A mention of time-travel romances in the comments of another review inspired me to revisit my very favourite time-travel romance, Son of the Morning, by Linda Howard. I first read this book 10+ years ago and was completely gripped from beginning to end. I’ve since re-read it several times. It’s one that never gets old for me.
Perhaps ironically, what I love most about this book is not the time travel or the romance. In fact, those parts are my least favourite. What I love is the female protagonist, Grace St John. I love everything about this character. Grace is an ancient languages specialist (a clever way to finesse the perennial time-travel-romance problem of the romantic partners being unable to understand each other) who works for a privately owned organisation that invests in archaeological and historical research. One day, she is given some papers to translate that make reference to the Knights Templar, and one knight in particular–Niall of Scotland, called Black Niall. The project, and Niall, instantly fascinates her, and shatters her world.
Grace’s beloved husband and brother are murdered and she is forced to go on the run. She sets out into a rainy Minnesota night with her laptop computer and no coat, and much of the first half of the book is taken up by her struggle to adapt to her new circumstances, to elude capture, and to complete her translation of the mysterious papers. It’s this story that keeps bringing me back. Grace is intelligent and resourceful, with an inner toughness that surprises everyone, including her. She survives on her wits and thanks to some help from (somewhat conveniently) knowledgeable people that she encounters. I love that for once a romance novel heroine is not just described as ‘smart’ and ‘strong,’ she actually demonstrably is. Grace is not a Mary Sue, though (at least no more than any woman in a romance novel is), she has flaws and she makes mistakes–one particularly glaring one that is necessary to move the plot along, but still a bit annoying after all she has learnt. Despite this, Grace’s development is believable, compelling, and emotional. She does all these extraordinary things while under the added burden of her crushing grief over the loss of her husband and brother, and when she begins to have erotic dreams about Niall she is torn between her interest in and lust for him, and her love and loyalty to her husband. This conflict is dealt with head-on and not brushed lightly aside once Grace and Niall get together, which is honest, and another departure from more conventional romances.
On a nerdier note, I love that so much attention is given to the process of translating the documents and uncovering the mystery. As a linguist and translator myself, the description of Grace’s work really resonates with me.
The actual romance part of the book is completely fine, it’s hot, Niall is the sort of mega-alpha-male that Howard often writes, but he isn’t as chauvinistic and domineering as many of her early heroes were. It’s good, but after the compelling and tense story of Grace’s survival and reinvention, it’s perhaps slightly flat. The secret that spurred the murders and sent Grace on the run is faintly preposterous, but if you can suspend disbelief sufficiently to accept time travel, it’s not too much of a stretch. Still, none of these weaknesses is enough to overshadow the brilliant first half, and Grace will forever be one of my favourite romance novel heroines.