The Sword by Jean Johnson
(Berkley, $14.00, PG-13) ISBN 0-425-21440
Newcomer Jean Johnson introduces readers to an intriguing world in which eight magic-wielding brothers, who are four sets of twins born two years apart, have been banished because of a curse and will find their mates. The first story, The Sword, is the tale of Saber, known for his prowess with a sword.

Kelly Doyle wakes up one night to find her house on fire. Seems her small-town neighbors have decided she’s a witch and are going to burn her to death. This takes place in the present-day, which may make it hard for readers to swallow, but at any rate, Kelly is saved by a young sorcerer named Morganen and transported to his world. Morganen is the youngest of the brothers, and his twin, Koranen, whose specialty is working with fire, soon heals her. Morganen senses that Kelly is the mate destined for Saber. The curse decrees that the brothers will marry in order, starting with Saber as the eldest. Since the curse also promises all sorts of dreadful things, Saber and the rest of the guys have been banished from their home kingdom of Katan and sent to a rather gloomy island with an equally gloomy castle. It’s here that Kelly awakens, to find herself surrounded by strange men talking in a language she doesn’t understand.

Magic is useful in a plot as it can help overcome all sorts of obstacles, such as language barriers. Before long Kelly is setting the castle to rights, and she and Saber are exchanging barbs. Actually, Saber does his best to stay away from her, but an attack on the castle drives them into each other’s proximity. In one of the more inventive bits of plotting I’ve read lately, their injuries will require them to spend time together in an unexpected place.

But Saber is sure that disaster will follow if he allows himself to get involved with Kelly. When a group of traders arrive at the island, ostensibly to barter but with much more sinister intent, Kelly’s 21st-century knowledge and Saber’s own magical abilities combine to try and save them all.

There is sooo much to like about this story! From the outset, the premise was fun. Saber and his brothers all have distinct talents and personalities, and while it may be difficult to remember all the names at first, there is enough uniqueness among them to help separate them in one’s mind after a while.

Saber was an enjoyable hero. He’s immediately attracted to Kelly, which he definitely doesn’t want, and is terrified to act on it because of the curse, which states that disaster will come at her heel, and Katan will fail to aid them. Kelly is just as drawn to Saber, but he keeps her at arm’s length. When they are forced into each other’s close proximity all good intentions will go out the window. The last third of the book deals with Saber and Kelly facing the danger together, which is always a welcome bit of plotting. And once they move their relationship into the physical arena, the story spices up quite nicely.

So why the three-heart review? Well, while Saber is easy to root for, Kelly is quite a different matter. She’s initially shrill and abrasive, and her bossy attitude gets old after a single page, let alone the many pages of “Kelly showing the guys what’s what” that readers must wade through. A scene early on, where Kelly bitches the men out for their manners and the general condition of the castle, goes on for more than ten pages as she reams out each and every brother in turn. This was way too much. Kelly mellows as the story progresses, but it was hard to get past the first impression of her as a snippy tyrant.

As a foil for the guarded, cautious Saber, however, she works quite well. It would take a strong heroine to balance his overwhelming sense of responsibility toward his brothers, a burden that holds him back from committing his heart to a woman. Kelly shakes him out of that.

As for the brothers, readers will figure out who is who, but other than Morganen most of them have little to do in this story. Morganen, as the youngest, is quite intriguing. He’s the most willing to try and think his way past the curse business, which makes him appear to be the most intelligent of the lot. Too bad his story will probably be the last in line.

Which brings up an interesting point. Is Ms. Johnson planning to combine several stories in future books? It would be unheard-of for a new author to snare an eight-book contract, and frankly, I’m not sure the series could sustain itself for that long. The next book, The Wolf, is due out in two months, and The Master later this year.

Whatever the plans for the future, The Sword is an enjoyable showcase for an inventive new author. Jean Johnson brings a welcome voice to the romance genre, and she’s assured of a warm welcome.

--Cathy Sova

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