Aussie Book Review: The French Prize by Cathryn Hein

From the Cover

"An ancient riddle, a broken vow – a modern-day quest for a medieval treasure.

Australian-born Dr. Olivia Walker is an Oxford academic with a reputation as one of the world’s leading Crusade historians and she’s risked everything on finding one of the most famous swords in history – Durendal. Shrouded in myth and mystery, the sword is fabled to have belonged to the warrior Roland, a champion of Charlemagne’s court, and Olivia is determined to prove to her detractors that the legend is real. Her dream is almost within reach when she discovers the long-lost key to its location in Provence, but her benefactor – Raimund Blancard – has other ideas.

For more than a millennium, the Blancard family have protected the sword. When his brother is tortured and killed by a man who believes he is Roland’s rightful heir, Raimund vows to end the bloodshed forever. He will find Durendal and destroy it, but to do that he needs Olivia’s help.

Now Olivia is torn between finding the treasure for which she has hunted all her life and helping the man she has fallen in love with destroy her dream. And all the while, Raimund’s murderous nemesis is on their trail, and he will stop at nothing to claim his birthright.”

Ever since she was a little girl regaled with her grandmother’s tales of Charlemagne’s paladin, Roland and his sword, Durendal, Olivia has wanted to discover the artefact’s hiding place.

Now, an Oxford academic and a leading Crusade historian, Dr Olivia Walker, who has trawled through rotting archives, “breathed the dust of Raimund’s ancestors into her lungs” and heard them speak the almost forgotten language of southern France, is the only one who can decipher the true meaning behind La Tasse du Chevalier Gris’ inscription.

Having been commissioned by Raimund Blancard to find the legendary sword, we are introduced to both of them as she is about to unearth the goblet which, according to legend has a riddle inscribed on it that is the “key” to the location of the sword.  Hopefully this will give Olivia “vindication for all the years of mockery and ridicule she’d endured” at the hands of her peers.

An argument between them ensues but comes to an abrupt halt when shots suddenly ring out and, ire forgotten, they find themselves running from a persistent gunman.

The treasure safely in Olivia’s hands she doesn’t realise the danger they are in until Raimund begins to reveal the reasons behind their close encounter with the gunman.  She is further horrified to learn that Raimund has an arrière-pensée, one which compels her to prevent him doing what he believes is his right – she is, after all, a historian charged with protecting anything of historical value for future generations.

But somewhere in the midst of crossing swords with this enigmatic but honour-bound French Legion soldier who is determined to uphold a promise made to his dead brother, Olivia becomes entangled in his quest for justice and discovers that Durendal is perhaps not the only thing that she wants. Hoping to penetrate Raimund’s hard exterior to see if there is something deeper at his core, she undertakes to help him.  Will they be able to find Durendal before the madman on their tail does? If so, will they discover if it is Durendal or love that is the ultimate French prize?

The one thing I love about Cathryn’s novels is that in all of them, she uses beautiful settings to support her romantic themes. Set in present day Provence, she deviates from her usual genre of Australian rural romance to bring us a down-scaled Indiana Jones’ style adventure, packed with legendary French tales, history, beautiful scenery, one gutsy heroine and a very determined hero.

Despite the deviation from our favourite sub-genre and continent, the scenery is authentic, the action scenes fast-paced (with a well-placed booby trap keeping the climax dynamic), while Olivia's growing attraction to Raimund and his loyalty to his brother are palpable. As she draws on memories and photographs of her own time spent living in France, her remarkable knowledge of the Provençal countryside, the language and French history shines through and adds much depth to the novel as you imagine yourself on the dig with both Olivia and Raimund, wander through his family’s subterranean archives smelling those amazing old books and feel the adrenaline rush through your body on a chase through a cave. In typical Hein style, she pulls it together with élan.

If you’ve been longing for some action in your romance novels, then I definitely recommend this romantic escapist adventure.

I wish to thank Harlequin Books Australia for providing me with an ARC eGalley of this novel.

A Little About the Author

Cathryn Hein was born in South Australia’s rural south-east. With three generations of jockeys in the family it was little wonder she grew up horse mad, finally obtaining her first horse at age 10. So began years of pony club, eventing, dressage and showjumping until university beckoned.

Armed with a shiny Bachelor of Applied Science (Agriculture) from Roseworthy College she moved to Melbourne and later Newcastle, working in the agricultural and turf seeds industry. Her partner’s posting to France took Cathryn overseas for three years in Provence where she finally gave in to her life-long desire to write. Her short fiction has been recognised in numerous contests, and published in Woman’s Day.

Her first three novels, Promises, Heart of the Valley and Heartland were finalists in the 2011, 2012 and 2013 Australian Romance Readers Awards. Rocking Horse Hill is her fourth rural romance novel and The French Prize, her first romantic adventure story.

Cathryn currently lives at the base of the Blue Mountains in Sydney’s far west with her partner of many years, Jim. When she’s not writing, she plays golf (ineptly), cooks (well), and in football season barracks (rowdily) for her beloved Sydney Swans AFL team.


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