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Prince of Magic by Anne Stuart
(Zebra, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-8217-6053-X
***
Elizabeth Penshurst is the daughter of a very proper English rector in the mid-eighteenth century. Elizabeth, whose red hair gives an indication of her true nature, has endeavored to be a dutiful daughter and a credit to her parents. She has been introduced to the Old Religion by an old wise woman (who told her to wait for the Dark Man he'd be the one to marry). From time to time she feels drawn to dance barefoot in the forest clad only in her shift. On one such occasion, a rejected suitor brings her father to witness her scandalous behavior. Elizabeth is sent to Yorkshire to stay with a distant cousin.

Gabriel Durham is the mysterious man who lives in a ruined abbey tower (rather than his own ramshackle manor house), which is haunted by the ghosts of two of the former monks. His supposed father, Sir Richard Durham, is the husband of Elizabeth's cousin, but even though he is Sir Richard's heir, there is mystery surrounding his origins. Due to an emotionally deprived childhood, Gabriel has been on a search for a sense of connection. This search has included a conversion to Catholicism and five years as a monk in a French monastery, a study of pagan religions, and a dissipated life in London. Now, however, he has been drawn back to Yorkshire.

While Elizabeth is waiting to be met by the Durhams, she observes the dark and menacing woods all around her. Gabriel suddenly appears, and their conversation is disturbing. She alternately questions and denies that he could be the Dark Man. After he leaves, Jane Durham, Gabriel's sister, arrives to accompany her to her destination.

Elizabeth meets the other members of the barely cordial family. Only Jane extends any degree of friendship towards her.

Jane is devoted to her horses and is deeply in love with Peter Brownington, who is employed in the stables and a friend to Gabriel. Peter returns her love but is prevented by the difference in their stations from doing anything about it.

This unsettled, ominous atmosphere is only the precursor of danger. The Earl and Countess of Chilton have recently relocated to Yorkshire from London. This immoral couple, along with several equally depraved associates, have begun a revival of the old Druid religion. They are eager to have Gabriel join their group, but he has refused. The Chiltons recognize his attachment to both Elizabeth and Jane. Things are going to get very unpleasant soon.

The Gothic novel has been a popular genre for over two centuries although it hass been somewhat less in favor for the past couple of decades. Writers such as Anne Rice, Joyce Carol Oates, and Stephen King are currently reviving it, and romance novels are featuring stories with more Gothic elements. The Gothic novel is characterized by its use of threatening settings and supernatural elements. Readers are familiar with many of the trappings of the Gothic: savage landscape, decaying ruins, revelations about obscure family ties, ghosts and apparitions of the past, unspeakable horrors.

In spite of its most nondescriptive title (Gabriel's neither a prince nor a magician), Prince of Magic is solidly in this tradition. The reader knows after the first few chapters that Elizabeth and Jane are absolutely doomed to confront evil and a horrific fate. The only benign (and slightly amusing) elements are the ghostly monks who are visible only to Gabriel and Elizabeth. This is not a book for a dark and stormy night.

As is customary in a Gothic novel, setting is paramount. From the enchanted woods of Elizabeth's home to the threatening, haunted forests of Yorkshire, Prince of Magic absolutely reeks with atmosphere. This story would never work on a sunny Mediterranean beach. It needs ghostly ruins, icy winds, and things that go bump in the night. Ms. Stuart has supplied those in abundance.

What distinguishes Prince of Magic from some traditional Gothic novels is the strong character development. Elizabeth, Gabriel, Jane, and Peter are all well-drawn characters. They're honorable and caring people. They're also extremely likable so that a reader can become involved with them a switch from some of Ms. Stuart's recent books.

Gabriel has had an earlier vision of a dancing red-head and is immediately attracted to Elizabeth. It is only his history of emotional isolation that inhibits him from reaching out to her. He cares for her, but he also fears attachment. Any savvy reader, however, will know that seething passions don't remain hidden for long.

Elizabeth is particularly well-drawn. Here is a free spirit whose family and societal expectations are in conflict with her true self. She's aware of the role she should occupy as a rector's daughter and constantly vows that she will have only one more episode of freedom before assuming her proper place. She scrapes her wild red hair into a tight hairdo and wears drab, concealing clothes. She's occasionally outspoken and determined; she's passionate and loyal. She's also a classic Gothic heroine: beautiful, young, oblivious to the ominous atmosphere, rushing headlong into danger.

Jane and Peter aren't as angst-driven as Gabriel and Elizabeth. They're deeply caring persons who feel that their love will be forever forbidden. It's easier to believe that there's a tranquil future for Jane and Peter than for Gabriel and Elizabeth.

This book is not for everyone. Those readers who prefer a frothy romance will find this heavy going, but those readers who enjoy lots of menacing atmosphere and spooky plots will want to check this out.

--Lesley Dunlap


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