My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts as I went with the book...
My interest in Elizabeth Taylor George’s book peaked when I finished the re-issue of Knight's Desire. Spellbinder is an older book by her. I like her writing and storytelling ability. However, the dialogues in this book were sometimes just too ridiculous. I spend a lot of time snorting and snickering. And no matter the title, there’s nothing futuristic in it. Spellbinder is a medieval romance.
In the beginning of the story, we find this apothecary mixing up a potion with various ingredients; a potion for a flawed lady who requested it to keep her husband in thrall, so that he’s blinded to her flaws and loves her. The apothecary mentions that she will have to wear it always for the spell to work.
Marial is the third child and the youngest daughter of Lord Robert. She has lost her mother at an early age and suffered a mysterious accident. The scar of that accident ruined one side of her beautiful face. I don’t think it was the whole side but one scarred cheek. Whatever it was, Marial has suffered for it ever since, if not by the pain of it but by the hurt caused by the others. She had been tormented by her siblings, her beautiful elder sister and her brother. Even though, her elderly lady’s maid, Patience, her father and the other servants are kind enough, Marial has heard enough about this to have a low self-esteem. To make matters worse, all her suitors so far have abandoned her after seeing her ‘flawed’ feature. Marial is anxious that she’d finally be carted off to the nunnery, as was the norm for the unwanted women (unmarried or abandoned by their husbands) of the society. This is the worst nightmare for her. She wants to marry, have kids, and be loved by a husband. But most of all, she doesn’t want to be a nun... ever! Other than this physical ‘flaw’, Marial is witty, can crack jokes often and banter on with Patience. I really enjoyed her banters with the wily old lady’s maid.
Marial’s father was becoming desperate when the Gods finally listened to his plea in the form of Jerrod the Hawk, Earl of Cullenfield. Jerrod agrees to marry Marial without seeing her. The pact was made because he and Robert had a mutual understanding. Upon hearing that her fiancé is here, Marial becomes somewhat edgy. She’s not looking forward to another rejection (and I can so sympathize). She begins bantering with Patience to lighten up the mood. Then, before going downstairs to meet her ‘doom’, Marial brings out the potion/scent/essence and dabs a little on herself. Now she’s feeling very confident that Jerrod Hawkwood won’t see her facial scar.
And he doesn’t! Jerrod, even though starts off as a douche, he never once mentions Marial’s scar. This amazes Marial. But it seems like her would be husband is a man without even a little humor, who can’t even tolerate ‘too much japing’ by Marial. He even compares her station in his life as that of a cabbage in his larder! Later though, the ‘cabbage’ incident becomes a private joke between them, as he’d call Marial ‘My Lady Cabbage’ when she’d poke him about it, putting a smile on my face.
Presently, it seems the knights who accompanied him can’t see Marial’s scar as well, except for one, the most handsome of them, Hastings. Other knights are the elderly William, the blonde giant Walter and seemingly shy Howard, the youngest of the lot. I loved the names they gave to each-other, and most of their bawdy banters. Apart from Hastings, the other knights are taken with Marial on spot. Though he was being a jerk, Jerrod was attracted to his fiancée. He doesn’t show this because after all, he’s a warrior who’s not supposed to show, even feel any emotion for a woman! Marial feels Hastings’ dislike of her from the first moment but she doesn’t say anything. She makes witty remarks and replies to Jerrod to shake off the bad feelings about that guy.
As you can see, I was not very fond of Jerrod at first. Exactly why? He proves in their first night together; the consummation of the marriage. It seems like Jerrod doesn’t have very high opinions of women, thanks to his disgusting father. He likes dallying with serving wenches and noble ladies alike. I distinctly disliked his unconcerned acknowledgement about shagging serving wenches of his own home. Many-a-times, this comes back to haunt me in the story, making me unhappy. Jerrod can’t have sex in the ‘slow and sweet way’. Rough is all he knows, and gives. So far he heard no complaint from the other women he had slept with. And with Marial, he does the same, knowing she’s a virgin. It was a super idiotic scene and I wanted to kick Jerrod’s ass. He hurts Marial and she never reaches any kind of release.
Funny thing is, Marial was beginning to become too wrapped up in her assumption that her scar is invisible to Jerrod. She thinks it’s because of the spell that scent is casting on him. Jerrod has even made remarks that he loves the smell of it. Same was happening to the other knights and their wives, except for Hastings and his spiteful wife, Lottila. This gives Marial a tremendous feeling of confidence and she begins wearing the scent day and night. As the story progresses, Marial starts becoming somewhat of a silly creature. Even after Jerrod’s stupid lovemaking on their wedding night, Marial can’t but want to try everything to make him happy. Every time she thought she did something wrong, she’d start hearing the toll of the church bell from afar! Don’t even ask!! I couldn’t help rolling my eyes on her overly dramatic reactions, she was SO terrified about it.
Now, will have to talk about Jerrod’s life. Apart from his douchy-ness, he has had a tough childhood. His father, an abusive man has led his mother to insanity and it’s rumored, died by poison ministered by her before she went mad. He beat her, mentally tortured her and in later years, he showed no respect or feeling for any other women. He’d bring whores at home to shag in front of his wife and attack unsuspecting young maids of the house, raping them. Jerrod has seen and heard enough of the man to have a lack of self-confidence in himself. Oh, he knows he’s good with his sword and he’s good in bed too but there lurks the problem. He self-doubts himself about his treatment of women, be it lowly serving wenches or noble ladies. For me, his inner-turmoil showed that he’s far different from his father. As I mentioned earlier, Jerrod likes it rough and that’s how he gave it so far. Then he botches things up with Marial. Even though confused, Marial wasn’t scared or angry at him about their wedding night but Jerrod keeps thinking of it. He thinks he needs to learn to woo women gently... no, not other women but his soft and elegant wife before he takes things further. He wants to have his heir and he it from Marial. He asks for the Romantic minded Howard’s help about this, which I thought was sweet. From there, his attraction for Marial was quite apparent, the scar notwithstanding (I, for one, didn’t believe he didn’t see the scar). Jerrod’s transformation from a rough and bawdy warrior to a thoughtful, sweet man (in his own way) was so subtle, I almost didn’t see it coming until much later.
After his counsel, Jerrod would try the poems and lines penned by Howard on Marial, secretly touching her here and there... Good God! It was somewhat funny because Jerrod didn’t even know how to recite poetry. He never even thought that he’d have to do this for a woman! He’s a warrior for crying out loud!!! But his mind and body have other ideas. Jerrod now wants Marial to be happy at his home, as she was making everyone in his home happy, including him. He wants her to want him like a woman does a man.
Marial accomplishes some big tasks after arriving at Jerrod’s castle. She takes charge as the chatelaine. Before that, Lottila performed this task and is now unhappy about her replacement. Marial is also secretly very happy about the kind of attention her husband is bestowing upon her. She never even thought her husband would turn so sweet. Oh thank the Lord, the church bells have stopped tolling... for now! She is determined to do anything to make Jerrod happy in order to stay as his wife. Then, she takes up the most important task, of taking care of Jerrod’s mother, Lady Mags. She makes sure the woman is cleaned often and fed, that there are servants and other entertainments available for her. Marial would defend Jerrod strongly when Lady Mags would start blabbering on, hinting that Marial should be careful because Jerrod would turn out to be like his father etc. etc. Marial even comes up with a plan to build this chair-on-wheel so that Lady Mags can be wheeled outside as she hasn’t been for a long, long time. Soon enough, the woman begins healing and starts looking better. There were some emotional scenes between Jerrod and Lady Mags later in the story, which made me teary-eyed. From those scenes, one thing became very apparent; that Jerrod loved his mother no matter what and he hated his father for making their lives hell.
Jerrod was finally feeling happy after a long while. Even though his seduction of his wife was going good, he was still not sure about having sex. Jerrod suddenly finds that he’s not interested in any of his serving wenches, even when one of his favorites back in ‘the days’ gives him hints while he was bathing. (apparently, all the knights bathed together in a big tub after a day of hard practice and then, had sex in the hayloft not far from the bathing area... eh, don’t even ask). For now, Jerrod’s world is occupied by only one woman; Marial. He becomes lighthearted, smiles often, even starts dreaming of a home and a hearth with Marial and their children. Everything about her excites him, including her little defiance of his orders.
One day, Jerrod and Marial go quite far but he doesn’t go all the way because he wasn’t sure it was ‘the right time’. Marial suddenly becomes anxious that Jerrod isn’t feeling attracted to her. She again starts hearing the church bells!!!!! (I’m sorry but this came over and over again in the story, making me want to either laugh or scream in frustration) This is what I meant when I said Marial starts acting TSTL. I rather liked her initially but not so much afterwards, especially when she lost her fun persona to a too submissive wimp where Jerrod was concerned. Otherwise, she was shown to be a brilliant girl, who even designs an improved helmet for her husband and his knights so that they win this jousting ceremony with an evil (the obvious villain of the story) opponent. Not sure I was entirely convinced!
After the second half, some incidents take place. Lottila starts being too chummy with her, something Marial should’ve suspected since Jerrod himself asked her to be wary of that woman. Lottila wanted to marry Jerrod but he didn’t fall into her trap. But Marial would always shrug off her unease, though it never completely went away. Even when the other wives who befriended Marial, like Rosalind (William’s wife) or Vonda (Walter’s wife) never seemed to have warmed towards Lottila because of her arrogance, Marial found some way to trust in Lottila’s words. I would never know why. But, Lottila couldn’t cook up enough trouble for Marial. In the end, both she and Hastings saw reasons and apologized for all the trouble Lottila has caused. Too easily, I must say, leaving me surprised. I thought they’d be a part of some big villainous plan!
Marial has been hearing a disembodied voice of a woman for sometimes, though she never confided in anyone for the fear of being marked as a witch. This voice would foretell her about any significant incident, be it good or bad. The superstition was quite prominent, as Hastings and Lottila try their best to prove Marial as a witch or possessed by demon. Thankfully, Jerrod was enough affectionate of Marial of have those claims dismissed. TBH, Marial was hearing voices but she wasn’t sure why this was happening to her. She never believed that she has some ‘special’ power. Then who does this voice belong to? Before meeting Jerrod, the voice advised her to love the man, and Marial is already more than half-way in love with him. Then the voice keeps warning her of an imminent danger; a murderer who would ride on a grey horse. Marial distinctly feels that the warning was for Jerrod. This is when she decides to design that new helmet with improved visual, mainly for Jerrod’s safety. We get to learn the voice’s identity in the end.
But the most significant incident (for which I was waiting for) was the day that scent goes missing and Marial becomes frantic. Even Patience’s soothing words can’t help her. She does a lot of drama about Jerrod seeing her scar without the scent ‘to veil it’ that set my eyes rolling. She, of course, can’t deter him because by then they’ve already started having sex again and sleeping together. The next morning, Marial finds Jerrod looking at her. And while she panics, I felt what was on Jerrod’s mind. Indeed, he assuages her fears with the fact that he had seen the scar but that never mattered to him. It was all about Marial’s beauty and grace. This is why he married her, not because of the scent. Marial’s mumbling admission does make Jerrod laugh, another surprising development, showing how he’d changed from a crabby warrior to a man who can now laugh when his wife is being silly. And this development certainly improves Marial’s state of mind about the church bells and all that. It seems like she’s going to stay as Jerrod’s wife because he emphasizes that he never had any intention of giving her up.
I liked the ending of the story. It was kinda sweet. The climax revealed the villain, who was also the cause for Marial’s scar. Though a bit obvious, I liked how full of suspense it was! However, I thought the real story behind Lady Mags’s insanity was wayyyyyyy overblown. I give this a 4 star because even after everything, I mostly enjoyed it.