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Tallie's Knight

The Stolen Princess
by Anne Gracie
(Berkley, $7.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-425-21898-8
It pains me to say this, but The Stolen Princess feels as though Anne Gracie mailed it in. Were it not for this review, I’d have abandoned it after the second chapter. To put it bluntly, it has a four-heart hero and a one-heart heroine.

Princess Caroline of Zindaria flees to her native England after her seven-year-old son Nicky, the Crown Prince, is nearly poisoned. Callie’s philandering husband and ambitious father are both dead, and she is the only one left to protect Nicky’s birthright. Her plan is to make her way to the village of Lulworth, where her old governess lives in a cottage. To this end, she hires a boat to smuggle her to shore.

Callie is incensed when the sailors dump her and Nicky into the surf some miles down the coast from Lulworth, and in the middle of the night. She and the boy make their way to the top of the cliffs, where they are nearly run over by a man on a horse.

Gabriel Renfrew, third son of an earl, is home from the war after eight years away. He’s restless and unsure of his purpose, but decides to spend some time at his manor house, awaiting the arrival of his beloved half-brother, Harry. After an evening at a local inn and a few drinks, Gabe is riding home along the clifftop when a small boy steps into his path. Gabe manages to jump his horse over the boy, and nobody is hurt, but Callie immediately begins haranguing him for endangering her child. Gabe points out that, after all, the child was standing in a horse path in the middle of the night, but to no avail. Callie accuses him of being irresponsible, reckless, etc. Finally, seeing that Callie is freezing and Nicky is in no better shape, Gabe sets both of them on his horse and takes them to his comfortable home. Good of him. I half-wished he’d toss her back over the cliff.

Gabe’s home is a cheerful place, full of good food and friendly staff, and reluctantly Callie agrees to stay the night. Gabe’s interest is piqued by Callie, who is requisitely beautiful, and shy Nicky, who has a bad leg and limps. Soon a host of secondary characters enter the mix: Jim, an orphaned local boy; the aforementioned Harry, and Ethan Delaney, an Irish ex-soldier who is a friend of Gabe’s; and three other Army pals who are summoned by Gabe to help guard Callie and Nicky once their situation becomes known. Tibby, the governess, comes to stay after her cottage is burned down. It seems that whoever wants Nicky dead has followed Callie and the boy to England. Now it’s up to Gabe to try and keep them safe.

He’ll need all the help he can get, because Callie, frankly, is an idiot. She’s one of those uber-annoying heroines who never listens, but decides that nobody can tell her what to do, no sir! and rides headlong into danger even after being asked to stay put. Gabe is a very competent ex-soldier, for crying out loud, but nitwit Callie doesn’t believe he can protect her. She probably shouldn’t trust him, she decides. No, she can look out for herself! And only she can protect her son! This leads to many tiresome scenes of Callie being asked by Gabe to stay put, out of sight, where she’ll be safe - and then Callie doing the exact opposite, with predictably unpleasant results.

Once the villain shows up, Gabe decides that the only way he can keep Callie from being hauled back to Zindaria under their law is to marry her. Then she’ll be under the protection of English law, instead. This provides the necessary backdrop for some sex. By now the plot had become pretty much by-the-numbers, so I hardly cared. Too bad, because Gabe is a decent character with an interesting personality. Anne Gracie can write a captivating hero with the best of them.

Callie, however, is more than a match for Gabe - and not in a good way. She has little dimension beyond wanting to protect her son and being sure that everyone is out to kill him. She reacts to everything going on around her, usually with suspicion and veiled accusations, and for all her blustering that she can take care of herself, she does very little that’s proactive and much that’s just plain stupid. Other than getting to England in the first place, Callie spends the novel being maneuvered like a chess piece. We never find out what makes her tick, other than being a protective mother, so it’s hard to care about her.

Gabe, who has been nothing but decent to Callie, catches the brunt of her snippiness. This makes his infatuation with her feel false. That said, he’s good-natured, down to earth, occasionally funny, and though he has a few demons, he doesn’t spent the book brooding over them. What’s not to like about that?

I can only hope that Anne Gracie’s next book (and judging from the secondary characters, this one leads off a new series) will show a return to her previous form. Sadly, much like its heroine,The Stolen Princess blusters but never really delivers.

--Cathy Sova

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