Friday, September 14, 2001

The Sunne in Gold

Nene Adams
Shady Ladies Press

Set in Erin during the time of the crusades. Lady Cathelin O'Cameron, known as the Blacksunne, armored herself as knight and followed Richard the Lionhearted (reigned 1189-1199) to the Holy Land. There Blacksunne gained a reputation as a fierce and blood thirsty warrior and suffered the loss of a lover in a cross cultural bit of sexism and homophobia. Like Richard, Blacksunne has returned home to find a relative -- in this case her cousin -- usurper has taken control of her home. She and her battle hardened allies turn out the villain with little difficulty. Although she makes the mistake of not killing him when she could . . ..

Among many appalling changes to her keep, Lady Cathelin discovers her cousin has installed a Moorish bed slave, literally chained to his bed. Blacksunne frees Madrigal, who reminds Blacksunne of her lost love in the Holy Land. It turns out Madrigal has suffered so much trauma and abuse in her short life, she doesn't begin to know how to trust or love.

This is Adams' first novel and there are some uneven elements. The primary plot device, that of a cross-dressing, battle leading, noble woman requires the readers' willingness to suspend disbelief. This reader is willing to accept a broad range of premises, if the story is told well. Sunne in Gold does not entirely succeed. Certainly there have always been women who cross-dressed to increase their opportunities in this world. Indeed until the required medical exams of the 20th Century, every war has known some hidden women soldiers as well as less hidden ones. If the likes of a Blacksunne did exist, she seems more likely to be of Irish or at least Celtic origins. However, pinning her to the late 12th Century makes Blacksunne less likely in that the sexism of the time had already limited most women's options.

Some issues of characterization are too complex for this story and even distract from it. Adams might have been better off simplifying some of Madrigal's post traumatic stress -- since it is applying a current psychological standard to a very different set of values, time and culture -- and finally, most annoying, there are several historical inaccuracies that become distracting because Adams emphasizes them.

For example Cathelin gives Madrigal a dress. This is an important, touching moment for Madrigal. The former slave is impressed with the quality of cloth and the buttons, describing them in detail. (Well, she should be impressed, since buttons didn't exist until the 1600s!)

Then there is the issue of language. We're told Madrigal learned English from a cruel English knight who brought her back from the Middle East. It's unclear why the knight spoke English (even Middle English) instead of Norman French -- which is much more likely, certainly that's what Richard and most of the royal court spoke after 1066 -- but he did and thus taught Madrigal the language. Supposedly that's why she could understand Lady Cathelin O'Cameron. It's possible that the Blacksunne would have spoken Norman French or Latin because of her status and yes, perhaps even Middle English. However, it seems her first language, and certainly the language of most subjects of her fealty would have been old Gaelic. Indeed some of the characters speak with a strong dialect which may be intended to present Gaelic, but succeeds mostly in being distracting. As with the buttons, because Adams makes a point of bringing these language issues to the readers'attention, the error is annoying.

Adams' action is very good, if occasionally predictable, and draws the reader into the story. If you are in the mood for old-fashioned tale of betrayal, villainy, and the triumph of good with a touch of lavender romance, Sunne in Gold is worth your while. Certainly as Adams' first novel, it shows promise. Her plotting is good. Her depiction of the deterioration of the evil villain is wonderfully weird. Hopefully her future work will be more careful with historical detail -- simply setting it in a fantasy alternative realm would have solved these problems nicely -- and some pieces of characterization.

-MJ Lowe