I found this historical novel—which will especially appeal to fans of Arthurian legends—both accessible and captivating. I couldn’t put it down! A medieval Anglo-Saxon tale set in the late 500s, this is the story of a young Welsh princess born into a cruel world of scheming kings. Branwen is an only child, so the fate of her father’s dynasty rests entirely on her shoulders. Like most noblewomen of the time, she is used as a bargaining chip in a game of kings, like a piece on her father’s chessboard. But Branwen has a strong will and a mind of her own. She will have to overcome many obstacles in order to have the life she desires. . . .
The Publisher’s Summary:
Saxon barbarians threaten to destroy medieval Wales. Lady Branwen becomes Wales’ last hope to unite their divided kingdoms when her father betroths her to a powerful Welsh warlord, the Hammer King. But the fledgling alliance is fraught with enemies from within and without as Branwen becomes the target of assassination attempts and courtly intrigue. A young woman in a world of fierce warriors, she seeks to assert her own authority and preserve Wales against the barbarians. But when she falls for a young hedge knight named Artagan, her world threatens to tear itself apart.
Caught between her duty to her people and her love of a man she cannot have, Branwen must choose whether to preserve her royal marriage or to follow her heart. Somehow she must save her people and remain true to herself, before Saxon invaders and a mysterious traitor try to destroy her.
We follow Lady Branwen as she enters into an arranged marriage to a forbidding warlord and soon finds that her situation is not what she was led to believe. Branwen’s transformation over the course of the novel is empowering and one of the book’s strongest assets. We see her grow from being completely intimidated by her own father to confidently voicing her opinions on military matters—and, eventually, defending herself like a lion from would-be assassins.
While the publisher’s cover copy makes the inevitable Game of Thrones comparison, it’s not a good one in my opinion. For one thing, this novel is a middling length of 336 pages; for another, it is not graphic at all and will, therefore, appeal much more widely. I really appreciated the lack of graphic content in this book, as so many novels set during this era are astoundingly brutal.
I found two things surprising about Between Two Fires. The first was the somewhat abrupt switch in focus to what I would consider a typical historical romance plot in the last third of the novel. Although this is indicated in the cover copy, the tone of the last section just didn’t quite gel with the rest of the novel for me. I think it could have been handled more deftly. NOTE: It is possible that this was fixed in the final book, which I do not have access to. The other surprising aspect was the presentation of religion. Throughout the book, Branwen simultaneously feels great loyalty toward the pagan Old Tribes (her maternal heritage) and Christianity. Noce dives into this internal balancing act in the last part of the book. I found this interesting, even if it did get a little heavy-handed.
Overall, I enjoyed this book and recommend it to fans of historical fiction.
My Favorite Quote:
“They call him the Hammer King. He wears an iron mask into battle and wields a war hammer said to have slain a hundred foes. My nightmares of late consist of a shadowy, faceless blacksmith. Each evening he swings a massive hammer down upon the anvil of my heart.”—Lady Branwen, on the eve of her arranged marriage
Comparable Reads: These are more heavy on the history but excellent if you’re into this time period. I’d recommend all three, depending on your commitment and comfort with historical detail.
The Forever Queen by Helen Hollick
Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell
Hild by Nicola Griffith
Thank you to the publisher, Bloomsbury USA, for the review copy I received through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This last bit contains spoilers, so stop scrolling now if you plan to read the book!
I had two qualms with Between Two Fires. The first is that the galley didn’t contain a historical note, which is essential for all works of historical fiction. The second is how neatly everything was tied up in the end. I realize that romance typically necessitates a happily ever after, but the presentation felt very sudden and kind of forced. It was still a good read, but it felt so unrealistic that it knocked me right out of the story. NOTE: It is possible that these elements were fixed in the final book.
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