Saturday, May 12, 2007

Book review: A Noble Captive, by Michelle Styles

Warning: possibly spoilerific.

My first Mills and Boon. Oh, I'm so proud. (tear)

Although, at heart, I'm a bit of a romantic (well, okay, a lot of a romantic), I've always been very cynical about romance as a genre, and the excerpts I've read of various historical romances did nothing to change that. Luckily, Michelle Styles' book is anything but your stereotypical romance novel. Instead of some disreputable but oh-so-roguishly-handsome Regency viscount, her hero is a Roman tribune. Yay!

A Noble Captive is set in 75 BC, and based on Julius Caesar's little-known kidnap by Mediterranean pirates, though the book doesn't actually deal with that event. Marcus Livius Tullio, junior tribune, and his men are captured by pirates en route to Africa and taken to a remote Mediterranean island to await the ransom money. The island is ruled by the sibyl of the goddess Kybele, to whom even the pirates pay tribute. Tullio and the surviving members of his cohort meet with the sibyl, and Tullio manages to secure the safety and medical care of his men. He also has another agenda concerning the pirates - but I won't say too much here.

Unbeknownst to the islanders and the pirates, however, the sibyl is bedridden with a mysterious illness. Her niece and aide, Helena, fearing that widespread knowledge of her aunt's weakness will give the pirates the incentive they need to take over the temple, masquerades as the sibyl, hiding her features behind the ceremonial gold mask. She now finds herself in a terrible predicament: her aunt is dangerously ill, the pirates are poised to take over leadership, and a Roman presence, especially in the form of a kidnapped tribune, will no doubt cast the greedy eye of the Roman Republic on the island. And, despite her distrust of all things Roman and her own training for celibate temple life, she finds herself drawn to Tullio. Unfortunately (or fortunately!) for both of them, the Roman captives are not allowed to leave the temple grounds, so that's plenty of opportunity for Tullio and Helena to cross paths and fall in love in this fraught political atmosphere.

And what can I say, but Styles flawlessly balances the romance plotline and the political plotline. There wasn't a time when I felt I could have done with a bit more of one and a bit less of the other. Although the Republic isn't really my strongest part of Roman history, there was nothing, historically-speaking, that felt anachronistic or jarring, and historical detail is integrated nicely into the story. No info-dumps here. Styles deftly establishes a nice sense of time and place and the characters feel true to their age and culture, while at the same time accessible to us modern readers. The blooming romance between Tullio and Helena was very nice to read, with the focus on their emotion and appreciation of each other as - y'know - human beings, but with a couple of sensual scenes mixed in. I found I was really looking forward to seeing them get together.

Tullio is a likeable hero, embodying all those positive Roman ideals of honour and such, though really none of the negatives. He's a soldier, but he thinks with his brain, not his sword - or, indeed, his crotch. He cares about his men, and very deeply for Helena. He appreciates her strength, beauty and competence, and finds himself irked that while she is the one who, in truth, ensures the welfare of the temple, all her work goes virtually unappreciated. He sets about to help with repair work around the temple, at first to show that the Romans don't mean the islanders any harm, but also to help Helena out. He also forges a friendship with the mute goose-girl Niobe, because his own sister lost her speech. His main flaw is his pride (let's face it, as a Roman and a man, it's inevitable, lol), but thankfully he never comes off as insufferably arrogant or overbearing.

Tullio is a good character, but in the end he pales next to Helena, for it is she who really carries the novel. She's plucky and compassionate, and instantly likeable. Stigmatised by her late mother's fatal pride, she strives to be selfless and gives herself up to the celibate life of a priestess, though she's not entirely convinced it's her true calling, as she doesn't hear the goddess as her aunt does, and she longs for a baby of her own. She's dutiful, but has more than enough backbone to prevent her from being completely submissive. And, thankfully, she's not one of those heroines who melts into a puddle of goo the instant the hero so much as touches her. And though she hates Romans but knows she's falling in love with Tullio, there are none of those dreaded "I love you, I hate you" rants. She soon acknowledges Tullio as an honourable, pleasant man, and her reluctance to act on her feelings is more due to her fear of what will happen if the pirates find out. The plot outside the romance deals mainly with the political upheaval she's trying desperately to avert, and so we're given more of her POV than we are of Tullio's, the main reason, I think, his character suffers next to hers.

This aside, I've not really got any other criticism with this book, though at first I was trying to work out which culture the island of Kybele belonged to - Greek or Roman. The romance between Tullio and Helena is very pleasant, and Helena's a heroine to root for. I also liked the sweet secondary romance between the maid, Galla, and Quintus, the hardened old centurion, who bond over swapping recipes. :D

I see Styles also has two more Roman-set historicals under her belt - The Gladiator's Honour and The Roman's Virgin Mistress. I'll need to have a wee look on Amazon, then. In the meantime, however, if you're looking for a nice, light read that you can curl up and enjoy a mug of hot chocolate with, then A Noble Captive definitely fits the bill.

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