This peculiar hybrid of Gothic romance and medieval fantasy works so much better than I would have expected that now I'm wondering why more people don't do it. And it uses the conventions of medieval fantasy or the historical novel (which can be very similar) to circumvent some of the predictability of romance; the cover copy unfortunately overhypes its surprisingness, but in several key places it really doesn't go where I was expecting it to.
Phaedra, the beautiful, spoiled daughter of the Warden of Trant, has been dreaming of a mysterious man since early childhood; besieged by suitors, she elopes with her dream visitor, who turns out to be the scion of a powerful and scandalous family. The background is going to sound cod-medieval, but it's got an appealing grittiness and detail; most of the book, in fact, reads like an old-fashioned English historical, the kind I always used to find in my childhood libraries in editions twenty years older than I was. It's very reminiscent of Rosemary Sutcliff (or the little I've read of her), although the setting is based on a slightly later period than most of her books.
It's imperfect: the prose sometimes tries too hard, especially in the beginning, before settling into a spare, evocative style, and Phaedra's arrogance, self-centeredness, and poor judgment exasperated me for the first two-thirds of the book. I might have liked her better when I was younger and less prone to questioning the arrogance of protagonists; and I have to admit that her traits are all consistent with what you'd expect from the beautiful young daughter of a powerful lord. The book nevertheless goes much better for me when she grows up a bit later on.
But what appeals to me most is the book's atmosphere, the most critical requirement for Gothic novels, and possibly their greatest strength. Dickinson's world feels haunting, grim, unsettling, and full of half-recovered histories: the past may be dead, but in Gothics death isn't as firm a boundary as we tend to think.
There are some hooks for a sequel inserted at the end (the recently published [b:The Widow and the King|1023237|The Widow And The King (Cup of the World, #2)|John G.H. Dickinson|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1180309457s/1023237.jpg|1009470], which I'm looking forward to), but the book does complete an arc; if you removed a paragraph or two, it would stand alone.