The Black Rose by Jan Zimlich
(Love Spell, $5.50, PG) ISBN 0-505-52384-1
Theodore Fallon and Renaud Charbonneau are different as night and day, but they both have the exact same problem -- meddlesome wards that they’re anxious to be rid of. Fallon is the head of a warrior clan that is in need of funds, and Charbonneau’s castle in New France is being threatened by intergalactic rebels. To seal their new uneasy alliance, the pair decides that a marriage between their clans is in order. Charbonneau elects his bastard son, Lucien, and Fallon decides on his niece, Alexandra.

Of course, neither Lucien or Alexandra are real pleased about being forced into a loveless marriage, but since by Dominion law they are ruled by their guardians they have little choice. Lucien resigns himself to the marriage, which is easy since his new wife is so breathtakingly beautiful. On the other hand, Alexandra is less impressed with her new husband, a pansy who spends most of his time strutting around like a peacock at court.

Alexandra takes matters into her own hands, literally. She desperately wants to conclude her late father’s archeological research and, for some reason, can’t do that while married. She knocks poor Lucien over the head and takes flight with her handmaiden, Loran. Anxious to get to the remote Denault system, she hires a smuggler named Damion Flynn to take her there.

Little does she know that her dear husband Lucien is leading multiple lives -- one as Damion Flynn and the other as the leader of the rebel forces, the Black Rose. Wanting to teach his blushing bride a lesson, Lucien agrees to help her. But when her findings threaten to expose him, Lucien must find a way to stop her.

Alexandra is a troublesome heroine I couldn’t quite bring myself to like. She comes off as a petulant child on more than one occasion. For over half of the book, she seems incapable of having a civil conversation with just about everyone. And while she does feel guilty for her actions, I never got the feeling she was truly repentant, until her actions land her in serious hot water that she can’t worm her own way out of.

Lucien is equally bothersome, not for his actions, but for his general character development. He’s living multiple lives, and due to his alliance with the rebels, has to conceal his real identity. What exactly is his real identity? I walked away from the story feeling like I never got to know the real Lucien. He also goes to great lengths to hide the truth from Alexandra, his own wife. In fact, he’s never completely honest with her -- there’s never any big confrontation between the two where Lucien spills his guts.

What I found enjoyable was the interesting setting. The Black Rose is a futuristic romance, but is surprisingly historical in tone. While the story takes place in an intergalactic world, there are clans, nobles, arranged marriages, and documents signed on parchment. I found myself thinking that this story could easily have been set in England, Scotland, Ireland or France. Including the futuristic with the old world made for an original setting, one that kept me turning the pages.

In the end, while I enjoyed the atmosphere, it wasn’t enough for me too look past Lucien and Alexandra. Even in a subgenre like fantasy, the romance is still an important element to the story. Alexandra herself says it best -- “Have I finally met the real you? Or am I going to wake up tomorrow with a total stranger in bed beside me?”

Who is the real Lucien? Which of his many faces does Alexandra fall in love with? Questions I couldn’t quite answer, and left me with a sinking feeling as deep as a black hole.

--Wendy Crutcher

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