Baron Duncan of Wexton entered the castle of Baron Louddon under a flag of truce, but he was not surprised to be taken captive, stripped of his clothes, tied to a pole, and left to die in the bitter cold. Since Duncan's men are hiding outside waiting to storm the castle walls, he is quite unconcerned about his predicament, but his nonchalance about the situation disconcerts Louddon's men who are already superstitious about the man rumored to be a wolf. Knowing it will take a long time for Duncan to freeze to death and not wanting to do the same themselves, the soldiers head inside the keep, leaving Duncan alone. It doesn't take long for him to be joined by a lovely young woman who frees him from his bonds and whisks him inside the chapel where she kindly wraps him in blankets and generously warms his half-frozen feet with her own body heat. Duncan is taken aback that his enemy's sister would be assisting him in such a manner, and isn't quite sure what to make of her gesture, but at that very moment, he vows in his heart that she will become his.
Lady Madelyne is Baron Louddon's youngest sister, but he has never treated her kindly. As a child he frightened and tormented her, and when her parents died, she was finally sent to live with an elderly uncle who was a priest. Madelyne thought it would only be for a short time, but she ended up living with him for ten years. It was the only time in her life that she felt loved and cared for, so it has not been pleasant being back under her abusive brother's control in recent months. When Duncan's forces raze Louddon's castle and Duncan declares that Madelyne now belongs to him and is going with him, she is rather put out that her plans for escape have been foiled. The longer Madelyne spends as Duncan's captive though, the more she comes to realize that she finally feels safe and in spite of being too stubborn to admit it at first, she really doesn't want to leave the security of his fortress. When it becomes clear that the only way Duncan can keep Madelyn safe is to wed her, he is happy to do so, and once she is his wife, Madelyne sets about putting Duncan's castle and family back in order with her endearingly bossy manner. Duncan may have captured Madelyne, but Madelyne somehow snuck in and captured Duncan's heart when he least expected it with her unselfish acts and sweet, clumsy, scatterbrained ways. No sooner do Duncan and Madelyne give up their stubborn denial and admit their love for one another, than Louddon sets into action a cunning plan involving the king. Louddon claims that Madelyne was wrongfully taken captive and forced to marry Duncan, and if the king sides with him, the loving couple's marriage would end for good with just one word.
I've been a long-time fan of Julie Garwood, but have been so distracted lately by exciting new books and authors that I have not picked up one of her books in nearly two years. Thanks to a new reading challenge in which I am participating, I was finally spurred to re-read Honor's Splendour, and was immediately reminded of all the things that made me start glomming Ms. Garwood's backlist in the first place. She has a talent for combining a good romance with a strong plot, action, humor and characters that I can truly care about, to create a really good story. The composition, to some degree, is done in the typical style of 1980's romance writing, which isn't too surprising since it was first published in 1987. Still, it is a romantic classic that consistently makes many reader's favorite lists over twenty years later. While I can't say that Honor's Splendour is my personal favorite Garwood book, it is a good read that I would certainly recommend. For me, Julie Garwood is just one of those comfort authors whose good (or even just OK) work still surpasses that of some other authors even on their best days.
There are several things that kept Honor's Splendour from the very top of my favorites list. It is one of Ms. Garwood's earliest romance novels (her third), and in my opinion, it still shows a bit of the novice that she was at that time. There are some very long passages of prose and, while they do progress both the time-line and the plot without taking up a lot of space, it made me feel like the story was being told to me instead of the characters acting it out. There were also some parts where I was having a difficult time imagining the setting and felt that more environmental descriptions would have been helpful. I thought I had recalled Ms. Garwood's books being on the steamy side, but either my memory has deceived me or this one just wasn't quite as hot as some of her others. I found that the love scenes became progressively more sensuous with each one (I really enjoyed the late night "swim" in the lake), but still by more modern standards, they were fairly short and only moderately descriptive. While I didn't necessarily need more tawdriness, some of the scenes just seemed to lack that extra bit of spice that really shows the reader a deep emotional connection. In a couple of instances, I think this could have been rectified with a little more "whispered sweet nothings" dialog, and more sexual tension leading up to their initial consummation would have been nice too. Additionally, I am not a huge fan of the love/hate relationship. Thankfully there was enough tenderness to keep it from being overdone in this book, but Duncan and Madelyn still emotionally held back from each other a little too long for my taste, and their confusion over their feelings for one another seemed a bit forced to me. Finally, although Madelyne's fevered hallucinations and loss of inhibitions in that state made for some exceptionally funny and amusing moments, I would have preferred for her to relate the traumatic events of her past to Duncan when she was in a more coherent state. I think it would have packed a greater emotional punch and built even more trust in their relationship, which to me, is extremely romantic.
Duncan and Madelyne are a classic Garwood hero and heroine. Duncan is what I like to refer to as the "tender alpha" or the "alpha with a heart." He definitely has some dominating tendencies early in the story, but he is always patient and has a tender spot in his heart for Madelyne. Duncan's sweet side was solidified for me when he watched over Madelyne while she was ravaged with fever, and I loved how he snuck into bed with her every night without her knowing. He is also very much a man of few words and has very little dialog in the beginning of the story. In fact, Duncan often seemed to be overshadowed in this regard by his two brothers which is never a good thing. As the plot moves along though, he learns to lighten up a bit, talks more readily, and really comes into the fullness of his character. Madelyne is gentle, klutzy, and has just enough sass to stand up to her arrogant husband. I really liked her journey from the shy virgin to embracing her passionate nature, and found it to be very believable and well-crafted. There are so many romance novel heroines who make the unrealistic jump from timid virgin to instant sex-kitten, so this element of the story was greatly appreciated. I also thought it was sweet that Madelyne was able to charm everyone in Duncan's castle, man, woman, child and beast. The only problem I had with Madelyne is that for about the first 2/3 of the story, everything about her is just too extreme. She is extremely clumsy, extremely talkative, extremely bossy, extremely stubborn, extremely self-conscious, and extremely insecure. I'm used to a heroine embodying one or two of these characteristics, but having Madelyne imbued with all of them at once and in such an extravagant way, made her seem more like a caricature to me. At least she exhibited enough humor and sweetness to prevent her from becoming completely annoying, and for the final third of the book, she is much more even-tempered and finally comes into her own as well, finding her confidence. It was at this point that I really warmed up to both characters a lot more and ended up liking them both quite well.
There are other things that I really enjoyed about Honor's Splendour, one of which is it's strong cast of supporting characters. If this book had been written in the current glut of series romances, I'm absolutely certain that Duncan's two very eligible and honorable brothers, Edmond and Gilard, as well as his loyal vassal, Anthony, all would have made great heroes for future books, but it was written so long ago, it is incredibly doubtful that would ever happen. I also enjoyed Duncan's sister, Adela, and her beau, Gerald. Because of what Adela had been through, I found both characters to be very sympathetic, and the humor of their relationship mirrored that of Duncan and Madelyn. Madelyne's uncle, Father Berton, though heard about a lot, doesn't actually appear until near the end of the book, but I liked him a lot too, and Madelyne's evil brother, Baron Louddon, makes a great villain. Julie Garwood has a great sense of humor, and I often found myself smiling or chuckling during my reading of this book. I especially got a kick out of the parts where Duncan teases Madelyne by purposely pushing her buttons. I also loved the creative sweetness of their first meeting and how Madelyne captured Duncan's heart through the simple but unselfish act of warming his feet. As I mentioned earlier though, the last third of the story was my favorite part. I felt that the romance built gradually and became even stronger the further it progressed. I also liked the bit of royal intrigue which lent a mild air of suspense to the ending. The denouement itself was perhaps a tad bit rushed as the comeuppance of the main villain doesn't occur until the final pages, but overall it was pretty good. All in all, Honor's Splendour was a good read which turned out to be a nice way to reintroduce myself to a favorite author.
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