by Elizabeth Thornton, historical (2001)
Bantam, $6.50, ISBN 0-553-58120-1
Elizabeth Thornton's latest romance Princess Charming almost made it as a keeper for me. It has finely-crafted and engrossing external conflicts, but alas, it has also (a) the trademark Thornton "Am I in danger? Really? I mean, so what, I'm sure a walk down the lanes at night alone just this once can't hurt, right?" heroine, and (b) too many tired (capital T) clichés.
To be fair, heroine Gwyn Barrie isn't a moron like the heroine in the last book by this author, Strangers At Dawn. She doesn't run headlong into danger while asserting female liberation slogans. But she is one of those "Me, in danger? Can't be! Even though, you know, well, I do feel people has been watching me. I get assaulted by a man I stupidly assume to be the new help even though I know someone is watching me, but that's probably just coincidence, you know. Now where was I?" heroines who make me want to strangle her. Such cluelessness may be passed off as being true to the time era (they are probably more stupid back then, according to this school of defense) or just a nice set-up for a grand rescue finale, but it doesn't make Gwyn look good.
The hero Jason Radley has a history with Gwyn, and they both come in contact when a mysterious benefactor leaves Gwyn some money and makes Jason the trustee. Gwyn has been in love with Jason all her life, but decides to woo his brother instead as some perverse way of raising her price tag. One night, Jason is incapacitated and Gwyn spends the night with him. He doesn't know, and she elopes with another man soon after.
The mystery comes into play when some baddies suspect that Gwyn has in her possession Something Important. This is directly related to the mysterious benefactor as well as some ugly political scandals. ("Are you really, really, really sure I'm in danger? I mean, really in danger sort of really?")
Jason blames himself for his brother's death, and for once this man's angst rings real. He is a nice rogue with a fine pair of shoulders a heroine can cry on. His chemistry with the otherwise rather dim Gwyn makes some fine reading. On the other hand, Gwyn is the stereotypical damsel in poverty and distress ("You mean I'm in danger? Really? But I need to go out to teach my students the piano!"). And she has a son.
Gwyn has the obligatory bad first marriage, but I really want to scream when the author reveals that the actual paternity of Gwyn's son. That's two clichés too many, because the story can be so much better without these two elements tossed in just to insult my intelligence. What, you think I can't take a heroine carrying another man's child? You think I can't accept a heroine who has been happily married to another man?
Then again, Gwyn isn't exactly a Nobel Laureate when it comes to the brains department. ("I'm not in denial!") Maybe it's just in her nature to marry stupidly and loses her virginity in an equally un-smart manner.
The mystery, however, is very deftly handled and always compelling. It is the mystery, not the romance, that keeps me turning the page. The romance may be unnecessarily clichéd and the heroine can use some extra brain cell or two, but the mystery is a class in itself.
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