In a relatively short historical novel that spans 1341 to 1350, the authorís follow-up to The Traitorís Wife offers a vivid portrait of life in 14th-century England, the unpredictable ravages of war and disease, and a love story that blooms unexpectedly from an arranged marriage.
Hugh le Despenser is son and grandson of traitors, his father the infamous companion of Edward II, the relationship between king and consort so outrageous that Edwardís queen eventually topples him from the throne of England. Hugh le Despenser eventually drawn and quartered, the deeds of father and grandfather haunt the young man, their only survivor.
Left to protect a castle holdout as his father flees with Edward II, young Hugh proves himself an able soldier, holding the castle against all odds against the onslaught of the queenís troops under the leadership of her paramour, Roger Mortimer, Earl of March.
With Edward III only a child, Isabella and Mortimer rule the country, young Hugh imprisoned for four years, plenty of time to consider his fate and that of his family.
Much like father and grandfather in his natural talent for the art of war, Hugh cannot but regret the loss of a dashing parent who claimed great adventures and the reckless love of a king. Thankfully, the queen has decided that this Despenser is not a threat to the throne when she releases him from confinement. Dedicated to the service of Edward III, who soon governs for himself, Hugh develops a reputation for as a courageous soldier and honorable man.
Forsaking the local woman he has loved since his youth, Hugh accepts his fate: marriage to Bess de Montecute, daughter of the Earl of Salisbury, one of Edward IIIís most beloved friends. Considerably older than Bess, who is already a widow in her teens, Hugh allows the immature young lady to grow accustomed to her role before making demands.
For her part, Bess is content enough as a wife as long as her role is superficial. The difference for Bess comes later - meeting the expectations of a wife in every sense. Most of their problems originate with the immature and inexperienced Bess, her petulance and insecurity, for certainly Hugh is the model of patience, by now hopelessly in love with his bride.
After fractious months and long separations when Hugh fights for his king, the couple forms an unbreakable bond even though Bess fails to produce an heir. But it is the intensity of the love affair that is so striking, an anomaly at a time of arranged marriages for political advantage.
A joyful marriage and the brutality of 14th-century life stand in sharp contrast. Days are indeed unpredictable, shattered in a momentís violence on the battlefield, widows made of young wives in an afternoon. Life expectancy is short, happy times all the more precious when measured against uncertainty.
The brief, bright love of Hugh and Bess comes to an end with the arrival of the pestilence that decimates a third of the population of England, the survivors staggering on in disbelief. In such a world, not only is life precious, but love, an extraordinary gift as fleeting as the triumphs of the sword, the only proof of two names forever linked in history.