Princess Charming by Beth Patillo
(Leisure, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-843-95141-9
Lucy Charming is the daughter of a Duke who has been reduced to mere servitude by her evil stepmother. Since her father's death, Lucy has spent more time in the kitchen and attic than London society. That suits her well enough though, because she is secretly involved in the reform movement to allow suffrage for the common man.

While attempting to escape some spies, she literally bumps into Nicholas St Germain, who she thinks is a gardener. In reality, Nick is the crown prince of Santadorra. When he was twelve, Nick failed to save his sister and mother during a revolution in his country. Since then he has become something of a serial rescuer. Nothing he tries can stop his compulsion to save people, even if they don't want it; and Lucy does not want rescuing.

Nick's first rescue attempt lands them smack in the middle of the "discipline" room of a brothel. The succeeding rescue attempts don't go much better. Eventually, Lucy and Nick make a wager. If Lucy can convince Nick of her cause, he will reform Santadorra when he becomes king. If not, Lucy will marry Nick and become his Princess.

The book starts out very well. Lucy and Nick's initial meeting is witty and amusing. From the second Nick is bashed on the head with the garden gate, the reader gets the feeling that they're in for a ride. It was nice to see that although Nick's rescue is successful, it isn't a cakewalk. His head hurts and he barely gets Lucy away from danger before collapsing. Nick may be handsome, but he's human.

It was also fun to watch both Nick and Lucy mistake each other for commoners. Like Nick's friend Crispin, the reader watches the two of them interact, knowing what they don't know, and can see the humor in it.

It's only when Nick and Lucy discover their true identities that the book begins to falter. The story takes a heavy turn and gets bogged down in the all too gritty realism of social unrest. When you have scenes of reform demonstrators being bayoneted by Dragoons, it's hard to keep the lighthearted romantic feeling begun earlier in the story.

In this lies the problem with Princess Charming. It can't seem to decide whether to be a light spoof on a fairy tale, or a serious historical. It makes for a very inconsistent read. Lucy and Nick's relationship starts off as a witty battle of wills between two people with very different beliefs, but then their issues get in the way. Lucy's initial spunk is bogged down by her rabid desire for social change and she starts the slippery slope to annoying heroine. She loses the common sense she had and starts putting herself into danger her impulsive actions.

Nick, who started out as a charming knight in shining armor, turns slightly scary with his obsession to protect Lucy. It's hardly romantic that he is willing to lie just so Lucy will marry him so she will be safe. To her credit, Patillo makes his obsession realistic by tying it into his past experience. It doesn't make it any more appealing though.

The added subplot involving the mysterious death of Lucy's father doesn't help much either. The villains, especially Lucy's stepmother, go off the deep end of nasty and just add to the overall discomfort.

Although serious plots do have a place in romance novels, they need to start out that way to be successful. Princess Charming is uneven, waffling between witty humor and heavy issues. If it were one or the other it would have been a fine story, but as is it's just acceptable.

--Anne Bulin

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