Every so often I start hankering for a favorite book. It’s almost like craving a particular food. Only that flavor will do. Recently, that hankering turned towards The Perilous Gard, one of my favorite books for, oh, years. As a bonus, it’s also historical fantasy and a Tam Lin retelling, two awesome subgenres.
Kate Sutton is a lady in waiting to Princess Elizabeth, along with her younger sister Alicia. Alicia is beautiful and fluffy-minded and, when she becomes outraged over the living conditions at Hatfield, sends a letter to Queen Mary. Because Alicia gets out of everything, Queen Mary blames Kate and sends her to live under the protection of Sir Geoffrey Heron at Elvenwood in Derbyshire. The house is also known, ominously, as The Perilous Gard.
Kate is essentially Alicia’s opposite. She is plain, graceless, sharp-minded and sharp-tongued. It’s strongly implied that Alicia gets her character from her mother’s side of the family and Kate from her father’s, especially her grandfather. She values common sense, honesty, and plain dealing. She’s a bit like Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle, though she’s not normally so insecure. She’s in the category of characters I would like to have as a friend.
From the first glimpse of Elvenwood, Pope makes it clear that this is a strange and eerie land. One of the threads all my favorite Tam Lin retellings contain is a genuine sense of creepiness. There’s something frightening about the story and here there’s something frightening about the Elvenwood, about the castle and its inhabitants, and most especially, about the People of the Hill.
At the same time, Kate is forced, especially in the second half of the book, into a kind of unwilling sympathy for them. She understands them, while at the same time she fights against them with all her might to save Christopher. She’s half-way to being one of them by the end of the book, not simply in the way that she moves or how she has physically changed, but also in the fact that she can understand the way that they think. This layer adds a depth and complexity to the story that keeps the People from simply being villains or Other.
I haven’t said anything at all about Christopher yet, which is a pity. He’s an exasperating, marvelous character. The romance here is based on mutual respect and neither party leaps into it at first sight. (Kate even says at one point, “How could I be in love with Christopher Heron? I’ve only talked to him twice in my life!”) Given that I grew up on this book, The Blue Sword, Anne and Gilbert, and Betsy and Joe, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that insta-attraction romances are anathema to me. Regardless, the end is incredibly swoon-worthy and I would quote the whole thing except that it’s full of spoilers and also the point is that you have to read it in order.
It’s also interesting to note that Kate’s impulses from the beginning are to save Christopher. First she wants to save him from his loneliness and self-imposed penance. Then she wants to save him from his sacrifice. Then she wants to save him from the People. But she also exhibits the same impulse towards other characters–Cecily, Harry, even Randal.
Pope was part of the Society for Creative Anachronism, which means that she knew her stuff. And it shows. The historical aspect of the novel is utterly convincing in the surplus of details which are woven naturally into the story. Kate thinks and acts as a Tudor girl, albeit a slightly unconventional one. At the same time, I think she’s the strongest character in the whole book. Which just shows you that it’s possible to write female characters in historical fiction without sacrificing either accuracy or strength. (I keep harping on this. It is a Thing with me.)
In the end, after all of my blathering on, this is simply an wonderful book. It’s one of those that are heart-books, that have gone so deep I don’t really need to re-read them. But why on earth wouldn’t I?