In this historical novel, set in the Languedoc area of France, two young orphans try to forge their own destinies amid many dangers.
In tumultuous 13th-century France, political ambitions and crusades against heretics—presumably Cathars, although the term is never used—have brought much warfare and upheaval. When the orphaned Azalaïs, a girl, and Azemar, a boy, flee charges of witchcraft, they hastily agree to split up and meet in Bésiers. A kindly forest anchorite helps Azalaïs disguise herself as a boy, and over several years the recluse teaches her herbal medicine, reading, writing, and Latin. But Azalaïs must go on the run again when she makes an unexpected enemy, and she finds shelter with Domna Jordane de la Moux d’Aniort, who takes Azalaïs into her household. Jordane’s wealthy father is planning his daughter’s marriage to a French-allied noble, but she’s in love with a rebellious knight named Raimon de Berenger. After finding out about Azalaïs’ true sex, Jordane insists that the young woman disguise herself and take her own place as the noble’s bride while Jordane pursues Raimon. The disguised Azalaïs must prove herself in a perilous situation that she doesn’t fully understand. Meanwhile, Azemar finds a patron and receives training in commerce and war. It’s nine years before the two orphans briefly find each other again. In this well-researched novel, Dunlap (The Academie, 2012, etc.) breathes life into the distant 13th-century setting by providing many everyday, textural details, such as the uncomfortable realities of wearing jousting armor. Poetry and music are as essential to the plot as warfare, with engaging glimpses of trobairitz (female troubadours). Necessary exposition is well integrated into the story, although the closing author’s note would likely have worked better as a preface, and a glossary would have been useful. The characters are generally believable, although Jordane is implausibly headstrong for a young woman of her era, and Raimon doesn’t seem to be worth so much plotting and difficulty.
A complex, absorbing, and dramatic start to a planned series.