A Knight of Honor

The Lady the Falconer

 
Midnight Shadow by Laurel O'Donnell
(Zebra, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8217-6617-1
****
There's nothing like a wonderfully written romance that includes everything from excitement and intrigue to despair and triumph. Such a novel discourages readers from putting the book down, lest we miss new adventures waiting around the next corner. Laurel O'Donnell has managed to do just that and so much more in the Midnight Shadow.

Raised as something of a free spirit and an only child, Lady Bria Delaney regularly enjoyed playing with her two best friends, Mary and Garret. Unfortunately, a run-in with Randolph Kenric when she was playing with her friends as a young girl, taught her early on how little honor could be expected from the neighboring Knowles family. Now, ten years after that fateful encounter with Kenric, Bria is more certain than ever that the Knowles family, and Lord Terran Knowles in particular, are unworthy of her respect and trust.

Terran is agonized over the death of his fiancée, Odella, by poison. He can't understand why she would kill herself when she had seemed so happy. Though Terran knows that he'll never marry for love, he now must marry out of necessity to avoid having his lands confiscated by the crown for not paying his taxes. Kenric, Terran's cousin, sheriff, and personal confidant all in one, advises that he has no choice but to reclaim the betrothal to Lady Bria Delaney that was broken upon his engagement to Odella.

Meanwhile, Bria's father has decided that she is now old enough to be married. At his decree, men begin flocking from near and far to Castle Delaney for the chance at winning her hand, as well as her large dowry. Bria isn't interested in a loveless marriage, but agrees to abide by her father's wish. Ever since she was a little girl, her grandfather used to tell her stories of a mythical hero called the Midnight Shadow who would defend the weak and right any injustice. Those stories stayed with her into adulthood and because the model of her ideal mate, which was now threatened by her father's desire to wed her to his ideal man for her.

That night, Bria meets her grandfather, Harry, in the woods for their regular sword practice. Bria has secretly become a very proficient swordswoman, but has not yet achieved the ultimate goal of beating her grandfather. After losing once again, Bria leaves her grandfather to meet Mary, who lives as a tenant on Knowles' land, in their usual special place in the woods to discuss that night's practice. This night, however, Mary and Bria overhear Kenric and two thugs threatening a local old woman, setting off a chain of events that eventually forces Bria to vow vengeance against Terran Knowles and Kenric. To accomplish her revenge, Bria decides it's time for the injustices on Knowles' land to stop. She begins a plan to transform herself into the Midnight Shadow, in order to raid the Knowles' tax collectors of their bounty and return it to the people. After several successful raids, Bria is confident in her abilities as a warrior and that she's making a difference in the lives of Knowles tenants.

Frustrated with the elusive Midnight Shadow, Terran is suspicious that Bria is rendezvousing with the Midnight Shadow for a lovers tryst because of her mysterious disappearances around the times of each raid and decides to attempt using her as bait to finally put a stop to this theft. Little does Terran know that his enemy is within his midst. But who will save Bria once Terran claims her for his bride? How can she continue to betray Terran once she starts to suspect he isn't really a tyrant after all?

Bria and Terran are an enjoyable couple to watch as they progress from flirting strangers, to wary enemies, and finally to passionate lovers. They meet prior to knowing exactly who each other is and begin flirting immediately. It's only after their identities are discovered that animosity, mostly on Bria's part, becomes evident. She wants nothing to do with the neighboring tyrant and becomes very dismayed at discovering she had been betrothed to him prior to her birth without her knowledge and he's now returned to honor that contract. This added tension within their relationship allows sparks to fly and adds just the right amount of humor as well.

Well-developed secondary characters are also an added bonus. Harry is unfailingly supportive and loving of Bria. Kenric's cruelty is enough to make the reader's skin crawl. Other characters, like Bria's father, are less developed, but no less intriguing for their interactions with the primary characters. One exception to this point is Mary, whose ending is left disappointingly ambiguous after a strong showing at the beginning of the story.

Midnight Shadow does contain numerous plot points that are unbelievable and may become irritating to the reader. One such point is Bria's independent streak. It's highly improbable that a young woman would be trained in swordplay, let alone battle men twice her size. There are also other instances of sickness and abuse that seem overcome too easily, adding to the reader's disbelief.

Readers, myself included, who enjoy medieval settings and strong characters will particularly relish this book. If the reader is open-minded, occasionally able to suspend belief, and accepting of a sometimes almost-modern heroine, Midnight Shadow is a thoroughly enjoyable and quick read.

--Kristy Hales


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