Garland of Straw by Stella Riley

Garland cover 1

By June of 1647 England is still in a state of near-chaos. From endless conflicting factions, a tidal wave of radical new ideas threatens to drown the order of generations while the King plays both ends against the middle in a dangerous game of his own.

Venetia Clifford’s days are divided between her secret activities on behalf of the Royalist cause and the struggle to keep Ford Edge solvent despite poor harvests and inflated taxes. Ellis Brandon, her fiancé of the last five years, shows no sign of returning from exile – despite the recent death of his father.

Sir Robert’s last will and testament turns Venetia’s world inside out when he disinherits Ellis in favour of an illegitimate son she did not know existed and forces her to choose between losing her family’s home or marriage to a man who is both a stranger and an enemy. For Gabriel Brandon – tall, dark and openly sardonic – is a Colonel in the New Model Army.

Having seen Venetia at her worst during their first meeting, Gabriel can think of few things more unpleasant than being married to her – and neither does he wish to sacrifice his career in favour of becoming a glorified farmer. Unfortunately, the legal knots are tied too tightly to allow loop-holes … and the return of Ellis with his own mixture of mischief and malice, complicates matters still further.

The tempestuous relationship between Venetia and Gabriel is reflected in the stormy events buffeting the nation as Civil War flares up anew. Leaving riots in London and risings in the southern counties behind them, Gabriel’s regiment marches north to stem a Scots invasion. And, inevitably, once the danger is past, responsibility for this renewal of hostilities is laid at the King’s door.

While the Army and Parliament argue over the fate of the King, Gabriel realises that he has a very dangerous anonymous enemy and Venetia finally puts aside the ingrained misconceptions that have prevented her seeing the man rather than the Roundhead Colonel. As events gather pace, bringing the King to trial in Westminster Hall, the tangled web of danger and deceit threatening Gabriel and Venetia slowly tightens its grip.

Of the many axes – political and personal – that gave been ground, more than one is about to fall.

This author-revised and extended version of the original print edition, continues the tumultuous events of mid-seventeenth century England begun in The Black Madonna.

Rating: A

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 a recent 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.

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