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The Sea Nymph by Ruth Langan
(Harl. Historical #545, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-29145-0
I am a firm believer that, in skillful hands, the hoariest romance plots can be made new again, new enough, anyway, for me to enjoy the retelling. In The Sea Nymph, Ruth Langan intertwines two cliched plots: the pirate lass and the noble highwayman. Unfortunately, the combination does not result in a stronger story; instead the pirate-lass yarn acts as a sea anchor on the slightly stronger noble-highwayman plot.

Let us consider the pirate-lass story first. Bethany Lambert is the middle daughter in a family of three daughters…and, not coincidentally, The Sea Nymph is volume two in a trilogy. The family is engaged in the shipping trade, with their one ship, the Undaunted, also doubling as a privateer, licensed by Charles II. When Bethany's father and older brother are killed by pirates, Charles agrees to allow the family to continue their privateering, with Bethany's grandfather as their captain and the three girls assisting him.

If your story includes young women in breeches, in the year 1665, scurrying up and down the rigging and firing pistols at pirates, you need to make sure the rest of the action is as believable as possible. Langan's action fails to convince. For instance, when The Sea Nymph opens, the Undaunted, with Bethany and her grandfather aboard, engages with a pirate ship that had been chasing a small pleasure craft. The pirates board the Undaunted and "In the hours that followed, the decks of both ships ran red with blood." A hand-to-hand battle that went on for hours? Unlikely - as unlikely as Bethany's effectiveness with sword and knife. Most women just do not have the body strength to outfight men, particularly over a long period of time.

So much for shipboard adventure. How about the noble-highwayman part of the story?

Kane Preston, earl of Alsmeeth, has retired to his estate in Cornwall with his reputation in tatters. He was imprisoned in the Fleet in connection with his father's brutal death. Although he was set free shortly, no one else was ever charged with the crime. To make matters worse, his bride committed suicide on their wedding night. Quite an unsavory reputation but, apparently, forgivable since he is young, wealthy, and unmarried. He is also reclusive; he has spoken to no one since his arrival in Cornwall.

At the same time the earl of Alsmeeth arrived, the Lord of the Night, a highwayman, began robbing the wealthier citizens of Cornwall. Hours after the Undaunted makes port following its successful encounter with the pirate ship, Bethany attends a Bible reading at the local vicarage. On her way home, her carriage is held up by the Lord of the Night, and the other passengers are robbed. Bethany has nothing worth taking, so…brace yourself!…he steals a kiss instead. Both Bethany and the highwayman are shaken by that kiss and by the kisses that follow during two more encounters.

The Undaunted has been holed by a cannon ball in its engagement with the pirates, and the Lambeths need to buy wood to repair it. Their neighbor, the earl of Alsmeeth, has trees to spare, but he refuses to sell unless Bethany keeps him company while the trees are harvested. She spends three days at his palatial estate, very little of it actually in Kane's company but long enough to find herself interested in the solitary, hard-working young nobleman. How, she wonders, can she be attracted to Kane when the kisses of the Lord of the Night send her up in flames?

Kane's masquerade, his efforts to keep his two identities separate, and Bethany's confusion provide the most enjoyable parts of The Sea Nymph. Unfortunately, the rest of the book suffers from numerous anachronisms and historical errors, trite writing (see "the decks of both ships ran red with blood" above, for an example), and a key plot devise that, to the best of my knowledge, is just plain wrong.

The villain of The Sea Nymph is Kane's cousin, Oswald Preston. Without a doubt, Oswald is a slimy spendthrift but he has, I'm afraid, a valid reason to resent Kane. Oswald believes - and so do I - that he is the legitimate earl of Alsmeeth. Because of the circumstances of Kane's birth, I don't think he could inherit the earldom. In real life, or in any sensible work of fiction, Oswald would have taken his case to court and ousted Kane, but Langan's book is decidedly not a sensible work of fiction.

My advice? Approach The Sea Nymph with care, and keep your expectations low.

--Nancy J. Silberstein

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