by Elizabeth Vaughan
(Tor, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-765-35266-4
Warlord is the third in Elizabeth Vaughanís excellent trilogy that began with Warprize and continued with Warsworn. In every respect, itís a stunning conclusion to the love story of Lara, the healer, and Keir, the warrior.

Vaughan exploded on the romance scene in 2005 with Warprize, her debut story of Xylara, heiress to the throne of the mountain kingdom of Xy, who was claimed as a warprize by Keir, a warlord of the Firelander people of the plains. As Lara and readers came to understand just what a ďwarprizeĒ was, the attraction between the independent Lara and the strong but lonely Keir heated into a white-hot romance. Lara willingly left with Keir to travel with him to the Heart of the Plains, the native home of his Firelander people. As his Warprize, she held a special place in the tribe. In the second book, their growing love was tested when they encountered plague. The resulting loss of many warriors caused discontent among Keirís army, and one rival will stop at nothing to bring Keir down.

When Warlord opens, Keir and Lara are nearing the plains, but are dawdling a bit on their journey to give themselves a bit of time together. Their idyll is interrupted when emissaries from the Firelanders arrive to take Lara to the tent city known as the Heart of the Plains. There she will be judged by the elders and warrior-priests of the Council to see if sheís worthy of being their Warprize, a position of high honor that will bring unknown changes to the Firelander people. In the meantime, other warlords may court her. To prevent Keir from influencing her decision, they will be separated. Lara will travel on ahead, and contact with Keir is forbidden while the Council debates her fate.

The Firelanders are struggling. Infant mortality is high, and Laraís rumored (and unfounded) ability to raise the dead has prejudiced some of the Firelander leaders against her before her arrival. The warrior-priests in particular, whose healing abilities depend on magic rather than medicine, are deeply suspicious. They blame Lara for the plague that took so many lives, and there are some who would prefer Lara dead rather than confirmed as the Warprize. All Lara has is her faith in Keir and her abilities as a healer, but with her resourcefulness and the help of a new friend or two, it just might be enough.

Warlord is somewhat of a rarity in romance: a book in which the lead characters have already cemented their romantic bond, and all the conflict is external. Keir and Lara never waver in their devotion to one another. Their passion is still sizzling, but itís combined with tenderness, affection, and friendship. They not only care for each other, and deeply, but they take care of each other as well. When Keir and Lara are reunited, as Vaughan wisely allows well before the climax, it sets up that most satisfying of romantic resolutions, in which the hero and heroine work together to help bring about their own happy ending. Itís delicious.

Vaughan makes deft use of her secondary characters as well, giving each a distinct presence in the story. To Lara, whose upbringing and culture are quite conventional in outlook, the somewhat freewheeling sexuality of the Firelanders is difficult to comprehend. Itís not the only surprise in store for her, either. The author handles these new revelations with a gentle touch, making them realistic in the process. Xyians and Firelanders may be from another world, but theyíre just like you and me in many respects. Vaughan also drops a big hint in an authorís endnote that she isnít finished with the people of the plains, either, and perhaps weíll get a glimpse of Keir and Lara in an upcoming story. Iíd buy that book just for the opportunity to visit them again.

Warlord is an outstanding conclusion to an inventive and riveting trilogy with a passionate, powerful love story at its core. I hope Elizabeth Vaughan takes us back into this world again and again. In the meantime, Iíll have to settle for numerous re-readings.

--Cathy Sova

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