Early in the 12th century, England is torn apart by civil war brought on by those competing for its throne after the death of Henry I.
"Ann of Cambray" (published in 1984 as an unheralded paperback original) introduced Mary Lide's red-haired firebrand heroine, who on the mysterious death of her only brother, and two days later of her father, journeys to Sedgemont in western England to swear allegiance to Lord Raoul, her overlord.
Theirs is not a smooth relationship -- she obstinate, willful and lacking in obvious feminine traits; he a powerful leader constantly caught up in the wars against Henry of Anjou, who is tying to wrest the throne from King Stephen of England.
"Gifts of the Queen" continues the story of Ann and Raoul, now married, and not only keeps the reader riveted to its pages but also wondering what more there possibly can be to keep the excitement mounting. In fact, had this novel come along in the 1940s or early '50s, it would have been a natural choice for the movies; it is just the sort of swashbuckling, passionate, historical adventure that was so popular in those days.
Early on, Ann and Raoul as Count and Countess of Sieux travel from England to France to visit his holdings there. The castle of Sieux in the rolling countryside south of Normandy is obviously Raoul's pride and joy, as well as his boyhood home. Imagine his shock on finding it destroyed, his household guards hanging from the rafters. Thus Lide sets the scene for many a future skirmish with the Norman barons or the vassal lords of Henry.
Throughout the novel, the cunning Henry of Anjou, soon to be King Henry II of England, sets lord against lord for his own personal gain, and his conniving wife Eleanor of Aquitaine matches him stroke for stroke. "King Louis," said Eleanor of her first husband, "spent more time on his knees than he did in our bed." Not surprisingly, Eleanor leaves France's Louis, marries Henry II and becomes queen of England. This was no mean feat considering the difficulty many then had in holding on to one crown, let alone in acquiring two.
"Gifts of the Queen" receives its title from the gifts of gold and precious stones that Queen Eleanor bestowed on Lady Ann at her wedding. It is these same gifts that Ann tells her husband to sell to pay for the rebuilding of Castle Sieux and to gain the help of Master Edward and his company of masons.
The variety of incidents, the French and English backgrounds, and the characters themselves are so colorfully depicted that although Ann and Raoul are the central figures, many others of both high and low birth entrench themselves in one's memory. Sir Renier, for example, approaches Raoul in France and informs him that if he wishes to keep his English titles, Henry will expect his help in putting down treasonous acts by his French lords.
Raoul replies: "Bear to Henry your king when you see him next. In England I am his sworn man and so will attend him there. In France, I owe him nothing, and he shall nothing have. And tell him also this. He will never claim another inch, another life, upon my lands. We shall not reach for revenge, nor seek it out, although justly we could do so, nor do we plot behind men's backs, but make one move, we'll smite him body and soul to Hell."
When one of the neighboring French lords calls on Raoul to invite him to bring his knights and enter a jousting tournament, Ann is immediately suspicious and tries to persuade Raoul that it is some kind of trap. Raoul, knowing that all beaten knights must surrender their horses, weapons and armor to the victors, sees the event as another way to improve his finances.
Mary Lide is described by her publisher as an award-winning poet and historian. This is only her second novel, and it is to her credit that, unlike some writers of historical romance, she tells her story clearly, in straightforward language, without trying to imitate medieval English phrasing. As a result, she makes "Gifts of the Queen" an unusually exciting and colorful medieval adventure.