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The Last Warrior by Kristen Kyle
(Bantam, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-553-57963-0
****
Perhaps it was inevitable that Kristen Kyle, whose first book was an entertaining futuristic romance, would choose an unusual setting and premise for her first full-length historical. In any case, readers are in for a treat with The Last Warrior. And a few bumps in the road don't spoil this fast-paced, passionate story.

Meghan McLowry needs a bodyguard. Her father, a San Francisco banker, is the target of the Chinese tongs, or gangs, for reasons unknown to Meg. Douglass McLowry laughs off the threats to his life, but Meg is sure that he'll end up dead, and it's up to her to find a way to protect him. Her search for the notorious Captain Jake Talbert takes her to a men's bath house, where they meet and immediately irritate each other.

Jake has an interesting past. Shipwrecked in Japan at the age of ten, he was adopted by a Japanese family and trained as a samurai, but left his adopted homeland in disgrace after the death of his best friend in battle. A battle that Jake survived. Jake's prowess with Japanese swords and his interest in collecting Japanese weaponry are well-known, and Meg banks on his willingness to sell his services in return for a set of five valuable swords that are in her father's possession.

Jake wants to find the swords and return them to their rightful owners – his adopted family. Then he will be able to regain his honor. It's been sixteen years, though, during which time he's become a successful sea merchant with a fleet of ships. Meg's request irritates him even as he's intrigued by her boldness – such a contrast to the subservient Asian women he's known. The swords seal the deal. Jake agrees to keep Meg's father safe from the tongs until she can find out why he's a target.

This is a classic romance of two people who are unwillingly fascinated by each other and come to realize they are soulmates. Jake tells himself he prefers dark, willowy Asian beauties, but can't get Meg's blond curves and fierce intelligence out of his mind. Meg enjoys her comfortable status as a San Francisco socialite, all the while aware of a niggling dissatisfaction with her life and a growing respect for Jake's sense of honor, not to mention his physique.

The background of the Chinese underworld provided the perfect contrast to the luxury of the McLowry mansion. Subplots involving slave girls sold into prostitution and the truth of the five swords give Jake and Meg ample time to interact and get to know each other.

Character-wise, Jake is a superb study. He's unveiled layer by layer, but the core of his personality is that of a man tormented by a death to which he contributed, in the most basic way. His anguish is not that he might have saved his friend's life, but that he didn't die, himself, in the time-honored Japanese way. Reconciling his Japanese and Western sides provides the inner conflict for his character, and he's richly-drawn and memorable.

I found Meg to be a less-satisfying combination of intelligent woman and spoiled, self-centered socialite. She starts out all determination, willing to go into places no woman dares in order to enlist the aid she needs to save her father. When it comes to dealing with her own emotions, however, she reverts to behavior more appropriate to a fifteen-year-old, leading to several tiresome and predictable scenes that don't cover her in glory.

She jumps on her horse and rides out of San Francisco in a huff, leaving Jake to chase after her. She decides to help with the abduction of a slave girl not so much to aid the girl, but because it will be one way to prove she's capable of taking risks. And without giving away the plot, the device used to drive the lovers apart near the end of the book was nothing more than Meg acting like a hysterical bitch. It wasn't worthy of the rest of the book and felt like the author wasn't quite sure how to bring about the separation, so she fell back on an old cliché. Meg's resultant remorse wasn't quite enough to restore my faith in her character.

But the uneven characterization of the heroine doesn't negate what is a truly remarkable tale. The Last Warrior offers just about everything a historical romance reader would love – an unusual, evocative background a mesmerizing hero, and a romance that is just plain torrid. Kristen Kyle is well on her way to becoming an established romance author. Don't let this Warrior get away.

--Cathy Sova


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