I don’t know what I expected from a book that literally has “An Avon True Romance For Teens” listed right on the cover, but I gave it a good shot. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.
Gwyneth and the Thief, Margaret Moore, 2002.
There was a general trend in the late 90s and early 2000s to have lots of historical fiction and light historical romance all over the YA fiction section, just like how today that section is overwhelmingly dominated by fantasy and urban fantasy and novels about socialites, also sometimes involving fantasy. Most of these were written by romance novelists and have a pretty varying level of quality—the execrable Miranda and the Warrior was in this series, as was Samantha and the Cowboy, but there’s also two charming entries by Meg Cabot and a really good one by Beverly Jenkins about a black couple in the 1850s that I’m really pleased made the cut among the rest of white-white-white novels.
Unfortunately, this is one of the worse novels in the “series.” Margaret Moore is an entirely competent writer, but her entire oeuvre consists of bodice-rippers in the 80s and 90s tradition, with covers that feature women in dresses that are falling down and men with either no shirts on or very fancy clothing. Usually they have something to do with Scotland. This book is really just a historical romance novel that’s had the more explicit parts expunged. That takes a lot of the interest out of it, honestly.
The premise of this is that Gwyneth is the (naturally) very beautiful only daughter of the lord of a very small estate, whose mother is long since dead and brother dead for the past couple of years. Unfortunately, Gwyneth’s father is very ill and has left her more or less in charge of the estate, but things are getting tight since there’s not a lot of money to go around. There’s an evil baron on the next estate who’s straight out of central casting, (in case you didn’t catch that he’s the villain, his name is DeVilliers—I really give teens more credit than this) and wants to marry Gwyneth to take over the estate. But luckily Gwyneth’s father is about nine hundred years ahead of his time, and wants her to marry for love. (This is completely stupid, it almost goes without saying, because as the daughter of a lord Gwyneth would know and would have grown up knowing her entire life that she was going to be married to someone of her parents’ choosing in order to either cement an alliance or gain something.)
Gavin, the titular thief, is the daughter of a Scottish lady and an unnamed but presumably dirtbag man. His mother had him out of wedlock and was thrown out of her home for it, and then died before Gavin was old enough to look after himself, meaning that he was picked up by a band of pickpockets and forced into a life of crime. He gets into a fight with his thief buddies just outside of Haverleigh, Gwyneth’s estate, which she happens to be near enough to overhear. The thieves beat up Gavin and leave him for dead, and Gwyneth watches him fight and then comes up with the spectacular plan that she’ll rescue him and force him to teach her villagers to fight in return for saving her life. They’ll use the ruse that he’s the lost squire of a super important knight, Sir Henry D’Argent, which will in no way backfire. This will benefit them both, because clearly one random thief will be able to teach a bunch of villagers enough quality fighting skills to fend off armed mercenaries from next door. Cool. Already a super good premise that can in no way go wrong.
Gwyneth also has a maidservant, Semeli, who has been her companion since they were both four and naturally, Gwyneth’s father would never ever ever condone slavery so he freed her rather than keeping her as a slave. Also, apparently Semeli is Persian, although Semeli is a Greek name (sort of), which you can tell by how constantly they refer to her as “exotic” and “swaying, graceful” and so on. She really serves only as a sounding board for Gwyneth, so Gwyneth has someone to constantly tell that she really, really, really doesn’t think Gavin is cute AT ALL, no way, no how, she certainly wasn’t interested in him at all, ever.
Thomas, the village reeve, thinks Gwyneth is useless, but he’s the only one, as literally every other person in the village thinks Gwyneth is the spitting image and soul of her sainted dead mother. She’s one of those annoying characters who has zero flaws, but that seems to be a common disease, since Semeli and Gwyneth’s father are similarly perfect. Even Gavin’s only “flaw” seems to be that he is a criminal and doesn’t go to church, since otherwise he seems to comport himself perfectly and is miraculously an excellent teacher of fighting. Anyway, Thomas comes by to bleat at Gwyneth that the estate is terribly undefended and she should consider the earl’s gift of protection (in return for marriage), and she drops the bomb on him that she’s going to have one man from each home trained as a soldier. Thomas is, of course, completely baffled by this, as anyone would be at the idea that a bunch of farmers are going to be an effective fighting force after some sessions with a thief.
(On a side note, all the names in this book are terrible. Gwyneth’s late elder brother is named “Rylan,” which is not a name from the 1200s, and “Semeli” as I’ve mentioned isn’t a Persian name but a Greek one in that it’s any name at all, and “Emlyn,” a Welsh villager, has the name of an a place rather than a person.)
Anyway, Gavin goes along teaching the villagers how to fight and does wonderfully, but runs into trouble when the villagers all say that they have no access to weapons, since they’re in the armory. He’s all “but WHY?” as if it’s maybe not the brightest idea to allow a bunch of villagers access to weapons freely. Then he asks Gwyneth why she doesn’t sell them if she’s so hard up for money, and she points out that it’s not a great idea to sell off your weapons of defense, even more so if you’re in a difficult position. While they’re in the armory together, sniping at each other about weapons and calling each other names, Gavin kisses her and she freaks out and runs the hell away. Which is, if I believe romance novels, is one of two answers to a kiss, the other one being a wordless melting into each other.
It turns out that Thomas-the-bad-reeve is a friend of Baron DeVilliers The Villain, and he tells him everything about Gavin and the let’s-train-the-villagers scheme. You can tell that Thomas is supposed to be a dirtbag because he says things like “No man should have to take orders from a girl,” which is totally a normal thing for a man in 1202 to say, it tells us right away that He’s A Sexist Pig. In return for this valuable information, the only thing Thomas wants is for Baron DeVillainous is to get rid of his annoying stepson, Hollis. Uh, why can he not throw his own damn stepson out of his house if he wants? It’s a dirtbag thing to do, but hey, his wife and Hollis’s mother is dead, so…why can’t he do it? This book makes no sense.
Gavin is wandering around one fine morning when Moll, the village loose woman, starts talking to him and asking if there’s anything he might, you know, need wink wink nudge nudge. This pisses off Gwyneth, which pisses her off because she shouldn’t be so concerned with what the local whore and thief are doing together, and then she frets that Semeli is going to figure it out. Then Semeli stops by to remind us she’s Persian and say that “Persians make the best doctors,” and Gwyneth points out in the only sensible sentence in this book that the majority of Persian doctors are located in Persia, not in England.
Gwyneth gets worried when the doctor tells her that her father needs some decent food in order to recuperate, and the entire estate is so poor that there isn’t a chicken to be had anywhere. She asks Gavin to take Emlyn, the Welsh archer, off to the woods to poach some game, and after they argue a little about it, Gavin gives in and they kiss a bit. Their entire relationship is comprised of them being attracted to each other, and then feeling convinced that nothing will ever happen, and then sniping at each other. Lather, rinse, repeat. Gavin offers to take Emlyn, the archer, and Hollis, Thomas’s stepson, off to hunt.
While they’re planning this illegal jaunt, Hollis confesses that he’s desperately in love with Semeli and that his stepfather hates him, and also tells Gavin a bunch of dirt on Gwyneth and Baron DeVillainous and how everyone in the village hates him and loves Gwyneth. Back at the manor, Semeli is crying because she loves Hollis and can’t be with him, and Gwyneth is upset because she can’t even talk about the guy that she’s into. And while all of this is happening, with classic timing, Gavin’s old band of thieves have turned up on Baron DeVillainous’s estate and fill him in on how Gavin is a big phony. So basically, everyone is terribly unhappy with how everything is going.
Gwyneth decides that the best course of action would be to accompany Gavin and Hollis and Emlyn, and Semeli comes too, for no reason that I can see. Gwyneth and Gavin are off in the woods and confess that they love each other and how much they wish they could run away together, but Gwyneth says she can’t possibly leave her people to DeVillainous. They’re interrupted by a boar crashing through and manage to kill it, but its weight at a massive “two hundred pounds” is apparently far, far too much for any one of them to carry, and the girls need to go fetch a litter. This whole path of reasoning is flawed, because I refuse to believe that even two strong healthy young men between them can’t drag 200 pounds. In fact, if they were smart enough to bring some rope, you could get four people involved in this and have them drag the equivalent of 50 pounds apiece, which is perilously simple.
The girls go ahead, and run into none other than DeVillainous, and Gwyneth plots to lead him away from the boar by alleging that she really, really does like him and wants to walk home with him. When they all get back, Gwyneth and the baron are walking in to Haverleigh accompanied by the Three Thieving Stooges, and Gavin decides to play it like they’re idiots who are just trying to slander him. They squabble a bit, and Gavin acts like the terribly outraged nobleman he’s pretending to be, and then the baron starts insulting the men of Haverleigh and it looks like they’re about to have a full-fledged fight between the ragtag home team and the wealthy visitors. (You’re right! This is also the basic plot of every kids’ sports/competition movie ever made!)
Anyway, the contest is set for the next day, but back at the estate Gwyneth and Gavin are talking urgently about what will happen, and then a bunch of the village men all barge into the hall and they all confess that they knew that Gavin wasn’t noble all along! Ha ha! Semeli too! They just liked him too much and liked Gwyneth too much to say anything about it! LOL this is totally realistic and not at all a plot contrivance of 2002! Anyway, Gavin promises to become worthy of Gwyneth’s hand one day, and she promises to wait for him, and then Gwyneth’s father is miraculously healed enough to come down into the hall and join in all the excited plotting. Then in comes Thomas, the evil reeve, and Gwyneth’s father tells him that he’s been spotted spending all that time at DeVillainous’s estate, and throws him out.
At the “battle” the next day, Gavin wears Gwyneth’s favour, and he’s engaged in a drawn battle with DeVillainous when of all people, Sir Henry D’Argent rides up and asks DeVillainous what the hell he’s doing, fighting his squire. He plays along with the whole story and arrests the baron for not paying his taxes (the old Al Capone gambit), and it just so happened that he was coming over to arrest him when Gwyneth’s father, an old friend, intercepted him and told him the whole story. But the knight is just so damn impressed with Gavin’s innate skills that he agrees to take him on as a real squire, and he’s going to take over DeVillainous’s estate, so he’ll even be close by!
Rating: D. Now, the story itself is not horrible. It’s a pretty straightforward romance, but my real problem is the ridiculously presentist attitudes and deus-ex-machina resolution and the fact that it’s boring. Really, the most interesting parts of most romance novels are the not-for-public-consumption parts, and when you have to remove those for a teen audience you really have to bump up the plot considerably to make it really appealing. Which this novel is not. It doesn’t even have the costume porn a lot of historical romances have to up the interest quotient. So, to sum up: wooden characters, ridiculously out-of-place attitudes, out-of-nowhere plot resolution that miraculously wraps up every loose end happily, and boring. No thanks.