The King’s Man by Elizabeth Kingston had me raving for a week. I listened to the audio during a car trip over the holidays and when we got home from our drive, my husband and I invented errands so we could keep listening. It’s that good. The fact that the narration is done by Nicholas Boulton didn’t hurt, of course. If you’ve listened to any Laura Kinsale audios, his voice will be familiar. But the book itself is outstanding, particularly for a debut author. Medieval romance is what got me into romance in the first place and the spiritual anxiety, political intrigue and sexy but not overwhelmingly erotic relationship between the hero and heroine perfectly captured everything I love about it. Oh, and the book opens with the hero injured, fevered, in fear for his mortal soul and at the heroine’s mercy, which is total catnip for me.
Ranulf of Morency is a real rat bastard. He’s the king’s favorite hitman. He murdered his adoptive father and it’s rumored, his father’s pregnant wives, for the lands he now holds. He enjoys wenching, drinking and setting people against each other for fun. He rarely makes a comment in the first half of the book that isn’t snide, misogynistic or both. I pretty much wanted to choke him, which I’d guess was the point. Gwenllian of Ruardean has every reason to hate Ranulf as she had been married by proxy to his murdered father and has a claim on Morency. She is a healer and a warrior, as skilled with a sword as she is with her herbs. She commands a squad of Ruardean’s men by virtue of earning her place as one of them. And she gives Ranulf gets an appropriate thrashing early in the book. All the same, she’s not totally happy with her life. She’s never allowed to express any kind of vulnerability because it would put her leadership role in jeopardy. Her mother is Machiavellian (though she and Gwenllian do love each other) and is embroiled in a plot against the king that she wants Gwenllian’s help with. So when she and Ranulf go to see the king to settle their land dispute, what happens next for honor and duty isn’t really either welcome or unwelcome. It’s just a change.
I think the most interesting thing about The King’s Man is that it’s got kind of an old school romance feel, but it’s updated. This paragraph gets a little spoilery so if that enrages you, skip it. For one thing, there’s no heroine kidnapping or questionable consent. But at a deeper level, in many older medieval romances, the hero is set up as a barbarian or other adversary to tame. That never really happens here. Ranulf never swears off killing for the king, but we do get the sense that his concern for his soul and his love of Gwenllian is driving his decisions by the end. He still teases Gwenllian mercilessly, though he does ease up on the misogyny. Gwenllian gives up her command, but keeps her armor and her ferocity. They both like that she’s able to take care of herself. Marriage changes them both. And more than that, the book seems to affirm the idea that whatever a woman chooses, whether the life of a warrior, or the life of a more conventional medieval wife, her skills won’t be wasted and anything that makes her happy is permissible. This had the potential to feel regressive, but there were small touches throughout the story that made me think that wasn’t the aim. Like Ranulf having trouble being sexually attracted to her when she played the part of the submissive wife (because it just wasn’t her) and Gwenllian’s having the knowledge and ability to end her pregnancy, but choosing not to (rather than being carried away on a tide of inevitable babies).
Finally, it might have been helped by Boulton’s dreamy narration, but the romance ends up being quite swoony. Gwenllian and Ranulf connect at a physical level before they fall in love, which seems perfectly reasonable given their backgrounds–they’re both quite passionate and tactile people. But the story wasn’t focused on the sex, steamy though it gets at times. It’s more their declarations of love for each other, couched in beautiful, courtly language that will thrill any lover of knights and fair maidens. I really enjoyed how it all developed.
The King’s Man is easily the best new medieval I’ve read in years and definitely one of my highlights of 2015. Kingston is a tremendous writer and I eagerly await her new offerings. Luckily I don’t have long because A Fallen Lady, Kingston’s first Regency romance, came out December 30th and is already sitting on my Kindle!
There’s a rationale to these recipes, I swear. Because despite the section on Kingston’s website about medieval food, there’s not really a lot of eating in the book. They have chicken. At least, that’s the only thing I highlighted. But Ranulf keeps sheep, Gwenllian uses herbs in her healing, both pomegranates and leeks are associated with Wales and yellow turnips (aka, rutabagas) are apparently a thing that medieval people ate. Even this quite standard rack of lamb preparation seems to have roots in medieval cookery. In perusing that section of Kingston’s site, I found references to mutton, herbs, mustard and breadcrumbs. The lamb probably isn’t the part that’s tripping you up though.
Okay, I get it. You’re thinking, “Mashed yellow turnips? How is that good?” But seriously? They’re way more delicious than I could have imagined. Of course, the heavy cream in them probably didn’t hurt. Even if you think you don’t like rutabagas, try this. Really. They were kind of amazing. I might even prefer this preparation to mashed potatoes and I love me some mashed potatoes. As for the crispy leeks, they’re time consuming, but so worth it and mostly hands-off. You really need to cook them until they’re quite brown and then let them rest on a paper towel to crisp up though or they’ll be stringy. I made enough to have leftovers and I’ve been putting them on scrambled eggs and salads.
As for the cocktail, I don’t know. I made this dish on New Year’s Eve and I needed to work champagne in there somewhere. I think there are pomegranates on Gwenllian’s spectacular red wedding dress. Anyway, here’s the recipe for the cocktail: 1/4 ounce of Grand Marnier, 1 ounce pomegranate juice, top with champagne. If you happen to have a pomegranate laying around, you could also float a few seeds on top. Pretty easy.
And I won’t tell if you pick up your lamb lollipop and bite it like a medieval lord. Not that I’ve ever done that. Nope.
- 1 1/2 cups olive oil
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 leeks, green tops and ends removed and sliced into rings
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 2 large yellow turnips (aka, rutabagas), peeled and diced into 1-inch squares
- 3/4 cup lowfat milk + 1/4 cup heavy cream (or 1 cup whole milk)
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 2 full racks of lamb, preferably frenched
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- salt and pepper
- 1/2 cup fine breadcrumbs
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
- 3 cloves garlic, minced fine
- 3 tablespoons of Dijon mustard
- Heat the olive oil and 3 tablespoons of butter in a medium skillet over medium-low heat until a thermometer reads 220 degrees Fahrenheit. Add the leeks and cook until thoroughly browned, about 30-40 minutes. Try to keep the heat between 220 and 260 degrees while cooking and stir occasionally to promote even browning.
- When browned, remove with a slotted spoon to a paper towel covered cookie tray to crisp up. Once they are crisp, they can be stored in a sealed container for up to a week.
- Add the peeled, diced turnips to a large pot and cover with water. Add a teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil and simmer covered until a turnip can be easily pierced with a fork, about 35 minutes, then drain
- In a small saucepan, heat the milk and cream or whole milk with the butter until bubbles just begin to break the surface.
- Working in batches in a food processor or blender, puree the turnips until they're quite smooth (see note). Once all the turnips have been pureed, add the milk and butter mixture in a steady stream with the food processor running until it is all incorporated.
- Return to pan to reheat. Add 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper or more to taste.
- Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Cover a baking sheet with aluminum foil.
- Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Rub the lamb with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper, about 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of pepper. Sear meat on each side (including the ends) until brown, 2-3 minutes per side. Remove to baking sheet and allow to rest for 20 minutes.
- In a small bowl, combine breadcrumbs, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, rosemary, thyme and garlic. Rub lamb with 1 1/2 tablespoons of Dijon for each rack. Pat breadcrumbs onto all sides of the lamb.
- Roast on the baking sheet for 20-25 minutes or until a thermometer reads 130 degrees. Let stand 5 minutes before carving.
- Serve over mashed yellow turnips and sprinkled generously with crispy leeks.
- I suspect you could also use an immersion blender for this, but I haven't tried it yet. Since you're adding the turnips back to the pan eventually anyway, that would actually be my preferred method.
August 9, 2015