The Arrangement

The Gamble

Golden Girl

High Meadow

His Lordship's Mistress &
Married by Mistake

No Dark Place

That Summer

The Pretenders

Royal Bride


Someday Soon

White Horses

A Reluctant Queen
by Joan Wolf
(Thomas Nelson, $15.99, PG) ISBN 978-1-59554-876-4
With this review, Iím going to do something Iíve never done before: Iím going to give an inspirational romance a 5-Heart rating.

One time, a whole bunch of years ago, I gave an inspirational romance 4-Hearts. But Iíve never given one 5-Hearts. Why? Because my experience with inspirational romances has been pretty dismal.

Iíve read lots of them. In fact, I sometimes wonder why I keep trying. Some are so bad I have to wonder if they made it into print only due to divine intervention. Some are so heavy on the religious aspect that I doubt the characters have enough time left over from their focus on religion to brush their teeth. Others are so shallow they seem to imply that religious folk donít have problems like the rest of us. Mostly, Iím sorry to say, theyíre just plain badly written. The plots are simplistic; the characters are one-dimensional; the heavy-handed religious messages come straight from a Sunday School lesson.

I expect a 5-Heart romance to have it all: gripping plot, engaging characters, moving love story, good writing. Adding a religious subplot doesnít mean an author gets a pass from those requirements. No, the author has to do the plot-characters-love-story thing while inserting a religious theme that doesnít overwhelm the other aspects. The plethora of bad inspirational romances proves that itís not easy.

Joan Wolf, whoís an accomplished author with a whole range of romance fiction from the prehistoric era to regencies to contemporaries, has turned her hand to biblical romances with a Christian publisher. Her first effort is a reasonably faithful retelling of the Old Testament story of Esther, the Jewish girl who marries the Great King of Persia Ahasuerus and saves her people from the evil machinations of Haman, who tries to destroy the Jews.

In this version, Esther is living in the Persian city of Susa with her uncle Mordecai. Her Jewish mother and Persian father are both dead. Esther hears that the Great King has put aside his wife Vashti and a wide search for a new queen has begun. Esther thinks how restricted the life of the queen must be and is grateful that as a Jew she will not be eligible.

Mordecai has a dream that prophesizes the destruction of the Jewish people. He believes that God has sent the dream as a warning. After discussion with other Jewish men, it is decided that Esther will be entered in the competition in order that as queen she might influence the king. Esther prays that she will not be chosen but reluctantly agrees. She is introduced to the palace officials as the daughter of a dead Persian cavalry officer, not as a Jewess.

Of course, Ahasuerus does choose her, but unexpectedly Esther finds herself drawn to the charismatic king. Ahasuerus is surrounded by family members and political enemies (Vashti was set aside for political reasons) who are opposed to his policies and would undermine his rule. As Esther falls in love with her husband and starts to understand his principled character, she hopes he will never learn the truth about her lies. She has not lost her Jewish faith but prays that her faith will never put her in conflict with Ahasuerus.

The kingís closest and long-time friend is Haman, an Edomite, a traditional enemy of the Jewish people. Hamanís scheme will force Esther to make a difficult choice.

A Reluctant Queen reinforces my belief that it takes a good author to write a good book, inspirational or otherwise. Joan Wolf has been one of my favorite authors for many years. I have many of her titles on my keeper-shelves, and this is not the first time Iíve given one of her books 5-Hearts.

She creates sympathetic, motivated characters. Her heroes are more appealing than most; I suspect that the Biblical Ahasuerus wasnít nearly as nice as this one. A particular talent of the author is her sense of pacing. A Reluctant Queen moves steadily from beginning to end with no let-down along the way. I was engrossed from the start.

If I have one reservation about this otherwise excellent book, it centers on the conclusion. Readers who are familiar with the ending of the authorís Golden Girl will notice a striking resemblance to the ending of A Reluctant Queen. Of course, one canít accuse an author of plagiarism when sheís the original source; I just wish the author had not adhered to that earlier model so closely.

Nevertheless, A Reluctant Queen is such a stellar inspirational romance that I have to recommend it strongly. Iím relieved to know that an inspirational romance can stand on its own as good romance fiction. Past experience tells me that itíll be a long time before I read another 5-Heart inspirational romance, but I have faith. It happened once. It can happen again.

--Lesley Dunlap

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