Silk and Steel by Theresa Michaels
(Harlequin, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-29136-1
***
Silk and Steel is a mildly entertaining entry in the Scottish romance novel sweepstakes, one that devotees of medieval Scotland will probably enjoy. However, I never found myself swept up by the story, and I kept wondering why not. Michaels writes a competent prose, avoids modernisms in both her text and her dialogue, and enriches her narrative with nuggets of information on daily life in 14th C. Scotland. So why wasn't I more interested in her story?

As the middle book of a trilogy, Silk and Steel is more of a reprise of the first book and a prelude to the third than a romance able to stand on its own. In addition, the ratio of action to romance fell heavily on the action side, and for the most part I didn't find the action compelling. The result was a story lacking the uncertainty and tension it needed to keep me reading.

The trilogy tells the story of the laird of Clan Gunn and his two brothers, living in the Highlands at the end of the 14th century. Silk and Steel is Jamie Gunn's story. Jamie is the middle brother, his clan's tanist or war chief, and the Scotland of 1385 provides him with plenty of opportunities to exercise his battle skills.

The raid Jamie is leading as the story opens is aimed at recapturing a load of furs stolen by the Keiths, one of the local clans involved in a feud with the Gunns. At the conclusion of the successful raid, Jamie learns that a Norman lord, Guy de Orbrec, is holding his aunt, the abbess of Deer Abbey, hostage. (Deer Abbey? Such an unfortunate name. I'm fairly sure Michaels didn't coin it to give her readers a chuckle.) Lady Ailis gave sanctuary to Lady Gilliane de Verrill after the death of her father, and now de Orbrec wants to claim Lady Gilliane as his bride. Since three of de Orbrec's wives have died after giving birth to daughters, Gilliane is understandably reluctant to marry him. When Lady Ailis refuses to give her up to de Orbrec's men, they kidnap Lady Ailis instead.

Chaperoned by one of the nuns, Gilliane sets out for the Gunn stronghold, Halberry Castle. De Orbrec's men have set a watch on Deer Abbey, however, and pursue her and Sister Ellen. As a result, the two women become separated in Findhorn wood, with Sister Ellen finding refuge in a priory. It is she who gets word to Jamie of his aunt's kidnapping. Jamie splits up his raiding party - some to return to Halberry Castle, some to reconnoiter around Deer Abbey - and himself searches for Gilliane.

More than 50 pages of the book have gone by before Jamie finds Gilliane in the Glen of the Snake where she has taken refuge, and they have their first romantic encounter. That was too long for me, so I decided to take an unscientific survey of the dozen or so romances I have read recently to see how long it usually takes for the lovers-to-be to meet for the first time. The average was less than 20 pages. While I applaud writers who challenge the romance conventions, when they do venture beyond the tried-and-true they need to be certain that their innovations work. In the case of Silk and Steel, the long wait for any sparks made it difficult to get involved in the story.

Jamie and Gilliane spend the next 50 pages traveling to Halberry Castle, advancing toward one another, then retreating, as they test the attraction they both feel. Once they reach the Gunn castle, however, the story focuses only intermittently on our lovers. Instead we get pages of back-story on Micheil, the laird of Gunn Clan, and more pages foreshadowing Davey's story, the youngest of the three brothers. The complications and the action stemming from Jamie's efforts to rescue Lady Ailis further divert attention from Gilliane's and Jamie's love affair.

I wondered, as I read, if Michaels wouldn't have been wiser to write one fat book encompassing all three brothers' stories rather than spreading their story over three smaller books. Without having read Micheil's story, I can't say whether it stood on its own, but I can say that Jamie and Gilliane's romance…even combined with the rescue of Lady Ailis…was not robust enough to allow me to rate Silk and Steel higher than three hearts.

--Nancy J. Silberstein


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