Star of Wonder by Jo Beverley,
Alice Alfonsi, Tess Farraday
& Kate Freiman
(Jove, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-515-12653-5
***
Ah, the dilemmas of rating an anthology. One has to evaluate its overall quality. Even when one of the stories is absolutely first-rate, if the others don’t measure up to the same high standard, than the book as a whole is less attractive. Such is the case with Star of Wonder. Jo Beverley’s contribution is a gem of a novella, while the others are, at best, merely acceptable.

The premise uniting the four stories is that when one of the three wise men bent over to present his gift to the Christ child, a sapphire necklace he was wearing attracted the infant’s attention. Jesus reached out and touched the sapphire and the wise man immediately thought to give it to the infant king. But Mary told Melchior to keep the necklace and give it to his daughter and the power of the necklace would insure that she would find true love.

The legend of the sapphire lived on in song and story. Supposedly it would find its way to a woman who needed love, especially at the turn of a century. Thus we have stories set in 999, 1799, 1899, and 1999.

“Day of Wrath,” the Beverley story is set in 999, the turn not only of a century, but also of a millennium. Wulfhera of Foxton is on her way home from the convent where she sought refuge when the man she loved married another. The nuns and novices are fleeing a Danish attack. When Wulfhera arrives at her home, she discovers that the man she loves, Raef Eldrunson, is there, his own manor having fallen to the Danish raiders.

Hera’s father lies near death at a monastery; her brother is away on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; her sister is locked in her room; and the people of the manor are either praying in the chapel or drinking in the hall. You see, many people believe that the end of the world is imminent.

The sister Alfrida is locked up because she fell into the hands of the Danish invader, Torkil Gormmson and only wants to fall back into his hands as quickly as possible. Hera finds the sapphire in a fish and the sapphire’s magic works to bring Hera her greatest desire and to solve the problem of the Danes.

Beverley uses the apocalyptic fears that pervaded the western world very effectively. She also demonstrates a real grasp of Anglo-Saxon England and its problems as the Danes ravage its coasts and the king, good old Ethelred the Unready, dithers. And she manages to provide two fine romances. This story could have been a novel, but Beverley manages to pack an awful lot, awfully well in ninety pages!

Of the three other stories, I liked Alice Alfonsi’s best. The heroine, Felicity Fairchild, has fled Bath and the suitor who threw her over for a younger, richer woman. Walking along the sea, she comes across the sapphire in fishing net. Before she knows it, she finds herself following a mysterious lady to a deserted beach where she is accosted by two ruffians. She is rescued by a rough looking sailor who turns out to be the brother of the late Earl of Devon and uncle of the new earl, Captain Sir William Court, R.N.

Her rescuer assumes she is no better than she should be, but when he seduces her, he discovers that she is in truth a lady as she claimed. William plans to return to the sea, but the power of the sapphire intercedes.

Tess Farraday’s entry, “Last Kiss at the Loving Cup Saloon,” seemed a bit far-fetched to me. Gambler Joe Nelson wins a saloon in a poker game from the very unpleasant rancher, Colin Stark. Turns out, the saloon is in a ghost town and comes equipped with four orphans. Joe decides to find a woman to inveigh into caring for the kids at the local train station, and picks Katherine, Stark’s bride whom he married by proxy.

This practical Englishwoman had accepted a proxy marriage because, at her advanced age, she had little hope of romance. A chance encounter with her groom convinces her that the warnings of a chance-met gypsy on the train were true. Stark is as bad as he was painted. So she heads off to the saloon with Joe where she proceeds to create a Christmas for the children and finds the sapphire by chance. Joe thinks to leave, but of course, he can’t. The necklace works its charm.

The final story, set in 1999, was my least favorite. Perhaps it was the first person narration. Perhaps it was the fact that I had figured out the whole scenario about five or ten pages into the tale. For whatever reason, “Joy to the World” brought me very little joy.

Angela McMichaels has just lost her beloved brother, Michael. The two ran the prestigious family foundation and were very close. Angela had recently met and begun to fall in love with a woodworker, Joshua Davidson. But the difference in their financial position was proving to be an obstacle to their romance. Now, Michael is gone.

What’s worse, Michael’s assistant, Lucien, suggests that her brother had embezzled $500 million from the foundation, planning to cover his theft when the Y2K bug hit. Angela must thus deal with her brother’s apparent theft, her feelings for Joshua, and Lucien’s charges. Then, in a paper mache fish ornament that her brother sent to her before his disappearance, Angela finds the sapphire, and all becomes clear.

Perhaps my less than enthusiastic response to some of the stories resulted from this anthology’s premise. The idea of a magical, miraculous sapphire pendant worked very well in a tale set in the early Middle Ages. It had less persuasiveness, at least for me, in the latter stories.

So my suggestion is go to Borders or Barnes and Noble, pick the book off the shelf, get yourself a double cappuccino, find a comfy chair, and read “Day of Wrath.” You will enjoy it.

--Jean Mason


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