How should we define a romance novel? Is it a story about two people meeting, falling in love, and facing obstacles before they can be together? Or is it a story that revolves around a great love? These are complicated questions that arose when I first began reading In the Shadow of Dragons. As a long-time fan of Arthurian tales, it was no difficulty to re-visit the world of early Britain, when Saxons and Romans warred with pagan tribes and local feudal lords. But as the story progressed, I found myself asking the questions above – is this a romance?
Well, the non-definitive answer is yes and no! Sorry, there’s no easy way out here. The hero of this tale, Lord Marcus, and his lovely wife, the Lady Claerwen, are sort of a historical Mr. and Mrs. Spy. Marcus’ life has honed his fighting, strategic and covert skills, and Claerwen is gifted with the “fire in the head” – not migraines, but the talent of precognition. She shares this skill with a secondary character, Myrddin Emrys, also known as Merlin. (Well, can you imagine an Arthurian tale without him?)
This book is filled with all the great adventure elements – treachery, betrayal, passion, intrigue and more politicking than you can shake a helmet at!! (Not to mention a beheading or two – after all, it is the 5th century!) But although this plot is complex, it is bound together and held tight by the husband-and-wife team of Marcus and Claerwen. His love for her overrides his caution on several occasions, and she is constantly putting her life on the line for this husband of hers that she loves with all her heart. There is no way that their relationship could be taken out of this book without doing it serious harm - and that is the one reason I am reviewing this novel!
Issues of genre aside, this is a cracklingly good story that has been extraordinarily well researched. Ms. Guler possesses the gift of using words as a paintbrush – her settings come alive for the reader who follows Marcus and Claerwen into hovels, barns, forts and castles, and watches them all emerge from the words on the page. She has captured what must have been the essence of life in those savage times - the overwhelming fight for survival. Whether it was against famine, the elements, or a two-handed broadsword wielded by a trained soldier, everybody wanted to live! This gives the actions of both Marcus and Claerwen an additional poignancy as they reveal the depths of their feelings for each other in the most dramatic way possible – offering their lives so that the other may go free! I do note that, as in many other books featuring extensively-researched historical settings, Ms. Guler has chosen to use the original 5th century spellings for names and places, most of which would be much better off with the addition of a few vowels here and there! It’s accurate, but a bit distracting.
So perhaps I should leave the decision about whether or not this is a romance to the readers – those who enjoy novels based in this time period would probably enthusiastically endorse the idea; those who are dedicated romance fans will understand why my rating is only “average”. I would not be doing many readers a favor if I were to rate this book highly as a romance because if you’re looking for that ‘first kiss’ moment, or a steamy sensual encounter between lovers, you won’t find it here. Yet for fans of Arthurian tales, it’s an excellent addition to the bookshelf.