Hawkmistress! is tagged in my head as “the cross-dressing one”, and that’s a fairly accurate tag. It’s set a little after Stormqueen! in the chronology of Darkover, and tells the story of Romilly a daughter of the MacAran family. Their family laran (psychic power) is to do with animal control/empathy and she’s got a large helping of it. The trouble is, not only is her father suspicious of laran users but also tending hawks and horses is man’s work and thoroughly unsuitable for a young lady. This is a fairly archetypal coming of age story – Romilly runs away from an arranged marriage and after overcoming several obstacles and growing up she finds her place in the world. It’s also a somewhat Shakespearean story – to try and stay safe in a dangerous world she disguises herself as a man. With varying amounts of success, and of farce.
Unlike Stormqueen! this book is actually about its titular character. We see the story through Romilly’s eyes, and she has considerably more agency than Dorilys could even dream of. Romilly not only escapes from an unwanted arranged marriage she also rescues herself when she’s trapped by a rapey farmer (yes, it’s still a rapey book). She’s valued by herself and by the other characters for her skills rather than her bloodline – although obviously she first proves herself to them when they think she’s a boy but she retains respect after the reveal. She even rescues the, er, “love interest”.
Sadly the romance element to the plot is made of WTF?! In summary: Romilly falls in love with an older man (Orain), but it turns out that he was only interested in sex when he thought she was a prepubescent boy. After more plot happens she rescues him from torture and they reconcile, he still wouldn’t want sex so he suggests she marry his (estranged) son coz the lad is her age and likes girls. (The son is the product of his own arranged marriage and I think they’re estranged coz Orain never quite forgave the boy for being the living reminder that he’d had to have sex with a woman to get an heir.) And there’s a strongly implied happily ever after (delayed but not derailed by Romilly’s wishes to do other things first before marrying). I always did think it was a subplot of farce and WTF?! – I mean, “oh I don’t fancy you so marry my son instead” is more than a bit bizarre. I had, however, previously missed the implications of Orain thinking Romilly was a “beardless boy” – by assuming that Orain thought Romilly was a young adult man rather than a boy. But given what I now know about Bradley’s second husband’s convictions for molesting pre- and peri-pubescent boys, it reads completely differently. Orain is definitely positioned as a good guy, someone we should empathise with and identify with … just a good guy that has sex with adolescent (at best) boys.
So a bit of a mixed bag of a book. I liked the centring of the female protagonist – in particular in comparison to Stormqueen!. But the “romance” and all its implications are more than a bit horrifying.