Maria, the fourteen-year-old daughter of a robber baron in 11th century Italy, is given in marriage to Richard, an ambitious young knight. “I have to give him something to keep him satisfied for a while,” her father explains. Besides, the father has no sons and would like grandsons. The fact that Maria loves Richard’s younger brother, Roger, is beside the point. Cecelia Holland in taut, spare prose creates a hard, unsentimental world in which people fight for survival and betrayal is always possible. Richard will battle the Saracens and other Christians for his place in the sun. Maria will fight with different weapons, for her own personal autonomy. She is a survivor and then some, strong, canny, and brave. Both Richard and Roger exert a pull on her emotions. The reader sees her grow as a wife, a mother, and a power in her own right. In the end, she must make a fateful choice. It is a tribute to Holland’s skill as a novelist that we don’t know what Maria will do until she does it, and yet her action rings absolutely true.
This book has everything a good historical novel should have: a wonderful sense of the place and time, exciting battle scenes, and a deeply felt, surprising love story. Holland excels at characterizing individuals by showing them in action. She conveys in one gesture what other authors might take paragraphs to tell. Hemingway at his best did this. Few other writers can manage it. The writing lifts this book to a level of excellence few novels even aspire to.