Nectar from a Stone is set in medieval Wales, in the era of the Black Death. The plague is a menacing presence that looms in the background of the story, influencing the characters and all they do. The main character is Elise, a reluctant wife to the boorish and abusive Maelgwyn. When Elise and her faithful servant Annora take to the road, fleeing for their lives, they cross paths with the handsome-but-brooding Gwydion. Even before Elise and Gwydion meet (which takes awhile, as their stories are set up separately for several chapters before their first encounter) you know what’s going to happen. When two characters are so clearly set up as the hero and heroine of romance, the driving force is never suspense about the outcome, but interest in how the author is going to get them there.
Once the romance plot begins, it moves the story along: Elise and Gwydion are more interesting together than either of them is alone. One of my problems with the novel was that I found Elise, as the heroine, a hard character to grasp. She’s not unlikeable, but I didn’t find her compelling either. I thought Gwydion was the better realized and more human of the two, even though he’s very typically the dark, driven, but basically decent heroine of a hundred romances.
What Guill does really well is create the world of medieval Wales. Her research is evident on every page as she embellishes the narrative with painstaking detail to bring the world through which the characters move to life. The greatest weakness, I felt, was in the dialogue. Dialogue in historical fiction is always tricky, as it’s hard to make the language sound both authentically “historical” — appropriate to the period — while still sounding natural and conversational. I thought the dialogue in this novel failed grandly at this difficult task — there was hardly a sentence in the book that I could imagine coming out of someone’s mouth, and this distanced me from the characters. Another flaw, I felt, was that the book’s two villains were both so unremittingly awful and evil that they were over-the-top — the villains I find most chilling are those with some hint of good in them, so that we see the tragedy of evil more starkly. Neither of Nectar’s villains had a single redeeming quality, which turned them almost into cartoon characters.
Still, the story is interesting and the characters are sympathetic, and I looked forward to the happy ending. The brief visit to that time and place made me homesick, though, for stronger novels that introduced me to Wales in the middle ages (Sharon Kay Penman’s Welsh trilogy) and to the era of the Black Death (Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders).