Destiny by Helen Kirkman
(HQN, $12.95, R) ISBN 0-373-77054-5
Ever found yourself fifty pages into a book without really knowing what has been going on? If so, you'll know exactly how I felt as I read Destiny. Here's a novel set in an unusual time period (the early part of Alfredan England); an interesting premise (can a former Viking sex slave and an exiled Saxon prince stand up to the invaders and find happiness together in the new England?); and a hero and heroine who have a surefire ingredient (they are both in search of redemption). And yet very little is made of all this potential to create three-dimensional characters, generate page-turning suspense and draw a vivid historical tapestry.

Lady Elene traded her honor to save her parents' life and has been living as the preferred concubine of one of the most feared Viking warriors. She has escaped Kraka's hold only to find herself the captive of another man. Because of her past and what may be perceived as the ultimate betrayal, she doesn't expect to do any better with Berg. So she is surprised when he doesn't force himself on her.

Like Elene, Berg is trying to rebuild his lost honor and contend with the literal and figurative scars from his past. He broke off his long-planned betrothal when the Danish invasion and the massacre of King Edmund the Martyr denied him his foreseen inheritance. Since then, he has joined forces with the last remaining English king, Alfred, and vowed to defend the island from further threats. Though he is determined to act honorably to his strangely familiar captive, he doesn't expect to find any of the peace and contentment he lost. But their past inevitably brings them together. As Berg and Elene slowly turn to each other, they must also deal with Kraka, who endangers not only their love but also the Alfredan court.

If this sounds pretty straight forward, it is no thanks to the novel. I had to wade through too much purple prose, tedious internal monologue and badly written battle scenes (which didn't always make sense) before I could make sense of anything. At the same time, I found the turn of events alternatively confusing in the lack of concrete details or predictable in their sequence. Indeed, the final showdown with Kraka is not just expected; it is also much too simplified to be really satisfying.

Despite a story rich in external conflict, Destiny's focus is internal conflict. This would not be a problem under more able hands. Here, it is interesting for one or two rounds, but quickly becomes boring and tedious - especially since every round is more of the same. To make matters worse, all the introspection adds little credence to the characters' behavior. Berg's actions towards Elene just don't ring true. It is not until we are two-third into the book that we are given any insights into why he behaves so nobly towards a woman he has every reason to despise. Meanwhile, Elene fears her former bondage will condemn her to life as a permanent outcast, but there is no mention of the antagonism and rejection she encounters when she returns to her people. In fact, there is overall very little description of what life was like in those troubled times.

My final objection to Destiny is a personal pet peeve: I have a hard time believing an eight-year-old child can recognize true love and feel her whole life is governed by it. It may be destiny, but it's also incredibly disempowering. And that is certainly not why I read romance.

--Mary Benn

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