The first time I read this I was a fairly young thing, looking for some historical fiction at my local library. Although sucked into the medieval world, glued to the pages, and ultimately moved by the story, I have to admit the brutality bothered me. Maria is beaten by her husband. A beloved child dies and he refuses to speak of it even though she clearly needs to grieve with him. I had trouble "getting" their relationship.
|1993 re-release The Hera Series|
Despite finding some aspects of the relationship a bit off-putting, memories of the novel stayed with me over the years. When I came across it in a book store several years later, I bought it to re-read. This time I was completely floored. What an extraordinarily beautiful love story. There was brutality, yes, but also poignancy and tenderness. And a dry humor that made me laugh out loud. This couple was well-matched indeed.
So what is this story about? Loosely (very loosely?) based on the Norman conquest of Sicily, Maria is the daughter and heiress of a local petty baron. Richard is a Norman knight in his employ– a mercenary. Richard is accompanied by a couple of his brothers, including his handsome, charming younger brother Roger. Maria has eyes for Roger, but ambitious Richard wants the baron’s castle and, being somewhat belligerent and threatening, he manages to convince the baron it would be a good idea to let him marry Maria. The baron lets Maria decide. At first, she says no. She doesn’t particularly like the brutish Richard. But Richard gives her a glimpse of his ambition. And Maria intuits enough to realize Richard has something Roger does not.
The book tells the story of their life together, forging a kingdom and a marriage. What makes Great Maria so remarkable is the detail of a strong medieval woman’s life, how she uses her role in order to be a full partner to her ambitious husband. Generally she supports him but at times she opposes him – and sometimes she wins. Their marriage is full of give and take, all within the context of the grit, bloodshed, and political intrigue of their medieval world.
Cecelia Holland is a masterfully subtle writer. The character development is so flawless that she doesn’t have to explain for the reader what a gesture might have meant– the gesture speaks for itself. A few well-chosen words pack an enormous emotional wallop. Their fleeting moments of happiness and playfulness are a precious gift in lives filled with turmoil and struggle and I felt like I was living it all right along with Maria.
I love this book. I’ve read it three times. And I just might have to read it again.