Heart Thief

Heart Duel by Robin D. Owens
(Berkley, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-425-19658-5
Robin D. Owens returns readers to the planet Celta in the third installment of her “Heart” series. This time, it’s playboy Holm Holly’s turn to fall hard, for a woman his family considers to be a sworn enemy.

The Hollys and the Hawthorns have been feuding for years, with duels, ambushes, and other assorted mayhem. The feud doesn’t matter to Mayblossom Lark Hawthorn, daughter of T’Hawthorn, the family’s head. She has been trained as a Healer, and when her skill is called upon to mend the wounded from yet another duel, she finds herself healing one of the Holly sons, Tinne. With him is Holm, the HollyHeir, and he’s in for a shock. Holm discovers that Lark is his HeartMate, and in order to bond with her, he must court and win her. But how to do that when the Hawthorns and Hollys have been at each other’s throats for thirty years? And their own psychic talents, or Flair, don’t help. Holm’s Flair is fighting; Lark’s is healing.

Lark is undeniably attracted to Holm, but wary. Her first husband was a Healer from a lowborn family, and the Hawthorns shunned him. But Lark loved Ethyn, and his death left an emptiness in her life that she has filled with her craft. A romance with Holm would cause nothing but pain, as both families would likely disown them. But, she reasons, an affair could be something she’d handle. Just temporarily.

Holm knows this is nonsense, but with the very real enmity between their families and the fact that he cannot reveal that he’s Lark’s HeartMate, he agrees to a temporary liaison. This will give him time to know Lark better and have her know him, as well. But the feud will erupt in an unexpected way, and they will both face difficult choices about their future.

As with all of the Heart books, there are telepathic cats, or Fams, and here they are kittens from the same litter. Phyll and Meserv are bonded to Lark and Holm, and their connection as littermates makes them extra-telepathic. The kittens are mischievous and amusing without descending into “precious” territory. Owns excels at portraying haughty, imperious felines with hearts of gold and absolute loyalty. I found them delightful.

The romance between Holm and Lark grows in fits and starts, but it feels natural inside the context of their relationship. Lark is drawn closer, then tries to retreat; Holm steadily advances and won’t take no for an answer, at least when it comes to building an emotional bond. Their sexual attraction is red-hot. And, in a nifty twist, Owens throws in a major role-reversal at the climax. I won’t reveal it, but it was a terrific way to wrap up the story.

The author uses characters from previous stories, and they have integral parts in the plot – they’re not just showing up to wave hello. In fact, Ruis Elder from Heart Thief and Rand T’Ash from Heart Mate have major roles at certain points. Kudos to Ms. Owens for structuring her plot so these two could return in such a fashion.

If there is one flaw in the book, it’s that the world-building of Celta sometimes felt thrown in at random, as if it needed to be inserted somewhere but the author didn’t quite know where to put it. An episode of something called “solar sailing” came out of the blue, as if to say “Oh, look, here’s another strange things these Celtans do!” Also, at times Owens descends into what I call Krentz-Speak (and those of you who have read Jayne Ann Krentz’s futuristic romances will catch this immediately). Lark drinks “icyblacktea” and eats “blueblackberries”, and it comes across as forced and cutesy. Celta wouldn’t be a bit less interesting or realistic if everyone just drank tea, but this stuff is annoying and rather jarring. Not fun if you’re immersed in the story.

And that’s the hallmark of good futuristic romance – I was immersed and didn’t want to be jolted out of it. Robin D. Owens is an absolutely sensational storyteller. If you’ve enjoyed either of the previous Celta novels, you’ll enjoy Heart Duel just as much, and there are at least two more in the works. Don’t miss it.

--Cathy Sova

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