This book is much better than Hunter's previous work LORD OF A THOUSAND NIGHTS. It however, does not match up in terms of psychological and emotional intensity to her first four books, particularly her first book BY ARRANGEMENT(which some people hate but I re-read obsessively).
Let me explain how I view this author. Madeline Hunter is for me one of the strongest writers in the genre of historical romance. I mourn the fact that she will not be writing more medieval romances (there are so few good writers for medievals), although I am excited about her move to a different time period, one that I am far more familiar with. The reason why Hunter is an auto-buy author for me is that her plots are (almost) always different and challenging. Her heroes and heroines are complex characters, who merit closer examination through re-reads. There is enough historical detail to ponder over during each re-read - and to feel that I am right there in that city, or that hamlet or that castle or fortress. I also learn something new from her best books, whether it is the fact that medieval people sometimes had more sophisticated toilet facilities than suspected, or the fact that trade was more extensive than I had thought.
Stealing Heaven begins with a great scene - a man (the hero Marcus of Anglesmore) is climbing a garden wall to sneak a look at his betrothed. Why is his betrothed avoiding him? Why is this man so determined to view his bride, if he cannot avoid this marriage? Why does he have to marry her? Great questions. The plot thickens when Marcus discovers that he encountered the sister of the woman he is to marry, and that she is forbidden to him both by the laws of the church (after he marries) and by the fact that she was Edward III's mistress "the King's Whore."
We have met Marcus as young Mark in BY DESIGN, where he was the heroine's younger brother and a definite brat. He is older, more mature. He has not however come wholly to terms with the events of his childhood. It is not necessary to read BY DESIGN first, but some things about Mark make more sense if you have read that story first (or later).
Nesta is more of an enigma. She is consumed by her desire to fulfill her father's dying wishes, and to get her sister away from Marcus. She however cannot avoid her attraction to her sister's intended, even as she uses her body to taunt him and distract him. I will not provide too many spoilers here for those who have not read the book, but I will say that things do not turn out either as Nesta or as Marcus intended. Loyalties are challenged, and difficult decisions sometimes rest on half-truths (or half-lies) and omissions of the truth.
Some old friends from Hunter's earlier books (published earlier, that is) appear in this work. We meet David (hero of BY ARRANGEMENT) some years before his own marriage; we meet Addis (hero of BY POSSESSION) as a proud father but also a mentor to Mark. And we see a bit of Joan and Rhys (protagonists in BY DESIGN, the prequel to this work). It is always good to see old friends.
There are some problems with this work. First, I cannot buy the plot entirely for historical reasons. That is my particular problem. Secondly, this book lacks the historical detail, the specifics of geography, economy, and everyday life that made her first four books such a delight to read. I did not get as vivid a sense of being there on the Welsh marches or in London as I had hoped. Thirdly, the characters seem to lack the emotional intensity that her protagonists in earlier books had. Somehow, I cannot connect to Marcus or to Nesta. Her goals are understandable, but it is easier to relate to smaller causes or a quest for personal vengeance than a Grand Cause. No new secondary characters appear who match those in earlier books. This book could have done much more with Addis, David, Joan, and Rhys as well. We see them in glimpses here and there, and for the most part, they seem pale shadows of what they are in their own books. [I do not know if this is a good thing, because they could have taken over this story, or a bad thing].
I do wish that the book had a different title, because the title derives from comments made by Marcus that seemed like purple prose. While the writing is good (as always), I felt that hte book needed a little editing (two "vague smiles" from David within three pages was a bit too much). These may seem like petty things, but Madeline's titles have been so good for her first four books.
Finally, I wish to add that the label given to the heroine did not make sense given what was revealed about herself and the King, nor did her admission to Marcus make sense either. This part of the story could have done with a little more fleshing out.
I would have liked to rated this book higher, but while it was a good review, it lacked that emotional intensity, that tension, that complexity that the best books of hers have had for me. I am measuring Hunter against Hunter. In any other author, I would rate this book at least half a grade higher. Even among the better romances I have read this year, this is not a keeper for me, nor is it a book that demands an immediate re-read. Either quality would have merited a higher grade.
Grade = B
Rating = 3.9 (B)
Breakdown = romance element 3.8 (B); characterization 3.6 (B-); plot development 3.9 (B); writing 4.3 (B+)