This review is by Claudia.
At sixteen, I found my older cousin’s stash of Barbara Cartlands and assorted Harlequin-type romance housed in an old sewing cabinet and life was never the same! I love history, so I mostly read historical romance. Favorite authors include Meredith Duran, Mary Balogh, Miranda Neville, Elizabeth Kingston, and Rose Lerner.
Elizabeth Kingston accomplishes a great deal with this book, and gives us a medieval world that feels fully fleshed out. Hers is a diverse society, inhabited by people of color, Christians and non Christians, great lords and ladies, servants and sex workers. Desire Lines explores the need to forge your own path, the effects of what we now call PTSD, and one’s yearning for a true home and self.
(Ms. Kingston also gives a nod to “the Tiffany problem,” which some historians use to illustrate how our layman assumptions about history are often misguided or plain wrong. Turns out that the name Tiffany, as 1980s as it sounds, has been in use since medieval times.)
Desire Lines is the third book in Ms. Kingston’s Welsh Blades series, which has two prior installments and a novella. The main characters are Nan, a servant who rose above her station through friendship, as deadly as she is beautiful, on a journey to find what has remained of her family; and Gryff, a Welsh nobleman’s son given as a hostage as a boy to appease the English and in dire straits when he meets Nan a few years after Wales’ final defeat. It stands well on its own.
Nan and Gryff take two road trips together, one that starts when they more or less stumble upon each other on the road, and a second, chosen one. It is as lovely as it sounds until Gryff is revealed to be one of the last Welsh nobles still alive, and gets a chance to regain his lands.
Gryff and Nan have quite a bit in common despite their different stations in life: They have lived with a sense of longing and displacement, of not quite fitting in. They were traded by their fathers, Nan for money and Gryff for surety of fealty. Nan, a former serving girl, has had to fend off unwanted male advances most of her life, and Gryff also has been objectified as an “exotic” Welshman.
Nan is taught knife-throwing skills by Gwenllian and Ranulf, the main characters in the first book in the series, “The King’s Man.” Nan first appears in the second book, Eluned and Robert’s story, and she suffers horrors at the hands of that book’s villain.
Her healing and learning of self-defense skills is told in “Nan,” the novella Ms. Kingston gave away to newsletter subscribers ahead of Desire Lines’ publication. We see some of that backstory in Desire Lines, enough to understand Nan’s motivations and attitudes and why Nan has earned her elevated status in Gwenllian’s and Eluned’s households and the friendship of their families.
At the beginning of the book, Ms. Kingston explains that “desire lines” (or paths) is a term used by urban planners to name the spontaneous shortcuts that bypass established roads and pathways.
Nan and Gryff have to find their own path, and the obstacles thrown at them feel real and not like conflict for the sake of conflict. As they travel, Nan begins to feel the effects of choosing her own journey:
She felt weightless, untethered from the life she knew, from all her ideas of how she should be.
Gryff realizes that by trying to stay hidden (rather than being murdered or imprisoned) he has endangered the people who lived and worked his lands. That makes his choice towards the end of the book understandable (and…
“They called him a prince, and so he must act as one. There would be no more running. It was time and past that he face his fate, no matter how cursed it may be, just as all other princes of his land had done.”
Nan (we never know her last name, by the way, and she never calls Gryff by his name, preferring to call him Welshman) has moments when she thinks that she is not worthy of being a lady of the manor, which would normally put me off.
In this case, however, it feels real and in fact it would be strange if she didn’t (she has declined the attentions of a steward a few years back, thinking he is already above her station.) Nan’s English is described as coarse and the speech of a servant, and her family worked as itinerant laborers.
There’s also a strong parallel between skittish, powerful Nan and patient, skilled falconer Gryff, who is aware that, as one does when training falcons for hunting, he can’t really tame Nan but rather hope to forge a true partnership with her. He holds his power and defers to her, but never imposes his attentions on her.
This is not a light read by any means. The book is an exploration of family bonds and true self, duties and choices. Nan and Gryff’s idyllic road trip comes to an end, and their HEA doesn’t come easily. But readers who enjoy a carefully researched historical romance and do not shy away from angst will greatly enjoy this one. I give it an A.