Fire Hawk by Justine Dare
(Topaz, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-451-40762-8
****
Readers familiar with Justine Dare's "Hawk" novels will already be well acquainted with the characters in Fire Hawk. The series started out with the contemporary Wild Hawk, then moved backward to nineteenth century America in Heart of the Hawk, and now takes a giant leap even further back into pre-Arthurian Wales. All of the novels feature a mysterious book that has magically appeared to the last remaining Hawk whenever the dynasty is in danger of dying out. The book contains the stories of all previous Hawk generations and reassures the lonely Hawk that the lineage will never end.

Fire Hawk relates the story of the hero and heroine who founded the Hawk dynasty and were the first to know the mysterious book's secrets. Jenna is leader of the peaceful, gentle Hawk clan, inhabitants of a magical glade that is hidden from intruders. But an evil warlord has invaded the Hawk home and Jenna's family is dwindling down to almost nothing. She has already lost her father, mother and only brother to the violence.

A mystical storyteller who lives with the clan advises Jenna to go in search of Kane the Warrior, who was once the fiercest mercenary fighter in the kingdom. Jenna finds Kane living in solitude on a mountain top, having forsworn his violent life. He is determined to live apart from humanity until he can find a way to atone for the deaths he has caused. Kane's only companion, the enigmatic Tal, has prophesied that if Kane ever leaves his mountain he will cease to exist.

Jenna believes Kane is the only person who can help her learn the skills she needs to save her people. Kane wants nothing to do with her, and in an effort to scare her, offers her a deal: he'll teach her if she will agree to be his leman. He is astonished when Jenna calls his bluff and accepts the offer. But he finds himself strangely reluctant to take what this beautiful, innocent woman is offering. Perhaps he has a heart after all.

Dare isn't breaking any new ground here, and why should she? Kane and Jenna are legends that inspire centuries of Hawks after them, and legends are based on tried and true archetypes. It's entertaining to read about incidents alluded to in the earlier books, including when Jenna saves Tal's life, who as a reward promises her that the Hawk line will never die out.

The author is also mining familiar territory with the character of Kane and the forces that make him tick. He is a wounded warrior who despairs of ever finding peace and can't believe that someone as good as Jenna could actually love him. Jenna is a little less clueless than Kane but so innocent that she doesn't understand those hot and heavy feelings he engenders in her.

Dare's strength is the intensity and passion she creates between her hero and heroine, and she doesn't disappoint here. The love scenes are numerous and steamy. Both Kane and Jenna are willing to lay down their lives for the other. There are no Big Misunderstandings or characters who pretend they hate each other. Just two people who can't quite get it through their thick skulls that those strong, ennobling emotions they are experiencing are signs of true love.

Somehow, though, I didn't enjoy Fire Hawk as much as the other two books in the series, or even as much as the author's category romances. Jenna and Kane work well as a framing device for the series, but they just don't come alive as hero and heroine of their own romance. I would have preferred a little more plot and a few more interesting secondary characters. The magical book that gives the series its unique flair doesn't even appear until the last 20 pages of the novel.

The end of the novel hints that we might find out more Tal, who apparently has his own demons to overcome. I'm sure I'll keep reading the Hawk books -- like Nora Roberts, a not-quite-up-to-par Justine Dare is better than most romances, in my opinion -- but I hope the next entry is stronger. If you haven't yet delved into this series, I would recommend starting with Wild Hawk or Heart of the Hawk, which better showcase Ms. Dare's considerable talents.

--Susan Scribner


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