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Damask Rose by Haywood Smith
(St. Martin's; $5.99; PG) ISBN 0-312-96498-6
****
In many ways Damask Rose is a cut above the standard run-of-the-mill romance. Author Haywood Smith has gone back to ancient Greece and the myth of Hades and Persephone for inspiration an unusual choice for a genre far more familiar with, shall we say, less academic topics. And like all Greek myths, the story is a good one full of love and deceit, sex and violence, honor and redemption. Smith takes her time establishing the action, concentrating initially on providing insight into the man and woman at the heart of generational blood feud. The writing is intelligent and sensitive; the story itself is exceedingly dark. The resulting love story, though beautifully told, may prove too somber for some tastes.

Set primarily in the Scottish Highlands circa 1430, Damask Rose recounts the tale of Tynan McDougald, the sole survivor of a massacre that left him a prisoner of the man responsible for butchering Tynan's entire clan sept. Having endured unthinkable degradation at the hands of Laird Cullum MacKay, Tynan has embarked on a quest to regain his hereditary land holdings and revenge the death of his family. He arrives on the Isle of Mist (later called the Isle of Skye) in search of the long lost granddaughter of his arch enemy. Nara had been spirited away from the bloody Highlands as a babe, raised in innocence and is unaware of the poisonous treachery of her kin. Having vowed to return Nara to her grandfather, Tynan marries Nara in order to bring her to the Highlands.

Completely ignorant of the harsh world beyond the shores of the Isle she has called home, Nara is stunned by the cruelty she witnesses. Pure in thought and deed, the dark-haired beauty gifted with second sight unconsciously reaches out to the dour Tynan, though he hides his growing interest and affection. As they make the harsh journey across the rugged Scottish countryside, they encounter evil in many forms. They glimpse goodness only in the guise of Timothy, a six-foot, crippled man-child the couple discover and whom Nara immediately embraces and insists on bringing along for the journey. Tynan protests to no avail, and he is dumbfounded to realize that his wife's strength of mind and will is equal to his own.

By the time their destination is in sight, Tynan has become torn between the vow of vengeance he has sworn and his growing love for Nara. He has pledged to use Nara as the tool of his revenge against Laird Cullum. And because Nara is completely unaware of the part she will play in this game, Tynan is unable to return the love she so freely offers a love, which, if accepted, could end once and for all the feud that has decimated two families.

With Nara's natural goodness and wisdom acting as an effective counterpoint to Tynan's seething rage, Damask Rose paints a noteworthy portrait of pain, passion, and sacrifice. The innocent maiden beguiling the tortured wolf (an image the author weaves throughout the proceedings) is a relationship that, when drawn effectively as it is here, is powerful stuff indeed. We feel the depth of Tynan's isolation and Nara's frustration at being unable to break through his defensive walls. But because the author gives us small, subtle, tempting glimpses of the man hidden beneath the cold exterior, Tynan's unwavering determination to use Nara to exact revenge on his enemies becomes less sympathetic as the story moves towards its conclusion.

If I were to rate Damask Rose on writing style alone, I'd give it five unquestionable hearts. I found Smith's writing so fresh and intelligent that it reminded me that, unfortunately, far too many romances today cater to the lowest common denominator. I enjoyed reading a romance written above a fourth grade reading level. Ultimately, however, at least for my taste, the novel's pervasive bleakness cast a slight pall over the beauty of love story. It remained shadowed by the story's darker elements and left me wondering if the hero and heroine would ever truly be able to bury the past and live free to love.

--Ann McGuire


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