The Leopard Prince
by Elizabeth Hoyt
(Warner Books, $6.99, R) ISBN 0-446-61848-9
***
Elizabeth Hoyt's first novel, The Raven Prince, won me over with its thoroughly genuine characters. In fact, I vote it one of the ten best historical romances, if not romances, of 2006. Comparisons with her second book are inevitable. None are in The Leopard Prince's favor, but the latter remains a pleasant enough read.

Lady Georgina Maitland, or George as she is known to her friends, has just returned from London to her country estate in Yorkshire. Someone has been poisoning sheep, and rumor has it that the guilty man is Harry Pye, her land steward. Lord Granville, a neighboring landlord who holds a long-standing grudge against Harry, demands that she sends him away. She refuses, but suggests that Harry and she investigate the crime.

George has been attracted to Harry for a while, and now that they are thrown into close contact, this attraction grows stronger. Of course, there are serious barriers, including class differences, to any relationship between them, but after a little hesitation she decides to seduce him. Yes, her plan sounds totally implausible for an eighteenth-century British aristocrat, but hold your horses for a minute.

George has very convincing reasons for thinking she can get away with an affair: she has a fortune of her own and therefore absolutely no need for a wealthy, aristocratic husband. Marriage with someone from the servant classes is quite another matter. Although the resolution of The Leopard Prince will probably annoy historically-minded readers, it does make sense, given the characters, their backgrounds and their motivations. Besides, the real problems with historical representation lie elsewhere.

The Raven Prince also contains several anachronisms and unlikely mesalliances, but the characters are so real, concrete and likeable that I quickly overlooked them. Here, however, George's thoroughly modern lexicon almost ruined the book for me. Her rolling eyes, oopses, and ohmygodohmygodohmygods jar with her aristocratic status. Worse, they douse her with much more silliness than such an independent and principled woman would have. As for Harry, who makes a brief appearance in the other novel, he is stand-offish and stiff. This attitude follows naturally from his past history, and it slowly falls off to reveal an honorable and sensitive man. So in the end it bothered me far less than it could have. Nevertheless, neither character has the same depths and appeal as Anne and Edward of The Raven Prince.

The novels in this series take their title from fairy tales that provide a thematic unity to the story. In the first novel, the fairy tale is the source for the epigrams at the beginning of each chapter; here it is slowly unveiled through George's lips. The interruptions require some getting used to, but both the twists and turns George's story-telling takes and Harry's responses to them reveal much about their personalities.

The investigation into the poisoned sheep keeps the pages turning and nicely punctuates the developments in the romance plot. It also introduces us to a largish cast of characters, farmers and aristocrats alike. Hoyt provides the right amount of details to her country setting to give it an authentic feel. So while The Leopard Prince did not entrance me as much as its precursor, it certainly is an original and well-crafted story, one that is sure to be appreciated by most romance readers.

--Mary Benn


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