"Joanna" is Book Three in Roberta Gellis' marvelous "Roselynde Chronicles." As with all the individual novels that make up the series, this one stands alone, on its own merit. The novels actually do chronicle history, with meticulous accuracy, so it is helpful to read the books in sequence to understand the politics and reigns of each king. The characters are so richly drawn, even the minor ones, that it is an added touch to watch them grow and mature with every new book.
The story opens during the reign of King John. The treacherous, cruel King has taxed his people heavily; there is political intrigue and moral laxity at court; international problems with the French, Welsh, and Irish bode ill for England's security; and the barons are unhappy with their monarch. The Church is unhappy with John also. He has tried to take control of the Church through his choice for the archbishop of Canterbury, and has been seizing Church revenues for the Crown. The Pope has excommunicated him.
Joanna, Alinor of Roselynde's teenage daughter, has consented to a betrothal with Sir Geoffrey Fitzwilliam, her stepfather's squire of old, who is now a landed knight and budding warrior. He is also the illegitimate son of the King's half brother, and so has royal Plantagenet blood. Alinor and her husband Ian, leave for Ireland to assist the Earl of Pembroke in keeping the peace. They place 20 year old Geoffrey in charge of their vassals in case of war with the Welsh, knowing that Geoffrey's father will back him up if necessary. Joanna is to take charge of their land holdings. Like her mother, Joanna is literate, independent, and trained to care for her people and land, making difficult decisions when needed. Her temperament is less volatile than her mothers and she keeps her feeling to herself. Although she is pleased with her betrothed, who she has known since childhood, she is afraid to love. She has seen war, suffering and loss, including the death of her beloved father some years before. Joanna is a courageous young woman, but fears to lose her heart to Geoffrey, and hopes for a steady, companionable relationship, no more.
As Joanna's and Geoffrey's relationship changes, so does the political climate in England. There are more storms than fair days here, however. A hard war begins with Wales. The Pope absolves all men from their fealty to King John. Philip of France now holds Normandy, which belongs to John. And the King, and Isabella, his Queen, conspire against Geoffrey and Joanna.
Ms. Gellis takes us on an incredible journey through the King's court, medieval keeps, sieges and battles for life, land and honor, the horrific fire that devastated London in 1212, the signing of the Magna Carta by King John at Runnymede and his repudiation of the charter later. Civil War tears the country apart and King Philip invades England with mercenaries. This is exciting stuff!
Joanna and Geoffrey love, marry and are separated by the many events that impact the country. Joanna, at one point must travel, during the war with the French, to rescue her husband who is near death.
I liked this book very much, to say the least. However, it does not merit the five stars I gave the first two books in the series. Because of the turmoil of John's reign, the many problems are reflected in the relationship between the two main characters. While this is realistic, it was difficult to read about depressing times and depressed people. But, hey! Four stars is very good!