The Norman Conqueror robbed Steinar of Talisand of his noble father and his lands, forcing him to seek refuge in Scotland while still recovering from a devastating wound. At the royal court, Steinar becomes scribe to the unlettered King of Scots while secretly regaining his skill with a sword.
The first time Steinar glimpses the flame-haired maiden, Catrìona of the Vale of Leven, he is drawn to her spirited beauty. She does not fit among the ladies who have come to serve the devout queen. Not pious, not obedient and not given to stitchery, the firebrand flies a falcon!
Catrìona has come to Malcolm’s court wounded in spirit from the vicious attack on her home by Northmen who slayed her parents and her people. But that is not all she will suffer. The king has promised her to one of his favored warriors, but she has given her heart to a lowly scribe.
When all is lost, what hope is there for love? Can a broken heart be mended? Can a damaged soul be healed?
When the press release for The Refuge arrived in my inbox I felt like it was a book that I should probably review. After all, I am the one Scottish person on our staff. But in spite of my nationality and Master’s degree in History, I have to admit that I don’t actually know all that much about Scotland in the eleventh century. For all I know, this novel could be grossly historically inaccurate; but I did get the impression that Regan Walker had conducted a lot of research while writing The Refuge.
Although this isn’t a time period that I’m particularly familiar with, I ended up thoroughly enjoying The Refuge. I tend to shy away from historical romances set before the eighteenth century, with a few exceptions here and there. As much as I love novels that don’t sugarcoat history and reveal essential gritty details, I’m never particularly pulled towards novels set in periods rife with battles. While The Refuge does detail one raid and one battle, these parts aren’t the main focal point of the novel, and they aren’t full of gruesome details that might upset squeamish readers.
Although this isn’t a time period that I’m particularly familiar with, I ended up thoroughly enjoying The Refuge.
As I mentioned earlier, it seemed as if a lot of research has gone into this novel, and I was really impressed with how Regan Walker wove the historical details into the story. Nothing felt info-dumped, and I really got a feel for the time period and life within the Queen’s court, in spite of my utter lack of knowledge for any Scottish history prior to the fourteenth century. You really don’t need any prior historical knowledge in order to enjoy this novel. Given my experience with The Refuge, I probably would seek out more novels from this time period, as Regan made it sounds utterly fascinating.
The secondary characters in this novel were, for the most part, well fleshed out. Queen Margaret in particular was incredibly intriguing, and I can see how she lent herself easily to being one of the main characters in an inspirational novel. I’d actually be interested in learning more about her, outside of this book. There are several other members of Margaret’s court who feature prominently in the novel—including the other ladies in waiting and a close friend of Steiner’s—and they were developed well enough that I ended up caring about each of them, outside of their involvement in Catriona’s life. There were a couple of characters whom I felt were a bit more two-dimensional—namely Domnall and Isla. In retrospect, anyone remotely antagonistic didn’t feel quite as realistic as the other characters, mostly because they had less page-time and as such, their motivations didn’t feel entirely believable.
I appreciated that, in spite of the restrictions of the time period, Catriona was a very determined, unconventional woman.
I appreciated that, in spite of the restrictions of the time period, Catriona was a very determined, unconventional woman. She will definitely appeal to the modern reader, and I was pleased that Margaret was able to find a place for her in her court and use Cationia’s natural skills without forcing her to conform to the traditional activities of ladies in waiting. Steiner was also pretty unconventional—a scribe who aspires to be a warrior, in spite of his past injuries—but I did feel like the details about his past were rather vague. Some past trauma was constantly alluded to, but it was never fully explained. Their romance was sweet and endearing, if lacking in drama aside from their fear that King Malcolm would choose another spouse for each of them. That said, I didn’t actually find that I missed the drama, and this one conflict did feel pretty realistic. There was enough action and conflict out-with their relationship that the story still felt compelling.
I don’t have a lot of complaints about The Refuge. The few issue that I do have stem from the events leading up to the conclusion of the novel. Obviously, there’s a happy ending—it’s a romance novel, after all. I’d feel kind of betrayed if our hero and heroine didn’t find some way to stay together. However, all three of the principal couples in The Refuge somehow end up together, in spite of the fact that the time period of the novel and the setting of the King’s court suggest that marriages of convenience and political matches are the norm. I suppose that King Malcolm assigning each of the men in the novel their preferred bride is a way of showing that he was a good and kind King, but it still felt a little unrealistic. I know, I know, I’m basically complaining that the ending of the novel was too happy. I’m aware that this won’t be an issue for every reader.
I know, I know, I’m basically complaining that the ending of the novel was too happy. I’m aware that this won’t be an issue for every reader.
The only other thing that I particularly took issue with was the attempted assault scene. While I have no doubt that a lot of men had very little respect for women in this time period, it felt entirely unnecessary to the plot. It gave Steiner an opportunity to rescue Catriona—but did she need rescuing? She’s been a strong, independent woman for the entire book. Their relationship was just fine without Steiner having to rescue her. I also felt like this scene just made one of the novel’s antagonists into an even bigger caricature. Ultimately, we already knew he was the bad guy this point, so the scene felt a bit gratuitous.
Side-note: I was discussing this novel with one of my friends last night and admitted that I unintentionally developed a soft spot for Colban, and that I kind of wanted to read a novel featuring him, and the woman who softened his gruff heart and challenged his perception of women. Just throwing that idea out there! 😉
Overall, my issues with The Refuge are pretty minor, and definitely don’t hold me back from recommending this book. This is a strong historical novel, rich in period detail without overwhelming or alienating the reader, containing compelling protagonists and secondary characters. The faith element isn’t all that heavy, and given that Margaret’s spirituality appears to be a widely known historical fact, I think this novel would be pretty accessible to non-Christian readers as well. Although my to-read list is absolutely overflowing right now, I’d be up for reading another of Regan Walker’s romances sometime in the future.