The Heir’s Tale is the first book in the series, The Soldiers of Fortune, tracing the fortunes of the sons of the Earl of Somerton following the Battle of Poitiers. In 1357, Ancelin Montfort, the Earl’s second son, returns home bringing with him the news of his elder brother John’s death in that battle. Ancelin does not welcome the new responsibilities that come with his new position as heir to the earldom.
Ancelin had been betrothed before leaving for France and is expected to marry on his return. Emma, his betrothed, has been living in the Earl’s household during his absence, learning how to manage a household and estate. Although she is not beautiful, Emma is kind, industrious and intelligent and the Earl has come to love her like a daughter. As the family is now in morning, and the season of Lent is upon them, Ancelin and Emma’s marriage must be delayed. This offers them the opportunity to get to know each other, as the marriage is one of arrangement rather than affection. Ancelin is well aware that he is not handsome and that he lacks the skills to charm a woman, but he is comfortable with Emma and they are drawn to each other both emotionally and physically. Matters are complicated, though, by the presence of John Montford’s beautiful and sensual widow, Alice, for whom Ancelin has indulged an unrequited lust for many years. Alice is dismissive of plain, kind Emma and seems intent on changing Ancelin’s mind about his betrothed.
As The Heir’s Tale is historical romance, it concentrates on the developing relationship between Ancelin and Emma. Its progress is far less than smooth as Ancelin is tempted by Alice’s new interest in him and he seems almost too willing to believe the worst of Emma. At times Ancelin needs a damn good shaking, although his inability to see through Alice is plausible as, despite his years as a knight, he has limited experience of women. The characters are well rounded, Emma in particular is a strong and likeable young woman, yet definitely of her time—a character this reader came to care and fear for as the narrative progressed. Although emotionally immature, to a degree at the beginning of the novel, Ancelin grows into his role as heir. Alice is the least developed of the major players, mainly because we do not get to see the world from her point of view. We do come to understand the reasons for some of her behaviour and with her future most likely to be spent in a convent, it is understandable, up to a point.
The historical background is well researched and woven seamlessly through the narrative. By the end of the novel the reader has a strong sense of the workings of large estate in 14th century England and the lives of the many and varied people living on it.
The novel was a delight to read, smoothly flowing, not a word out of place. (No ugly modernisms such as tasking or gifting here.) The Heir’s Tale is well paced and becomes, by the end, a page turner as we hope and fear for Emma and her chance of getting the happy ending she, more than anyone, deserves.
Another review can be found here. April Munday’s website, A Writer’s Perspective is also well worth a visit as it contains a wealth of material on life in the Middle Ages and demonstrates the depth of research behind her novels.