Birle has agreed to be wed to the huntsman Muir as an escape from the drudgery of life at her father’s inn—but the moment she looks into the bellflower-blue eyes of the man she comes upon stealing one of her father’s boats, Birle knows she cannot marry Muir. Even after she discovers the mysterious stranger is Orien, a lord, and as unreachable to an innkeeper’s daughter as a star, Birle is determined to travel with him as far as he will allow. Their journey takes Birle to a world far from home, a world where lords may become slaves, where princes rule by fear, and where fortune’s wheel turns more swiftly and dangerously than Birle could have ever imagined.
I have a 1991 print of this book, but stairs are beyond me so I can’t get it and type out that blurb/back cover copy, which is annoying me. Anyway, this is a “cheat” because it hadn’t been in my TBR pile, but I was struck with the sudden urge to re-read it, and I think it fits the “something different” because it is rare I read something that isn’t romance. (Or law.)
I have to admit, I pretty much always skip Part I: The Inkeeper’s Daughter in my re-reads. While yes, it’s where Birle and Orien meet, I feel there’s too much disparity between them. Orien is clearly a nobleman, while Birle is “of the people.” He’s older, worldlier, and on a mission. Birle goes along with him because she falls in love the first time she truly sees him. (And she doesn’t have much in her current life.) She’s smitten as only a young girl can be the first time she sees a dashing man. It’s the journey they’re forced to take together that makes things different, and I feel parity is only beginning when we hit Part II: The Philosopher’s Amanuensis. And that’s where the story truly begins.
I still really enjoy the fantasy genre, but there doesn’t seem to be much of it as a subgenre of romance. The Tale of Birle (which sorry, change is hard, I kind of hate it and much prefer On Fortune’s Wheel) is a romance, although the age of the characters in my mind put it firmly in YA territory. Birle is 14 when the book begins, and about to be married. Her father and stepmother are against it, but she thinks being married will take her out of the current constant toil of her life. It’s set in a made up kingdom during what appears to be a Medieval or Renaissance period. Birle in fact doesn’t care for her intended, but she just wants to get out.
Birle (it’s pronounced beryl, the gemstone). She’s just a girl. The book takes her from a 14 year old to a 16 year old. One imagines (or assumes) the average life expectancy is somewhere in the 40s in their period, maybe 50s, so I think that’s supposed to make it better. Also, considering the target audience of tweens. Anyway, she’s perfectly imperfect. Throughout the novel she really comes to know herself, matures, and comes into her own. When back in the kingdom she tells Orien’s grandparents that her slavery was as much a blessing as a curse. As a young girl she hated all the chores she had to do as an innkeepers daughter. She later comes to appreciate the satisfaction of a good day’s work. (Although this is a difficult situation, as at the time she’s a slave. She’s treated more as a servant, but the situation is precarious, and Birle is constantly aware of it.) I loved that by the end, Birle knew her own mind, and was going to live her own life. It isn’t about what you have, or where you are. You have to live according to what you want, what is best for you, not what others say you have to do.
Orien … he’s a dreamer. He’s a nobleman, but someone who is running away from his destiny. Not because he doesn’t want the responsibility, but he fears he’s too “soft” to properly rule his people. He’s kindhearted, intelligent, and educated, but doesn’t truly understand how the world works. He’s the one who suffers the most in this book, although his journey isn’t detailed. He’s a true romantic, who almost started out on a lark, and is soon brought as low as humanly possible. His journey is the most incredible, and while he’s crucial to the story, he isn’t the focal point.
I think that’s why I’ve loved On Fortune’s Wheel since I first read it in elementary school. Birle is in a way the hero and heroine both. She’s the star of the book, and while things don’t end picture perfectly, they end as she chooses. Yet there’s still hope – there could be more, and it enchants and tantalizes the reader. I both love and hate how it ends because I want more. More of Birle, more of Orien. To see how they live out the rest of their lives. They know they can’t control everything, but they’ll do what they can for their own happiness, not just blindly follow the constraints of society and expectation.
There actually is another book in the Kingdom series, but each book stands alone, and is only very loosely connected. While not a traditional romance, Birle and Orien’s story satisfies my romance loving heart. It’s so subtle. But it’s there. That scene where Orien plights Birle his troth. Whenever he talks about her smile.
There aren’t many authors out there who stand the test of time like Cynthia Voigt, and I loved re-visiting this childhood favorite.
You can buy a copy here.
This is what Ms. Voigt says about The Tale of Birle.
After telling Gwyn’s story, I thought I was finished with the Kingdom, but some time later, I read a book about life in a city during the Renaissance era. For some reason, I kept thinking about that time, that city.
I wondered about the wheel of fortune, the idea that there is a wheel on which each of us is fixed, at birth, by chance for all of our one life. The wheel turns and our life goes on and in whatever chance says is the proper time, we drop off, disappear.
I wondered about the science of Alchemy, which was almost chemistry but also tried to work with magic, and about those wise women who cured people with herbal remedies. I wondered about the condittorei, the mercenary soldiers who followed their bold captains, some of whom eventually became great nobles, ruling over wide landscapes, and ruling well, too, some of them.
Especially I wondered about girls, what their lives were like, and especially what the life of a girl who didn’t always go along quietly might be like.
That was when I remembered the Kingdom, with its peasants and nobles, hunters and innkeepers, injustices, laws, superstitions—a whole complicated world, and I remembered Gwyn, too. All of this turned into Birle’s story.