Lord of Vengeance by Tina St.John
(Fawcett, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-449-00-425-2
New author Tina St. John has crafted a medieval romance that pits the hero's need for vengeance against his growing love for the daughter of the man who destroyed his family and his life. This is a familiar plot, but St. John uses this tried and true storyline effectively. The factors that keep me from recommending this book have less to do with the story than with some problems with the characters, especially the hero.

Let me explain. Gunnar Rutledge is ten years old when his father is killed in a tournament by his own liege lord, Luther d'Bussy. (I'm not going to say anything about the names, really.) The next day d'Bussy storms the Rutledge castle, murders the widow and almost kills young Gunnar. The only thread that holds the boy to life is his desire for revenge.

Thirteen years later, in 1153, Baron d'Bussy is holding a tournament and Gunnar has come to challenge the baron and wreck his vengeance. The day before the tournament, Gunnar rescues a young woman from an assault. He soon discovers that the young lady is none other than Lady Raina d'Bussy, his enemy's beloved daughter.

Raina's assailant had been her childhood playmate, Sir Neville, who seemed determined to win the lady by fair means or foul. She is much taken with her rescuer and thus is shocked after the tournament when the victorious Gunnar attempts to slay her father. She prevents the murder by putting herself in the way of his sword. She is still more surprised at her father's reaction when he discovers Gunnar's identity. Rather than ordering him taken, d'Bussy lets him go. And when Gunnar and his men raid the d'Bussy property, the baron does nothing to halt the depredations.

Since d'Bussy will not come out of his castle, Gunnar comes to him, only to discover that the baron has finally ridden out to attack the raiders. So Gunnar seizes Raina to use as bait to force her father to meet him.

Raina's experiences as Gunnar's captive are fairly standard. Gunnar's bark turns out to be worse than his bite, although he does set her to work doing laundry and cooking and the like. She tries to escape; he recaptures her. He saves her from the unwelcome advances of one of his men. And, oh yes, they fall in love. Raina must come to terms with the fact that her father did commit evil deeds and Gunnar must ask himself, "What price vengeance?"

The romance aspect of Lord of Vengeance is well done. I could readily accept Gunnar's attraction to Raina because of her beauty, her spirit and her personality. I could even understand why Raina fell under Gunnar's spell. Their few days together were idyllic and very sensuous.

My problems with the book lay with the backstory and the background. Gunnar remains surprisingly opaque. Where did he receive his knightly training? How did he hone his skills as a warrior? How did he become a knight at all? How did he come to possess a castle, however decrepit? How did he gather a band of knights and mercenaries around him? I realize that a romance should concentrate on the relationship between the hero and the heroine, but I think an author has the responsibility to create plausible characters and Gunnar simply didn't make sense to me. I needed to know much more about him than I did.

Likewise, the background was murky. We are told that these events are taking place during Stephen's troubled reign, but there was little or no context for the story, other than a few mentions of the king's problems. (And I think Henry II would have been very surprised to hear himself referred to as a Frenchman.) I realize that there is a tendency these days to use history merely as wallpaper in many romances, but the wallpaper in Lord of Vengeance was pretty colorless and drab.

While I can't give Lord of Vengeance a four heart rating, I do regard it as a promising first novel. The writing is clear, the romance is nicely done, and the love scenes are entertaining. If the problems that detracted from my enjoyment of the book don't bother you, you may well enjoy Lord of Vengeance.

--Jean Mason

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