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Lair of the Lion by Christine Feehan
(Leisure, $6.99, R) ISBN 0-8439-5048-X
Since I enjoy Christine Feehan’s “Dark” books, and have a weakness for Beauty And The Beast stories, I began Lair of the Lion with great anticipation. Regrettably, this lion is not quite up to the journey and, while starting out strongly, it gradually loses momentum

Isabella Vernaducci has made a long and hazardous journey - one no man has ever completed and from which few have returned - to beg help from the powerful and much feared Don Nicolai DeMarco. When she finally arrives on his doorstep, even the servants in his remote palazzo beg her to flee while she can.

But she insists she must see him. Nicolai is Isabella’s last hope to save the life of her brother, Lucca, convicted of treason and sentenced to death by Don Rivellio (who has his wicked eye on the fair Isabella and the Vernaducci family holdings). Nicolai, rumored to be half man, half beast, and to have supernatural powers that include communication with the lions that guard his valley, is extremely influential. Isabella hopes that if Nicolai cannot persuade Don Rivellio to pardon Lucca, he will arrange her brother’s escape.

When Isabella finally sees Don DeMarco, she is puzzled by the stories about him. He has some scars, but in spite of them she finds him a handsome and compelling man. She can’t understand why his servants, who otherwise hold him in respect and affection, won’t look directly at him.

Isabella offers Nicolai what is left of her family jewelry in return for his help; if that’s not enough, she’ll be a servant in his palazzo. When he asks if she will give her life for her brother, she agrees - only to be dumbfounded when he tells her they will marry.

I loved how this story began, full of dark, edgy atmosphere and broody mystery that seemed just right for an adult fairy tale. As it progressed, however, the plot got mired down in itself. We cover too much of the same information repeatedly - for example, we see over and over how Isabella’s presence seems to have awakened some kind of evil “entity” that makes people behave uncharacteristically, but no one ever seems to learn anything new from any of the incidents, including the reader.

In spite of my admitted partiality for the redemption of Beasts, I didn’t think Nicolai was a well-rounded character. He essentially had two speeds - clinging to Isabella as his hope of happiness, and thrusting her away in noble self-sacrifice because he was afraid he might hurt or even kill her.

The truly compelling thing about Beasts is what they hide and how it is revealed. I didn’t feel as though I saw enough of a transition to make it believable. It was almost as though Ms. Feehan wanted us to like and sympathize with him from the beginning, then left herself nowhere to go.

Still, he fares a bit better than Isabella. A strong, dauntless woman in the beginning, she becomes a bit of a ninny once she’s got a big strong man to lean on. It was enormously frustrating that, time after time, she’d forget that bad things happened to her when she wandered off alone. Off she’d trot again, giving Nicolai and his men repeated chances for dramatic rescues.

Isabella is also described as “different” and “sensitive” to things beyond ordinary eyes. While she does have strong feelings that evil is stalking the valley, these feelings are used mostly as an attempt to create a threatening atmosphere but never really lead to anything useful. Because so little is happening, the gothic flavor starts to taste dangerously like melodrama. And because Isabella and Nicolai develop so little as characters, the development of their relationship feels a little forced.

I can’t help feeling that the difference between this and Ms. Feehan’s “Dark” books is that the Carpathian stories, while having strong gothic elements, are set in the present. The Carpathians’ old-world formality is tempered by the modern sensibilities of the people they deal with. In this “historical” fantasy setting, it’s as if the author felt free to slip those restraints - here, everyone seethes. For my money, it’s a little too much of a good thing.

----Judi McKee

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