There was a time in the Romance genre history when most writers got started on their careers writing medievals. These days, those books are few and it’s rarer still to find a good one. I am a huge fan of medievals, so I was especially delighted to read Elisabeth Hobbes’ Uncovering the Merchant’s Secret that effortlessly summons up the Late Middle Ages with its attitudes, ideas, history and culture
English Captain John Sutton “Jack Langdon” is ostensibly a wine merchant doing business between France and Bristol. His real task though is helping to solve the impasse between choosing the rightful heir to the dukedom of Brittany as an aide to the English King’s Lieutenant in France. He is suffering from grief and depression from the death of his beloved wife many months ago and finds himself taking risks and gambling with his life. The pull to join her is insidious.
Blanche Tanet is a fierce indomitable woman who owns a wealthy fort near the village of Plomarc’h on the coast of Brittany. Twice-widowed with two children, who are old enough to be fostered away from home, she finds herself the captain of her own life and ships. Disguised as Bleiz Mor, Sea Wolf, Blanche leads her ships successfully against the French. Though outwardly complacent with her life, grief has a tendency to catch her unawares for the years stolen from her young husbands. She is also incredibly lonely. Her position in her neighborhood precludes her from forming romantic attachments. Since her widowhood, she has had to perform degrading exploits in order to gain her independence, and her desire for men is ashes.
One night, shipwrecked and lying dying on a beach, when Jack sees Blanche, he thinks that his wife has come for him and he is ready to meet her. However, it is Blanche who has come to rescue him. She is filled with anger at the villagers for their wrecking and stealing habits resulting in the deaths of so many of the merchant boat Jack was traveling in. As a result, she is determined to at least rescue one person. He might very well die by morning, but she was going to try her damnedest to save his life…even if he could be a spy for the wrong side of Breton history.
Fortunately for both of them, he survives. Unfortunately for both of them, he wakes up an amnesiac. This is not a storyline that usually appeals to me, but as with most things, in the hands of a talented storyteller, even the unpalatable become engrossing. And so it was in the case of this book. Hobbes explores amnesia in the context of Jack’s grief over his wife. Before his accident, he had shunned all romantic and sexual entanglements, even casual ones, because he couldn’t shrug off the disloyalty he felt to his wife’s memory. But now, despite his conscious memory being gone, unexplained grief and guilt still catches him unawares, staying his hand from giving in to his increasingly strong attraction for Blanche.
Hovering like a vulture over Blanche is her nearest neighbor, Ronec, past lover and part financier of her merchant ships. He adds excellent tension in the burgeoning relationship between Jack and Blanche. Hobbes has done a wonderful job of pitting Jack’s and Ronec’s personalities against each other to highlight who is the trustworthy one, who is the worthier one of her confidences. What I especially enjoyed about this weighing of their worth is that it is subtle and complex. Writers sometimes fall into the danger of making one person being overtly villainous and the other angelic. Hobbes neatly avoids that simplistic solution.
The heart of the story for me is the relationship between Blanche and Jack from Blanche’s perspective. She is an independent woman in command of her environs. Many depend on her, but she depends on no one. For such a self-sufficient and self-reliant woman to admit even to herself that occasionally allowing someone else, even a man, to share her burden is sweet takes a lot of courage, because trust given to the wrong man, like Ronec, can be disastrous. And yet, Jack’s kindness and thoughtfulness is beguiling. His desire to be her champion is as disconcerting as it is enchanting. And she has been so lonely for so long. So the idea of letting down her guard and stop asserting her strength every waking hour brings with it a measure of relief. What takes her a long time to convince herself is that needing a particular someone is not weakness. One can be strong even when one relies on someone else sometimes.
Uncovering the Merchant’s Secret is a superb story told by a talented author. If like me, you’re fond of medievals, do not miss this story.