Of Noble Birth by Brenda Novak
(Harper, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-06-109059-0
Sprawling. That’s the word that kept popping into my mind as I tried to characterize Brenda Novak’s debut novel. There are so many things going on in Of Noble Birth that I found myself wondering what could happen to the hero and heroine next. And I was pretty sure that something dreadful would occur in the next scene or chapter.

The prologue sets the tone for the book. The Duchess of Greystone has finally given birth to a living child, only to discover that the babe is deformed, lacking half of an arm. She is devastated. Her husband already hates her and has no patience with imperfection. What will become of her and her son?

What almost becomes of her son is an early death as the duke attempts to murder his son. But the housekeeper succeeds in fleeing with the baby. So we are introduced to Albert Kimbolten, Duke of Greystone, one of the most unremittingly unpleasant villains imaginable.

Twenty-five years later, in 1854, we meet the heroine in Chapter 1, in dire straits. Alexandra has been locked in a trunk by her drunken stepfather, Willy. Alexandra’s mother had been a gentlewoman, throw out by her parents when she became pregnant by her lower class lover. She had married Willy to provide a home for her daughter. But since her death five years earlier, Willy had become increasingly abusive. Not only does he force Alexandra to work 18 hours a day as a seamstress, but he also beats her regularly.

The hero and heroine come together by happenstance. Nathaniel Kent is determined to gain revenge against his father. He has turned to piracy, attacking only the duke’s ships. When the duke captures one of his men, he determines to free his friend by kidnapping his own half-sister. But he mistakes Alexandria for his sister and carries off the wrong woman.

Of course, Nathaniel refuses to believe that Alexandra is the wrong woman and carries her off to his ship and to sea with him. His treatment of his captive is not especially kind. And he finds himself disturbingly attracted to his prisoner. For her part, Alexandra both dislikes her captor and finds him disturbingly attractive, not one of my favorite plot devices.

Thus begin the adventures of Nathaniel and Alexandra. Let me see if I can catalog all the vicissitudes they must face. These include: attempted rape; sea battles; a knife fight (Nathaniel); a bullet wound (Alexandra); a fall overboard (Alexandra); abduction and drugging by a slimy procurer (Alexandra); another knife fight and Nathaniel). I think I have covered all the dire experiences of our hero and heroine, but I may have missed a few.

With all of these adventures following one after the other, there isn’t much opportunity for Novak to develop the romance between Nathaniel and Alexandra. Thus, their attraction seems to depend too much on appearance and lust rather than love. Likewise, character development takes a backseat to action. Alexandra in particular is a bundle of contradictions. She behaves on occasion with exemplary bravery, but at other times seems “too stupid to live.”

Perhaps my greatest problem lay with the villains. The duke is simply too evil to be believed. And I must admit to some uncertainty about the possibility of his actions, especially in regard to his behavior towards his first wife and son. A duchess was unlikely to be as friendless and powerless as she was portrayed, nor do I believe that the duke could have so readily disposed of his son. At least, not in 1829.

Of Noble Blood seems to me to be something of a throwback to the romances of the early 1980s. I know that there are many readers who enjoy the kind of swashbuckling, non-stop action that characterizes this story. Of Noble Birth should appeal to readers who like their romances full of adventure and derring-do.

--Jean Mason

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