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Keeper of the Swans
by Nancy Butler
(Signet, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-19574-4
***
I know what it means when I sit for ten minutes staring at the computer screen, unable to think of a clever way to begin a review. This state of affairs suggests that nothing about the book caught me up, either negatively or positively, that there was nothing outstandingly good or outstandingly bad. In short, this condition invariably accompanies the need to write a three heart review. And such is the case with Nancy Butler's latest Regency, Keeper of the Swans. A perfectly acceptable book that somehow lacked that special something that would set it apart from the rest.

The heroine, Diana Exeley, has agreed to marry the seemingly eligible Sir Beverill Hunnycut at the behest of her sister and brother-in-law. James wants a tie with the politically well connected Sir Beverill; Sir Beverill wants James' money. Diana is caught in the middle. She certainly does not love her fiancÚ, but she feels caught in the toils of family obligation.

When the ball celebrating her betrothal becomes too much, Diana slips away to the River Thames to find some peace and quiet. When she hears someone else approaching, she hides in a rowboat tied to the dock. The intruders turn out to be Sir Beverill himself and the beauteous Lady Vivian Partridge. The conversation that Diana overhears convinces her that the two are lovers, that Sir Beverill is marrying her only for James' money, and that he will make a miserable husband. She plans to immediately return to the ballroom to end the farce of an engagement when disaster occurs. The boat breaks free from its mooring and Diana finds herself on the river, a river that is far from placid. When the boat finally approaches an island in the middle of the Thames, Diana is knocked on the head and into the water by an errant branch. But strong arms pull the half conscious woman out of danger.

When Diana awakes, she finds that her rescuer is Romulus Perrin, a man hired by the neighborhood's richest landowner Baroness Hammish (I assume she is a baroness in her own right since there is no Baron Hammish) to protect the swans and other water fowl on her stretch of the river. Diana has been delirious and fevered, and when she comes to, she decides to pretend that she does not remember who she is. She needs some time to come to terms with what she must do.

Romulus Perrin is tall, handsome, and believed by most in the neighborhood to be a bit mad. He had been a soldier and had been brought to the island by Lady Hammish to recover from his dreadful wartime experiences. He has found a measure of peace caring for the birds and trying to protect them from the callous poachers who kill the lovely creatures for gain. Romulus is a most unusual bird keeper. Though his position is that of an underling, his bearing is military and his manner is that of a gentleman. Diana, of course, falls madly in love with him almost immediately, a sentiment which Romulus apparently reciprocates.

And herein lay my problem with Keeper of the Swans. The whys and wherefores of Diana's and Romulus" falling in love remained unclear to me. What made Diana decide so promptly, before she really knew him at all, that this man was her beau ideal? Romulus' reaction seemed more understandable; after all, he hadn't been near a gentlewoman for years.

Interestingly, as Butler describes their growing acquaintance and their behavior, it becomes pretty clear that both are admirable individuals and that they are indeed compatible. Perhaps if they had come to recognize their rightness for each other after a day or two of spending time together, I would have been better satisfied. I guess I just prefer to see love develop over at least a little time rather than spring up so suddenly.

Of course, their love creates the conflict that drives the plot. Romulus feels himself quite ineligible to wed a gentlewoman. Even if Diana's position in the social hierarchy is not very elevated, how can a bird keeper aspire to her hand? And there is the problem of Sir Beverill, who is Lady Hammish's nephew and heir. He doesn't really want Diana but he wants the money she represents and he is willing to threaten Romulus and Diana to get his way.

When I began Keeper of the Swans I wondered if this book might not be of a kind with Kelly's The Lady's Companion or Mansfied's Her Man of Affairs, two Regencies which take the unusual step of having a woman love and marry a man of a lower social status. Alas, early on I gleaned a hint that such was not to be the case. Indeed, the uncovering of Romulus' parentage and the explanation for his unusual upbringing seemed a bit unlikely, but nevertheless original.

This is Nancy Butler's second Regency for Signet and it suggests that she is a fresh and welcome new voice in the genre. If Keeper of the Swans exhibits a few weaknesses in plotting and characterization (she needs to work on her villains) that keep me from unambiguously recommending it, nevertheless the book can be enjoyed by fans of the Regency romance.

--Jean Mason


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