As a young teenager, I read The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings and A Wrinkle in Time, and then wrote my own fantasy novels - with romance added, of course. The shy, awkward heroine (gee, could it be anyone I knew?) always saved the day along with the handsome stranger who recognized the girl’s hidden beauty and talents.
Donna Kauffman writes for the awkward adolescent that I was 25 years ago. I feel as if she is writing for me. That’s the only way I can explain my unabashed enjoyment of her novels, despite the plot holes and weaknesses I encounter when I look at them objectively.
The Royal Hunter finds Devlin Archer, mercenary from the future, arriving in twenty-first century Connecticut with an old mystic and a mischievous shape-shifting animal to help him. His job: to locate a royal healer who, years ago, disappeared into the past. Archer finds that the woman he seeks is no longer alive, but that her daughter may have inherited her skills. Now all he has to do is convince a skeptical Talia Trahaern to return to the 23rd century, to a time where Wales is once again an independent kingdom, ruled over by a young, very pregnant queen who is dying of a mysterious illness.
Talia is a loner without any family. Her mother died when she was just a child and Talia never felt as if she fit in anywhere. She has a rare gift of empathy with animals, but her ability to feel their pain has made it impossible to follow her chosen profession, veterinary medicine. Instead, she runs a shelter for unwanted animals and shares her furry friends with the neighboring senior citizens home.
At first she doesn’t want to believe Archer and Baleweg the mystic, but she is soon unable to deny the validity of their story. However, she’s no healer, and she’s resistant to their insistence that she must return with them. Gradually, though, she starts to care for the gruff, tough but inwardly kind-hearted Archer. She also realizes that her empathic skills may be stronger than she realized. And, most importantly, she learns that she may not be safe in the present or the future; someone doesn’t want the alleged healer and the dying queen to meet.
Devlin Archer is written to be every woman’s dream - a Harrison Ford-type adventurer who just happens to be a native Australian so he can say things like “go walkabout” and “no worries.” He couldn’t be any more stereotypical - the mercenary with a heart of gold - but when he falls for Talia, he falls hard, and it’s actually very sweet to watch him bumble through hesitant efforts to be romantic. Only a bit of unnecessary “she’s too good for me” hesitation keeps him from membership in the Hero Hall of Fame.
The love story between Talia and Devlin is the strongest part of the novel. I guess it’s just that residual teenager inside me, but I’m still a sucker for two lonely people finding each other despite being from different worlds. Kauffman is at her best when describing the couple’s interactions, and she captures the delight of unexpected love discovered in the most unlikely place.
The Royal Hunter isn’t as successful when it leaps into the futuristic world of Wales. Kauffman’s fantasy world is a sketchy combination of past and future. The ailing Queen lives in a palace that seems more medieval than advanced. The novel’s futuristic touches are derivative and incomplete, unlike the fully realized world of J.D. Robb’s New York City.
The secondary characters lack originality and spark, particularly the pivotal character of Baleweg, who sounds like Gandalf, Obi-Wan Kenobi or numerous other archetypal wise men. An exception is Archer’s buddy, Ringer, a shape-shifter who deserves to play a more important role in the story. A few gaping plot holes and a villain who never even appears also weaken the book’s effectiveness. However, a surprising climactic encounter wraps things up on a high note.
Despite the book’s flaws, the former fantasy-loving, romance-craving teenager inside me recommends The Royal Hunter. Donna Kauffman’s enthusiastic, sweet, but unpolished creativity may speak to you as well.