The Witch & the Warrior
by Karen Monk
(Bantam, $5.99, PG-130) ISBN 0-553-57760-3
***
It's difficult to think of a more compelling start to a romance than to have your heroine about to be burned at the stake for a crime she didn't commit. Given the auspicious beginning, I expected that I would be in for a long night of good reading, and I was. Set in the Highlands of Scotland, The Witch and the Warrior is an entertaining tale with some wonderful characters. I must admit, however, I did not enjoy the hero's fixation for his deceased wife.

All her life Gwendolyn MacSween has been scorned, feared and rejected for being the daughter of a witch, and therefore a witch herself. The blame for every bad thing that ever happened to the clan MacSween was laid at Gwen's door. The only love she ever knew was that of her father and she could only stand by, helpless, while her father was murdered and his murderer, Robert MacSween, brother to the laird, accuses her of the crime. Now, about to be burned at the stake, Gwen's only satisfaction comes from having denied Robert what her father denied him, her family's magic jewel.

Alex MacDunn, is laird of the powerful clan MacDunn; many refer to him has "Mad MacDunn" because when his beloved wife died four years ago, he continued to talk to her as if she were alive. Still suffering from the loss of his wife, Alex is faced with terrible prospect of losing their son, David, who has become seriously ill. No one has been able to help his son and Alex will try anything to cure him, including procuring the services of the most powerful witch in the Highlands.

And Alex is not deterred when he approaches the laird of the MacSween clan about buying Gwen and learns that she is about to be burned at the stake. He rescues Gwen and informs her that she now belongs to him and is to use her powers to heal his son. Gwen knows she is not a witch but, since her survival depends upon it, she is willing to assume the role. Gwen pretends to agree to assist MacSween in return for her freedom, however, Gwen knows that she must escape as soon as possible.

She must escape because she knows that she cannot really cast a spell that will cure David. And Gwen knows that Robert MacSween will never allow her to live in peace; she must leave in order to bring down the man who murdered her father and would have watched her burn for his crime. But tender-hearted Gwen's plans to escape are put on hold as she comes to love David and believes she doesn't have to be a witch in order to help him get better. Also, Gwen finds that she is attracted to Alex, a man who is terrified of showing his love for his son.

Okay, let me state for the record that I do not have a problem with a hero loving his first wife to the point of madness; actually, it is a refreshing change from most romances where it is standard form for the hero or heroine to disparage any former spouse. I do, however, think the author went a little overboard in her effort to show that when Alex loves, he loves with his whole heart and soul. Alex spends too much of the first half of this story rhapsodizing over the wonders of his love with his deceased wife.

Even worse, Alex was thinking about how much he loved his first wife and how terrified he was of losing his last link with her, their son, right before he makes love to Gwen for the first time. Now I realize Gwen wasn't aware of what Alex was thinking about before they made love, but I was. And to me, this realization was like having a bucket of cold water poured over my head; I could barely read much less enjoy the subsequent (love?) scene.

While this scene put a damper on my liking for this story, I did – with the author's help –get over it. There are a lot of reasons to like The Witch and the Warrior, including a fine cast of secondary characters. Notably, I very much enjoyed the antics of Isabella; the daughter of Laird MacSween, who is kidnapped by the MacDunn's while they are rescuing Gwen. Isabella is a wonderful send-up of all the spirited, beautiful, wellborn and completely self-absorbed heroines you have ever known, loved and hated. And, Ms. Monk provides clan MacDunn with a terrific assortment of quirky characters that keep the story interesting.

In addition, Gwen is just the kind of heroine an underdog lover like myself enjoys rooting for; I certainly wanted her to be happy and find the love and acceptance she'd been denied her whole life. And, in the end, I was convinced that Alex and Gwen belonged together. I also appreciated the twists and curves in the story line, particularly regarding David's illness. Ms. Monk doesn't settle for the obvious and that always makes for interesting reading.

--Judith Flavell


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