Prize, released under a new pen name, M. S. Laurens.
Not only has Laurens developed the related pseudonym to distinguish this work from her popular Regency novels, but it appears that she also has self-published this particular story. I haven’t read if that decision was due to lack of publisher interest (hard to believe with a name as powerful as Laurens) or if she was interested in dabbling in being a hybrid author, but considering her pull and established audience self-pubbing this one is quite smart financially as I’m sure her usual publishing house (Avon) takes a much bigger piece of her pie when she releases a new book.
In Desire’s Prize, Alaun de Montisfryth is a powerful lord and the right hand of Edward III, a monarch who has used his knight’s prowess to subdue his enemies and secure the Welsh border. Now Alaun has been ordered by that same king to marry now that he can finally return home to his stronghold after three long years away. An undisputed warrior who avoids tournaments, when Alaun hears that Versallet Castle is hosting a grueling contest he detours his sizable retinue during their journey home to attend and to compete. The head of the de Versallet family bilked a young Alaun out of his father’s stallion nine years ago and getting a measure of revenge in his fully-grown adult form feels like an excellent coming home present. One look at the eldest de Versallet daughter and suddenly there is a larger prize beyond honor for Alaun at stake.
In actuality, Alaun’s fight with her father happened on the occasion of Eloise de Versallet’s marriage to Raoul de Cannar. Barely fifteen, the proud girl was shackled inadvertently to a sadist of the first order, a man who made her brief marriage a living hell until God came to her aid and killed him with a lightening strike. She fled to the Claerwhen convent which had educated her for the first four years of her widowhood until her mother’s death necessitated her moving back home to be chatelaine to her father and brother. Five years of running a castle have proven gratifying and while her beauty and substantial dowry attracts men, her frosty demeanor and widow’s status mean no one can force her to marry. She’s been under the thumb of one man and has no desire to ever place herself in such a position again.
But Eloise cannot deny that there is some kind of spark between her and Alaun, but it doesn’t mean she has no intention of fighting it. A clever wager with her father means that if Alaun wins the tournament, Eloise’s father will transfer her to Alaun’s protection. It’s not marriage, but it would necessitate her becoming this knight’s chatelaine and would be a natural precursor to an official union. For Alaun, he must use every minute with Eloise to undo the damage left in the wake of her first husband as well as bind her to him so she will consider marriage – his king’s edict hangs over him and suddenly no other woman will do. However, this fiery woman will not easily come to heel. Some type of partnership must be forged in order for the two of them to grasp a future neither one envisioned – but both want now that they’ve seen the possibility.
My reaction to this particular book was mixed (the first two thirds of the book had me thinking four stars but the ending had me dragging that down to three), but definitely positive. The heat between Alaun and Eloise is palpable and well-expressed through all their naked sexy times, scenes which fortunately contained a minimum of Laurens’ tendency for purple prose (I think she only referenced “the furnace” once, thank heavens). She did a great job showing not only the progression of feeling between them, but the growing confidence that Eloise could be a full partner despite her rough first marriage. The language felt pitch perfect for the period and the level of historical detail was outstanding – accurate details reflected the summer course Laurens mentions she took on the medieval period yet are so skillfully delivered it never feels like an info dump. Alaun and Eloise are both strong, proud nobles of their period yet empathetic characters who you easily support.
Where Laurens falters is where her books usually fall apart – the driving external conflict. As the Cynster series progressed, the mystery or conspiracy around which the entire book’s ending revolves became incredibly simplistic and often two-dimensional. Similar to the last five or six of the Cynster books, the initial two-thirds of Desire’s Prize focusing on the two characters coming together and recognizing their feelings is outstanding, but the manufactured conflict for the final third weighs heavily on the reader. In this work, an unbalanced young woman with Eloise in her sights provides what I thought was the novel’s “black moment” only to be succeeded by an additional peril when Eloise is captured by a group of un-introduced knights who were only vaguely hinted at in two other places in the book. It’s a bit jarring and awkward and it didn’t have to be – it almost felt like something a strong editor would have caught and corrected. A great epilogue fortunately pulls up the end of the novel and re-establishes the connection between the characters that made the first part of the book so compelling.
One point in the author’s note at the end which confused me was that Laurens makes a point of saying that this book comes between Captain Jack’s Woman and Devil’s Bride. She must mean this in terms of her personal writing chronology since these two books are still in the late 18th/early 19th century. I don’t know if this makes me feel better since I actually feel that the overall writing in Desire’s Prize feels more like the early Cynster works (which is a terrific thing) and I had hoped this had meant a return to that stronger writing and characterization, but it doesn’t if this book was actually written years ago during the author’s golden age.
Yet the fact that this book is listed as the first in a new series, Chronicles of Claerwhen, makes me hope that there will be other books based around women who attended this illustrious convent led by a strong mother superior (and perhaps starring heroes like Alaun’s sensual right hand knight, Roland). It’s an excellent device and one that could be quite effective for framing a series, particularly if a dip into the medieval period helps bolster Stephanie Laurens’ creative juices.
I feel tentatively hopeful at the start of this series, with my fingers crossed that Laurens continues to develop this time period into another wonderful group of books with characters I revisit again and again.