Midnight Honor

Pale Moon Rider

Swept Away

The Iron Rose by Marsha Canham
(Signet, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-451-20815-3
“Swashbuckler” is almost too tame a description for The Iron Rose. This cinematically vivid, rip-roaring adventure full of big characters, ferocious mayhem and potent romance is like an Errol Flynn movie on steroids.

Juliet Dante, captain of the Iron Rose, is the daughter of a family of ruthless and highly successful privateers. Her father Simon Dante, the infamous Pirate Wolf, has been harassing the Spanish for twenty-five years. Queen Elizabeth knighted him for his efforts (although how he came by the title of Comte de Tourville was something of a mystery to me). But James is on the throne now and things are changing.

Juliet, while out testing a new rudder on the Iron Rose, comes upon a Spanish galleon mercilessly pounding an English ship. She sails to the rescue and, during the fight, an elegant swordsman in violet velvet and silver lace saves her life. When the battle is over she discovers that her savior is Varian St. Clare, the Duke of Harrow. St. Clare has a message from the King to deliver to Juliet’s father and Juliet reluctantly agrees to take him to their island stronghold.

Now, I quite enjoy romances set in the Regency, but this pull-out-the-stops adventure story makes a welcome contrast to all the formality, delicate ladies and elegant rakes. Juliet Dante grew up with the smell of gunpowder in her nostrils, a sword in her hand, and two older brothers to test her wits and resolve. She is a match for any man in courage and fighting ability (physical as well as strategic), and she’s called on to prove it frequently.

Though her life has made her tough and not a little dangerous, Juliet is neither hard-hearted nor callous. She loves her unconventional family deeply and cares honestly for the members of her crew. She is also no shrinking virgin. Three previous affairs have taught her to enjoy the physical side of love, even if she has yet to succumb to its emotional lure. Her attraction to Varian takes her by surprise but, thinking it’s only a passing fancy, she does not hesitate long in acting on it.

If Juliet is a highly original heroine, Varian is an equally unconventional and attractive hero. He’s all guy, don’t get me wrong, but he’s a soldier and an aristocrat not a sailor and pirate, and he’s out of his element on the high seas with the rowdy privateers. Varian has a lot to prove, and to his credit he digs in with a will. He takes everything Juliet dishes out, gets in a few moments of his own, and keeps coming back for more. It’s a wonderful combination of audacity and humility, and it gives Varian a compelling depth.

One of the few places these two seem to feel they’re equals is in bed. Varian quickly gets over his surprise and their encounters are both steamy and romantic - possibly because this is also the one place where neither can stay emotionally guarded.

There is a significant cast of secondary characters, many of whom - both good guys and bad - are clearly drawn and carve out their own important niches in the story. The ships, the privateer’s island and even the Atlantic Ocean are also so colorful and clear to the mind’s eye that they almost become characters in their own right. Ms. Canham’s sense of place and atmosphere is both eloquent and dramatic.

In fact, if I have one complaint about the book, it is that the author occasionally gets a little caught up in the background detail. In the first half of the book, the history of the Sea Hawks and the seventeenth century politics of the Caribbean contribute color and context. In the second half of the book, things like a description of how to load and fire a cannon start to feel in the way a bit, just when the momentum of the story should be the primary focus.

For the most part, however, this is an absorbing, rollicking - if somewhat violent - adventure. If you’re in the mood for a heroine who kicks ass (literally as well as figuratively) and a hero who’s up to the challenge, it’s excellent fun.

---- Judi McKee

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