Topaz, $5.99, ISBN 0-451-40732-6
Fantasy Romance, 1997
It was mainly by chance that I discovered Heather Cullman’s Stronger than Magic. I wasn’t expecting too much when I looked at the pretty dull blue cover and the back cover synopsis made the whole story seem like yet another day in Mundanesville.
I was wrong. This story is a whimsical, beautiful adventure into the land of fey where magic and romance are alive and well. The author sometimes get tad too sweet, but all in all, this story is simply magical.
A long, long time ago – 1315 actually – faerie Prince Aengus fell in love with a mortal woman. They had two children, a very fair daughter and a son renowned for his courage and nobility. Faeries have no soul, however, for they are fallen angels who had earned the wrath of God (or so it says here). As a result, the two children have only half a soul each, and the only way they can complete their soul to be whole is by falling in love. The daughter did well, marrying a man who loves her, but the son Lucan was a bit of a problem.
You see, he had fallen in love with Alys le Fayre. But Alys was a spoiled young woman more in love with the idea of men falling for her, unfortunately, and her coy playing with Lucan’s feelings resulted in the latter’s murder by a jealous rival. Too late, Alys realized that she loved Lucan.
Aengus, furious, kept Alys captive. For five hundred years, Alys became one of the faerie subordinates, helping mortals fall in love. Time and experience taught her humility, compassion, and understanding.
But today, in 1816, Alys received news that Lucan, who was reborn in 1783, was ripe for falling in love and thus finding the other half of his soul. And Alys’s final assignment is to help Lucan, or rather, Lucian Warre now, the new Marquess of Thistlewood, fall in love.
Alys has long deemed herself unworthy of Lucian’s love and looks forward to freedom after matchmaking Lucian with a worthy woman. With the aid of the smelly hob Hedley, she is sent back to Earth as the sister of the man who took a bullet for Lucian in Waterloo. Lucian feels indebted to take this woman under his wing and give her a proper season. But he never counts on Alys’s impudence or the way she soon brings color into his life.
Every word seems to sing in Stronger than Magic. Poor Lucian, who doesn’t believe in love, is as surly as Scrooge. Arrogant, boorish, and almost emotionless, he is soon befuddled by Alys. Alys wouldn’t marry any of the men on his list, and worse, she is trying to matchmake him. Even more annoying, the chit calls him a boor!
Alys, on her part, is trying hard to make Lucian come up to scratch as a dashing gentleman so that he is appealing enough for women who aren’t just after his money or title. But her talking to Hedley (whom only she can see and communicate with) has him thinking her a bit odd upstairs. Then there’s her annoying attraction to Lucian, which she tries so hard to deny.
This story presents the notion of love as an ideal, a meeting of souls, and it makes a beautiful imagery without making me fear for my blood glucose level. That’s the beauty of this story: the author uses words instead of saccharine heroine-acts-giddy moments to make me sigh. Lucian first sees Alys as unappealing – he dislikes her hair color as well as her impertinence – but the slow transformation of his affections takes place beautifully. He slowly loves her not for her beauty, but for the quiet moments when she reads to him in the evenings, for the irritating way she pricks at his conscience, and for her vibrant personality. Only then does he see her as beautiful. One of the highlights of this story is having him justify his feelings to the very friends to whom he ridiculed Alys’s charms and beauty early in the story.
And Alys is a wonderful heroine. Here is a woman who learned compassion too late to save herself, but she is willing to make reparations for Lucian. She is determined to give him happiness and help him restore the other half of his soul, even at the cost of her own happiness. But she never comes off as a martyr – her sin to Lucian is heavy enough to warrant the sacrifices on her part. And it is her sacrifice that ultimately dooms Lucian. He’s in love with her, but she just can’t be his true love. Is she?
Amidst the humor of seeing Lucian’s jealousy at Alys’s success in her debut to his frustration and feeling of inadequacy when he compares himself to Alys’s younger, more virile suitors (Lucian is 35), there is real emotional intensity here. Lucian’s sister, who becomes Alys’s best friend, can’t conceive and she becomes Alys’s teacher in compassion. Alys’s simple gesture of trading her prized jewel to the gnomes for a magic ring to help poor Charlotte conceive comes off as very moving. Likewise, Alys’s quiet time with Lucian is wonderfully rendered to the point that I can feel Lucian’s reluctant thawing and Alys’s shy attempts at keeping a distance between them.
There’s also a pleasant surprise in Hedley, whose surly, mischievous demeanor hides a grouchy fellow who cares for Alys more than he lets on. There’s a goodbye scene between he and Alys that made me cry. The story too hurtles towards a final confrontation between Alys and Lucian that – in another less able author’s hand – may just come off as absolutely insipid, but me, I only went boo-hoo-hoo like a water spout.
Stronger than Magic can be too sweet, even melodramatic, but to me, it’s a good sort of drama. The author uses words, simple, non-flowery phrases, to weave a beautiful tapestry where love is a beautiful ideal that can overcome even time and death. Who would’ve thought cynical old me can be moved to believe? Love stops time, breaks down inhibitions, and make us all whole and complete. Love is a force that even the world stops turning for. Bah humbug, maybe, but this book makes me believe. Now that’s a sign of a book to reread and remember.