Bridger's Last Stand

Every Little Thing

The Guardian

Lucky's Woman

Madigan's Wife

The Moon Witch

Secret Agent Sheik

The Sheik & I

The Sun Witch

 

 
Untouchable
by Linda Winstead Jones
(Berkley, $7.99, PG-13)  ISBN 978-0425-22296-6
***
An intriguing setting can’t quite overcome the fact that Untouchable is the first of a series called “The Emperor’s Brides,” and the plot drags out accordingly, with threads left hanging. The conflict doesn’t really hold up to much scrutiny, either.  Readers are much more likely to enjoy it if they’ve read Jones’s previous two series set in this world, “The Fyne Witches” and “Children of the Sun”, as they are prequels to this and can provide necessary background.

Prince Alixandyr of Columbyana is dispatched by his minutes-older twin brother, Emperor Jahn, to gather one of six women whom Jahn will consider for a bride. Alix and Jahn were raised in hiding, believing they were Devlyn and Trystan, sons of a fisherman and a seamstress. In truth, they were the twin sons of the late emperor Sebestyan. Their rise to nobility included a battle against an evil demon and the vanquishing of a number of other nasty characters, all covered in previous books.

Jahn and Alix are close, and Alix agrees to escort Princess Edlyn from the kingdom of Tryfyn for participation in Jahn’s bride search. Upon his arrival, Alix discovers that Edlyn is a spoiled, shrewish brat. Her mother, the queen, insists that Alix also take a gift to his brother, the Emperor: a slave girl named Sanura. A woman of a tribe called the Agnese, Sanura is gifted with the power to see into men’s souls, but according to the laws of her tribe, only the man to whom she belongs may touch her. Anyone else faces instant death at the hands of her two guards. Sanura, coated entirely in blue powder, is a little too alluring for the queen’s taste. If Alix does not take her to his brother, the queen will see that Sanura is put to death.

Alix agrees, and the party embarks for Columbyana. Soon Alix is finding it difficult to keep away from Sanura, and she is drawn to him as well. Sanura senses that there is a dark side to Alix’s soul, and even when she dares to touch him, she cannot penetrate it in her normal fashion. But he can’t have her, as she was given to his brother, and Alix is sure that Jahn will never give Sanura up once he sets eyes on her.

This felt forced. Alix and Jahn are portrayed as caring and supportive of each other, and it seemed that all Alix would have to do is tell his brother, “Hey, Jahn, I bent over backward to help you with this bride hunt deal, and all I want is the slave girl, so how about I get to keep her?” Given how hard the author tries to convince us that these two men are the best of friends, Alix’s belief that Jahn would take one look at the girl and turn his back on his brother simply didn’t work for me. Especially since he insists that Jahn won’t let her remain a slave anyway, in which case, the whole premise is moot.

Anyway, snotty Edlyn soon turns up dead, and whoever did it manages to frame Alix for the murder. Sanura and Alix escape, and the rest of the book is basically a road romance as they try to get safely to Columbyana and find out who killed Edlyn. The author includes a very interesting aspect to the romance: Alix basically has a split personality, and when his alter ego Trystan emerges, it’s with the evil intent of killing Jahn and claiming the throne for himself. Sanura can’t decide who she loves. Will Alix vanquish Trystan? Or will it be the other way around? Which of these men has the true darkness of soul she senses?

The murderer isn’t hidden to the reader, so the plot revolves around Alix’s attempt to find out who did it. This part of the story moved along at a brisk pace. A secondary romance between another bride candidate and a handsome guard is well-done. A bit too much time is spent on the Alix/Trystan personality subplot, with Sanura agonizing over her feelings.  It was hard to keep from skipping ahead, as some of the scenes started to feel like retreads, and frankly, Trystan wasn’t a very interesting “character.”

Alix, however, has a lot going for him. He’s intelligent and shrewd, two things that are always welcome in a hero, and he also has a lot of self-discipline, making the fire underneath seem to burn even hotter. Compared to him, Trystan is an arrogant, immature lout, reminiscent of a privileged frat boy. Perhaps that’s what made scenes with him begin to wear thin after a while.

The teaser for the second book in this series looks interesting, and I’ll be on the lookout for it.  If you’ve enjoyed Linda Winstead-Jones’s previous books set in Columbyana, you’ll likely enjoy Untouchable very much.  

--Cathy Sova


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