Book review: Between Two Fires by Mark Noce

9781250072627

Title: Between Two Fires
Author: Mark Noce
ISBN: 9781250072627
Pages: 336
Release Date: August 23, 2016
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance

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.

Branwen’s story combines elements of mystery and romance with Noce’s gift for storytelling.

— From MacMillan

Originally Between Two Fires intrigued me so much, I was the first person to request a hold even before my library managed to purchase a copy. A strong female protagonist is caught up in a political intrigue, while her home country of Wales is being invaded by brutal Saxons? That sounds right up my alley! Assassins? Allegiances? Forbidden love? Sign me up! But instead of a gritty, complex historical novel I get a bodice ripper with a Christian fiction filter thrown on top. This book is about as gritty as a basket of kittens. That’s not how the Dark Ages worked!

Obviously I am the wrong audience for this book. Between Two Fires is for the people who prefer the Arthurian version of history – with its chivalry, romanticism, and the black-and-white characterization. The good guys are saintly, and the bad guys have a maniacal laugh and a pointy mustache. Seriously, you can figure them out from a mile away. If you are familiar with some common tropes in fiction, you will know the solution to the main mystery before that mystery is even introduced.

The huge red flag from the very beginning was the first person, present tense narration. It has never worked for me. You know why people can’t read each other’s minds? Because if we could, one glimpse into a head other than our own would drive us insane with all the whining and pompous self-gratification that resides in there. Same with this novel’s narration style – I could not handle so much of Branwen’s constant wailing about her terrible fate, her jealous fits against other women, and boasts of her own bravery. On the other end of the spectrum, I got nothing from the rest of the characters. They had no feelings, no internal struggles, and were just projections of Branwen’s own interpretations.

The plot suffered from continuous repetitions. I lost count how many times Branwen was kidnapped and taken, literally, a hundred feet into the woods, and then miraculously saved by someone. What was the point then? By the time she made her hundred-and-third inspirational speech to the crowds I was yawning of boredom. And don’t get me started on the language. It seemed that whenever Mark Noce needed a metaphor or simile he resorted to horse terminology. I started to keep track. This is not a complete list by any means.

“I feel his gaze appraising me as a knight might observe a horse”
“I am no man’s broodmare”
“She’s got a goddess’s figure and the stamina of a filly”
“…imprisoned like a broodmare by my husband”
“…intend to ride me like a broodmare until old age”
“…like some horse in the marketplace”
“Remaining a broodmare and pawn…”
“I’m not some filly in the field”
“…planned to use me like a broodmare”
“I’ll not be a broodmare again”
“He has all the impatience of a stallion in season”
“…to keep me alive as his bride and broodmare”
“You ride two mounts I used to, one a stallion, the other a broodmare”

Et cetera. Sometimes a character would also just repeat the things that were told to them, which makes me wonder if the editor even read the draft before publishing. There were a ton of very “convenient” plot resolutions. For example, King Morgan was at first introduced to us as a rather respectful husband who was interested in his wife’s opinions, but was suddenly turned into an evil rapist to give room for the new romantic interest. Or, Branwen lost her first child to neatly sever any ties to Morgan and allow her to start a new life. Odd plot derailments like that really threw me off multiple times.

The romance and conflict between the characters was also very juvenile. Often they stormed out of rooms with a huff, rushed to conclusions, or threw hissy fits over rumors and jealousy, like teenagers. Women seemed to constantly fight over a single man, which got on my nerves. I appreciate that the author tried to make Branwen into a strong, opinionated leading lady, but her interactions with other characters completely negated any positive traits she was supposed to project.

Overall, the book fell flat for me thanks to its lack of complexity, convenient plot resolutions, two-dimensional characters, and weak historical content. I was really looking forward to reading about 6th century Wales, but ultimately I was left disappointed.

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