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Lady of Conquest by Teresa Medeiros
(Bantam, $5.99, G) ISBN 0-553-58114-7
****
Before Xena, Warrior Princess, there was. . .Gelina O'Monaghan?

Yes, incredible as it may seem, before Teresa Medeiros made her indelible mark on the romance world with endearing novels of comic whimsy, she wrote Lady of Conquest. Lady, first published in 1989, features a sword-wielding warrior princess that probably would have given Xena a run for the money. Like Xena, Gelina suffers from a tragic past, that has scarred her and made her into a fierce, but beautiful battle-maiden. And like Xena, underneath her formidable exterior she has a tender heart that craves redemption and love.

Taking place in Ancient Ireland, the hero of Lady is the historical Conn of the Hundred Battles, the high king of Tara who united the north and south. Along with his legendary band of warriors, the Fianna (roughly analogous to the Knights of the Round Table), he has brought peace and order to the many small, unruly kingdoms of Erin. At the time the story begins, Conn is in his prime having already achieved greatness, but no longer a very young man.

However, disaster looms; Conn's kingdom is still beset by jealous enemies. His rival, Eoghan Mogh, hovers at the fringes, plotting to seize power. And closer to home, a dreadful monster is terrifying the populace, killing off the Fianna warriors one by one. Finally, Conn himself goes to slay the monster. Inside the monster's lair, Conn is amazed to confront a giant warrior. It puts up an extraordinary fight, but is no match for his mighty sword. He stabs the giant, then discovers it to be no monster at all, but two teenagers under a voluminous cloak. One escapes, but he captures the second. Conn is astonished to find that his prisoner is a furious young girl, who despite her injuries is yet determined to kill him.

This turns out to be Gelina, who has sworn to destroy Conn and his men. Years before, Conn's men killed her father and mother, whom Conn considered traitors; since then, she and her brother have lived as wild children, practicing their fighting skills, and dreaming of one day exacting their vengeance. But that is before Conn takes her prisoner. When he does, his first impulse is to administer swift justice; but something about the ragamuffin with the auburn hair and festering wound tugs his heart. He lances her wound and takes her home to his fortress.

Also, as a principled king, he feels a responsibility for Gelina. According to ancient law, Conn ought to have provided for her and her brother. He decides to hide the truth of her identity, and present her at his court as a maiden rescued from the monster's lair.

At first Gelina is hostile and mistrustful, not believing that her most hated enemy could have good intentions. But since the alternative is a public beheading, she reluctantly plays along. Soon, however, she is truly won over by Conn's kindness to her. Before, she had never known anything but hardship; but at Conn's stronghold she is safe and cared for, and blossoms from ragamuffin to beauty.

Despite the age difference, Gelina falls in love with him, but Conn insists on treating her as a mere child, a foster daughter. Nonetheless, his passion for her increases by the year. Then, when Conn's enemies rise against him including Gelina's beloved brother their love is sorely tested. Can they trust each other? Can Gelina love a man whose men killed her parents? Can Conn love a woman who, given a sword, can slay his finest warriors? What a dilemma!

Lady of Conquest is a fun read, admirably combining romance, adventure, and the inimitable Medeiros charm (though in much small doses than in her subsequent books). It is a welcome change from many of the formulaic, connect-the-dot romances I've read lately. So many recent romances have lacked conflict, external or internal, but Lady delivers both in spades. To me, the best romances present seemingly insurmountable obstacles between the hero and heroine giving the reader that exquisite, gut-twisting tension that never relents until the end. Lady, as with Medeiros' best works, offers ample gut-twisting.

But be forewarned, Lady of Conquest is also a first novel, and as with many a first novel, has its technical flaws, historical anachronisms, even grammatical errors. Lady is somewhat awkwardly plotted, contains point-of-view mistakes, and has some howlingly bad botanical blunders. For example, Medeiros makes mention of pumpkins and tomatoes both New World plants unknown in Ancient Ireland. And why would Gelina's bath be scented with gardenias, which are from the jungles of Africa? That would take some fancy explaining. But we must be flexible here, and not point to minor details; especially considering that the historical Conn of the Hundred Battles already had a wife, several grown children and maybe grandchildren, around the time Lady takes place.

Usually, errors such as these would have this reviewer subtracting hearts like mad. But what Lady lacks in technical excellence, it makes up for with a delightful enthusiasm. In fact, throughout the book, I kept thinking of Xena, Warrior Princess not only because of its sword-wielding heroine, but because Xena is also a story which regularly abuses historical accuracy for the sheer joy of it. And succeeds splendidly.

Therefore, notwithstanding its flaws, I liked Lady of Conquest; it will never be Medeiros' finest work, but it is a entertaining novel quite worthy of being reprinted.

--Meredith Moore


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