Peter Scudamore is a stranger in a foreign land. He has come to France to serve the English Queen Consort in exile. He adores his Queen, but his French is barely passable and he knows that as a simple solider, he stands out amongst the opulent pomposity of the French court. He risks going mad from sheer boredom until he crosses paths with scholar, Guyon de Chesnay.
Irascible and brilliant, Guyon often shatters the traditional mold of a Sorbonne scholar. He voraciously seeks knowledge, while attempting to truly understand the nature of it. As a result, he often straddles the line between embracing the exultation of learning and being brought up on charges of heresy. Guyon trusts few, but upon meeting Peter, he finds himself incredibly drawn to the Scottish soldier. While he covets the man’s friendship, he wrestles with his growing desire for something more.
Peter then makes a fateful decision to take on work for Corvay, the spymaster. This simple action will have devastating consequences for both Peter and Guyon. Soon tragedy, loss, and pain surround them on all sides and threaten to destroy them both. Only when it seems that all may be lost, do Peter and Guyon realize that together they might have the strength to escape the noose Corvay has fitted around them.
Icy Pavements is a hidden gem that I discovered while searching the lists over at Goodreads and it quickly became one of my favorite books of any genre. At the same time, it is such a layered, emotionally complex novel that trying to break it down for review proved to be something of a challenge. So bear with me. Let’s start with the plot. Aside from the slow building romance between Peter and Guyon, the book is about spy craft, life as a 17th century scholar, courtly politics, and the social constraints of the world in 1644. The author skillfully juggles all of these topics without losing individual threads or allowing any single plot point to dominate the other. It is true historical fiction and it expects the reader to have some measure of historical context and at least an interest in the exploration of philosophy. This might be frustrating to the reader, as are the very occasional detours into French and Occitan that are never fully translated. But the end result is such a wonderfully lush journey that these minor annoyances are more than worth your patience.
Aside from a rich and well-crafted plot, author Lee Wyndham has created two incredible characters. Guyon attacks knowledge like a bulldog determined to wrestle free its secrets and he thrives in the insular world of the Sorbonne. He is also incredibly fragile and life has scarred him brutally. Despite a fierce streak of independence, Guyon needs the structure provided by the Sorbonne and his friends more than he would like to admit. Without boundaries to rein him in, his own mind quickly becomes his worst enemy. This vulnerability makes him beautifully real without rendering him weak or unsympathetic. Peter is Guyon’s opposite in many ways. He does not have Guyon’s vast knowledge, but he is intelligent and possesses such a unique and inquisitive mind that his quest to know the world is infectious to the reader. He often doubts his own worth and views himself as inferior to the French scholar, which makes him wholly relatable. But Peter’s mind provides a perfect foil to Guyon’s and their intellectual sparring allows the reader to question and learn along side them. Peter’s loyalty to and worship of Guyon are absolute, without being unrealistic or overly dramatic, and you can’t help but love him for it. The relationship between Peter and Guyon is so powerful it often seems extraordinary. They have moments of perfect unison, but the author never forgets they are human and as a result they are people with whom the reader can truly bond.
The secondary characters, especially those of Francois and Corvay, are fully dimensional and absolutely integral to the wider story. Francois is so charming he steals more than a few scenes and his relationship with Guyon is just as vital as Peter’s. He often serves as Guyon’s social compass and helps him to navigate the complexities of their world. Corvay is as creepy and spider-like as a spymaster ought to be and it’s easy to loathe him as he seeks to manipulate and corrupt all those around him. Guyon’s students, with their bumbling eagerness and affection for their cranky teacher, round out the wider, yet equally captivating cast.
Icy Pavements is one of those rare books that came along by chance but left such a powerful impression that I was truly saddened when I reached the final page. At 679 pages, this is no casual beach read. Rather it’s the kind of book you end up sinking into for hours and only remembering to surface from when forced. I often describe it as the m/m version of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander — romance on an epic scale and set against the backdrop of powerful historical upheaval. Icy Pavements is the first in a series, The Herrick Quartet, and the second novel, Defending Walls is available. I haven’t been able to find any information about the other two books or if the author is still writing. Normally I wouldn’t recommend a series that has no known end, but Icy Pavements and it’s equally enchanting sequel are simply too good to resist. Additionally this book is not available an e-read. You can only get it as a paperback from Amazon. So getting it will take a bit more effort and money than many other romances. But is it worth it? Absolutely. I can’t recommend this one more highly.