Garland of Straw by Stella Riley

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The marriage of a well-bred Royalist lady and an illegitimate Roundhead Colonel is less a match made in heaven than a union doomed to hell. Unfortunately, Sir Robert Brandon’s last will and testament leaves Venetia Clifford and Gabriel Brandon with little choice in the matter – deeply though they both resent it.

Their tempestuous relationship is reflected in the stormy events buffeting the nation as England slides inexorably into a second Civil War. Gabriel continues to serve in the New Model Army whilst, behind his back, Venetia engages in clandestine activities on behalf of the King; and the lives of both of them are further complicated when Venetia’s former fiancé – who is also Gabriel’s legitimate half-brother – returns from exile.

While the Army and Parliament argue over the fate of the King, Gabriel realises that he has a dangerous anonymous enemy and Venetia finally begins to see the man rather than the Roundhead Colonel. As events gather pace, bringing the King to trial, the tangled web of danger and deceit surrounding both Gabriel and Venetia slowly tightens its grip.

Set against the compelling events which led to the execution of Charles I, Garland of Straw is the story of a seemingly impossible love … and also provides further chapters in the lives of some old friends from The Black Madonna and A Splendid Defiance.

RHL Classifications:

Publisher and Release date: Stella Riley, 29 November 2013
Time and Setting: London and Yorkshire, 1647-1649
Genre: Historical Fiction and Romance
Heat Level: 1.5
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Caz

Garland of Straw is a wonderfully written and very skilful blend of history and fiction which has, at its core, a tumultuous romance between opposites. In the highly unsettled period which followed the imprisonment of Charles I by Parliament in 1646, Venetia Clifford, a staunch supporter of King Charles, and Gabriel Brandon, a Colonel in the New Model Army, are forced to marry under the terms of a will which could otherwise deprive both of them of their homes.

When we met the beautiful and vivacious Venetia in The Black Madonna, she was at court in the service of the queen. She was in love with and betrothed to Ellis Brandon, son of a wealthy Yorkshire baron, but the intervening years have changed her. Ellis is fighting for the king, and she has not seen him in years. She will not admit it, but she is stung by the fact that he does not make much of an effort to keep in touch with her. Her brother, Kit, is dead, and she does not get a lot of help in managing the family estate – her mother is unable or unwilling to face the truth of their situation, and her sisters are too young to be of assistance, so Venetia is struggling to keep hearth and home together. The absence of someone to share her burdens has toughened her up rather a lot, and the carefree young woman she had been while at court has disappeared beneath a large pile of bitterness and cynicism.

Gabriel Brandon is a career soldier. While the term “mercenary” is primarily regarded as a derogatory one these days, in years gone by it was used simply to indicate a man who made his living as a soldier, travelling from one conflict to the next to ply his trade. Gabriel is such a man, having fought in many wars across Europe, and while his sympathies do indeed lie with Parliament, he is not fanatical, and certainly is not overly impressed with the way England has been run since the first war ended in 1646. I have no idea how the author does it, but Gabriel is yet another in her line of incredibly sexy, witty, highly intelligent and hugely capable heroes that stick in one’s memory long after the book is finished. He’s slightly older than the heroes of her other Civil War novels, which helps greatly to establish him as a man who knows what he wants and where he’s headed. This knowledge, of course, is about to be turned on its head, so that the man who had his life worked out is suddenly thrown from his course and will have to work hard to decide whether to find a new one, or disregard the road-bump and continue on his way regardless.

Venetia’s family home of Ford Edge is not far away from Brandon Lacey, whence she has been summoned to hear the will of the late Sir Robert. Because of Venetia’s betrothal to Ellis, and in order to prevent Ford Edge from sequestration (the act of seizure of property by the Parliament) Ford Edge had been in Sir Robert’s possession at the time of his death. His will dictates that the estate be returned to Venetia, but there is a condition. She must end her betrothal to Ellis and instead, marry Sir Robert’s illegitimate son, Gabriel.

Of course, both are appalled at the prospect, and Venetia wastes no time in making Gabriel aware of her feelings on the matter, insisting that the advantages of such a bargain are all on his side. But further investigation of the will proves that the canny Sir Robert has as just as effectively tied Gabriel’s hands, and that both parties stand to lose to a substantial degree if they refuse to tie the knot.

They have been given six months in which to wed or find a way out of it. Venetia can rant and storm all she wants – and she does – but they really do have no alternative and just before the allotted time expires, the reluctant pair are married.

It’s in the early stages of his relationship with Venetia that Gabriel’s maturity and strength of character really stand out. While she goes out of her way to be unpleasant to him, he takes it all in his stride – probably because he is well aware that it’s the best way to take the wind out of her sails and get his own back. While he is certainly more than capable of delivering a set-down that would make even the most seasoned campaigner quake in his boots, towards Venetia he is – for the most part – courteous, unflappable and dependable; so much so that she begins, very grudgingly, to develop a degree of respect, if not liking, for him.

It’s not until several months have passed that their relationship begins to take a real turn for the better. One night, while they are staying in London, Gabriel is set upon by a band of thugs and badly injured in the fight. While Venetia tends to him, they finally find themselves able to talk to each other on an even footing, without making jibes or trying to score points off each other. From then on, the adversarial nature of the early days of their marriage are put firmly behind them as Venetia finally allows herself to look beyond his uniform and see the true worth of the man she has married.

The pair forge a friendship born of their new-found respect and it’s not long before Venetia begins to recognise not only that her husband is a very good-looking man, but that she is deeply attracted to him – and in fact, has been so for some time. One of the things I love about Ms Riley’s romances is the fact that she allows her protagonists to find and realise their feelings for one another slowly and writes that in such a way that the reader, naturally a few steps ahead, is allowed to savour its progression. She is one of those authors who is able to make little things – a touch here, a glance there – generate more heat than some authors can do with a kiss or something more intimate, and the love scenes, when they finally take place, are well worth the wait.

As with The Black Madonna, there are numerous side and sub-plots, all of which are well-thought out and executed, descriptions of which would make this review much longer than it already is! Suffice to say there is a mystery running through the whole which sees several attempts made on Gabriel’s life and which culminates in a truly shocking turn of events for Venetia; there’s a secondary romance involving Sam Radford (Abigail’s brother from A Splendid Defiance) and the continuing stories of Eden Maxwell and Francis Langley – all of it set against the backdrop of the continuing conflict between king and parliament which is heading in a direction that is impossible for many to contemplate.

While it isn’t absolutely necessary to have read The Black Madonna before reading this book, I would certainly advise it. The period covered in Garland of Straw (1647-1649) was a time of massive upheaval and unrest in England, so it would certainly help to have a rough idea of the historical background to the story and who the central characters are, many of whom appeared in the previous book.

As Ms Riley has pointed out in her guest blog, this is an incredibly complex period of British history, and that complexity is woven through the book as events are seen and described through the eyes – and thoughts – of her fictional characters as well as the many who actually existed. I will admit that there were a couple of times I wanted to gloss over the history – not because I’m uninterested in the detail, but because by that time, I was so invested in what was going on with Gabriel, Venetia and the other fictional characters I’ve come to know and love, that I was more concerned with how they were getting on than with what was happening to the real historical figures! But that, in the end, comes down to personal preference, and I can only put it down to Ms Riley’s skill in having made her own characters so very captivating!

Garland of Straw is a real treat for anyone who enjoys well-researched and well-written historical fiction who also enjoys a well-developed and emotionally satisfying romance. It is the second book in a projected series of four, and although the final two books were not subsequently completed, the good news is that work on book three is now underway.

I, for one, can’t wait.

2 thoughts on “Garland of Straw by Stella Riley

  1. I too have read Garland of Straw and agree completely with this excellent review. Ms Riley never fails to produce a first class, well researched and intelligent story line and Garland of Straw is once again up there as an exceptional novel. Thank you.

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