Castle of the Wolf (2007)

By Sandra Schwab

(I know I said I was taking a breather from serious posting, but I've had this read and written since Nationals.)

"After the death of her father, Cissy Fussell finds out that she has inherited a castle in the Black Forest--but on one condition: she has to marry the son of her father's old friend.

"Ever since he returned home from the war, physically and emotionally wounded, Fenris von Wolfenbach has lived in the castle of his family, retired from the world like the beast in the fairy tale. Thus he is far from happy when one day a young Englishwoman turns up on his doorstep and claims his home as hers. Fenris is prepared to use any means fair or foul to get rid of his unwelcome visitor again. But will he manage to put Cissy to flight with rats on the loose? Or will she unravel the secrets of the Castle of Wolfenbach and eventually tame her beast?"

Sandy is another of our Unusual Historical contributors. I met in her person in Dallas; she gave me candy. Yay for online friends! She, along with Bonnie, Morag and other Dorchester authors, were stuck without books due to shipping issues, but Sandy brought CD copies of Castle of the Wolf. Clever girl!

I like how Dorchester is brave enough to take on these unusual time periods and run with them--not to the extent of Medallion's business plan, but with a higher level of exposure for their authors. But a German-set romance with many German phrases and bits of cultural history? Bring it on!

I happen to know that Schwab is working on her PhD in English literature, which explains Cissy's fascination with fairy tales, old legends, and medieval works of fiction. The entire book is thick with references and quotes, providing a great handle on Cissy's personality. She lived and breathed her love of fiction. Her chosen pursuit was not tacked on for the sake of some interesting characterization.

Mind you, I love the stuff, so this device totally worked for me--when it wasn't repetitive, which it sometimes was. I can understand running with themes and symbolism, but being hit over the head with it got a little tedious. Princess sheep! Mandrake! Sewing shadows! I get it, really. But that could be because I was interested in the stories and parallels; keeping up with new references was not difficult because I have a grounding in this stuff. Other readers might have needed and/or appreciated the repetition.

Yay for naughty playing cards! Yay for making the Queen of Spades into something romantic, not just sexy. Keeping it all that time in his coat pocket? Swoon! And I like how the story remained focused on their emotional connection. The second half does not degenerate into a scrompfest.

Stylistically, though, I had issues. HUGE paragraphs. Multiple ellipses. And I prefer my dialogue separated from the action as its own self-contained thought, if for ease of reading alone. That Dorchester allowed Schwab's writing to stand as it was, obviously her own unique take on craft, says a lot about how much her editor trusts authorial voice. She also gets away with the cardinal romance sins of a) not introducing the hero until significantly later in the story, and b) not having anyone shag or get killed on page one. Congrats! But I imagine this must have put off readers expecting a more slam-bang opening.

I kept looking for shadows around the corner, alternately convinced that Cissy's kindly widow friend and Fenris's loyal manservant were the true badguys. When it turned out more obvious than that, I was disappointed. Just so...obvious? I don't know. I could have done with more genuine intrigue to motivate the plot, and I'm not generally an intrigue kinda gal.

Otherwise, Schwab does a marvelous job of setting the Black Forest scene. Loved it. We get quirks, holidays, and a peek at a culture generally ignored by romance writers. But why? There's so much good stuff here!

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