In 1135, Count Stephen sailed to England after learning of the death of his uncle King Henry I, who met his Maker due to overindulging in lampreys. He was crowned king in Westminster Abbey on 26 December in contravention of the oath he and leading English barons had sworn to King Henry I to support the Empress Matilda as Queen.
In 1139, the Empress Matilda and her husband Geoffrey of Anjou, in alliance with her half-brother, the illegitimate Robert, Earl of Gloucester, landed an army in south-west England, intent on claiming the throne and setting up their own court in Bristol. The following year, Earl Ranulf of Chester rose in revolt and captured Lincoln. In 1141, King Stephen was defeated by Robert, Earl of Gloucester, at the battle of Lincoln, on February 2. Stephen was imprisoned in chains in Gloucester’s castle.
This is the period in which Cathie Dunn’s atmospheric Dark Deceit is set.
Dunn thrusts us straight into the action and provides both depth of character and splendid sense of place.
Following the battle of Lincoln, Geoffrey de Mortagne is en route to link up with the Empress but interrupts the ambush of a local nobleman, Raymond. The mortally wounded Lord Raymond is father to Alleyne de Bellac. Geoffrey vows to the dying knight that he will protect Alleyne and her estate.
‘Alleyne waited for a sign, hardly daring to breathe. She rubbed her arms, uncertain of whether it was the biting February winds that seeped through her thin linen sleeves or premonition.’
With her father dead, Alleyne’s future looks bleak. Despite his good intentions, Geoffrey is a stranger to her. She must fall back on the old friendship of Will d’Arques. She was vulnerable, as a prospective bride and as a landowner.
Told alternately from Geoffrey’s and Alleyne’s viewpoint, this historical romance never flags. A story needs conflict and we have that – between Geoffrey and Alleyne, and Alleyne and Will, and between Will and Geoffrey.
Wounded in love many years ago, Geoffrey is reluctant to be ensnared again. ‘Her large eyes stared into the fire and he knew she floated miles away, perhaps even as far back as her childhood. Memories were prone to attack you in moments of grief, rendering you helpless. Swiftly, he shrugged off unwanted memories of his own.’
Geoffrey is very patient with Alleyne’s vacillations of heart, one of several traits that endear him to the reader. And, gradually, her character changes, mellowing with time and experience. But before that can happen, we have the pair jousting with their emotions: ‘Her dark glance down her nose assessed him coolly. She was too haughty, too dismissive. He felt like a piece of untreated meat, left in the heat to rot…’ They’re well-drawn characters, and I’m happy to be acquainted with them. ‘His heart pounding in his ears for reasons he could not fathom, he had spoken of his support, his plans. She had barely acknowledged him. In fact, she had withdrawn into a shell and he could not breach her defences.’
Stephen’s reign is often called ‘The Anarchy’ as it seemed that royal power was at its lowest while baronial power was at its height. Dark Deceit is the first in ‘The Anarchy Trilogy’.
I for one want to carry on with Alleyne and Geoffrey’s journey.
A shorter version of this review will appear on Amazon etc.