Romantic legend receives a solid grounding in social realism in this engaging historical melodrama, the first of a planned trilogy set in the imaginary 13th-century kingdom of Lothemia.
The story concerns two daughters of the Duke of Gildren, the gorgeous Katrina and the sensible Eleanor. One day, the handsome knight Sebastian, son of the cruel Duke of Westfeld, gallops up with a marriage proposal for Katrina, the culmination of a byzantine scheme to end the feud between their families. Katrina, already secretly married to Sebastian, is pregnant, and to escape her stepmother’s wrath, has fled into the forest and is presumed dead. Sebastian half-heartedly marries Eleanor to preserve the family alliance; meanwhile, Katrina keeps herself hidden and moves with her and Sebastian’s daughter Ella to a village near Sebastian and Eleanor’s castle. The narrative then settles down to explore the lives of the two sisters, one a duchess, the other a peasant. Eleanor’s marriage proves loveless, with Sebastian always abroad on adventures, but she takes satisfaction in administering the duchy and her growing brood, which she augments by cheerfully adopting her husband’s bastards. The feckless Sebastian occasionally redeems himself by rescuing children from fire or wild horses. Meanwhile, Katrina grows bitter at the hardships of peasant life and finally kills herself, leaving Ella with a mysterious key and an unmatched slipper as proofs of noble parentage. First-time novelist Attwell burdens the story with tiresome plot contrivances that exist mainly to set up ecstatic revelations and dizzying pauper-to-princess elevations in the denouement. The novel’s strength lies in the author’s vivid recreation of medieval society. Attwell’s world capably illustrates a rigid but subtly graded status hierarchy in which no two people are exactly equal, governed by complex webs of dependency and feudal loyalty and infused with exquisite aristocratic manners that mask a coarse contempt for the lower orders.
Although the fairy-tale machinery creaks, the lively backdrop of medieval manners and mores ensures a gratifying journey.