Intimate Enemies

A Kiss at Midnight

The Promise of Rain

A Rose in Winter

The Truelove Bride

The Secret Swan by Shana Abé
(Bantam, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-553-58200-3
The Secret Swan is like a motel seascape: superficially pleasant, it seems less accomplished and more soulless the longer one examines it.

Amiranth St. Clare is only nine when she first glimpses Tristan Geraint, but she falls instantly and totally in love. Six years later, Tristan, now the Earl of Haverlocke, is ordered by the king to choose a bride. Thanks to nasty rumors alleging that he murdered his older brother, Amarinth is the only noblewoman willing to accept his offer.

Her joy dies an hour before their wedding, when she overhears Tristan admitting to his friend that he has no enthusiasm for their marriage. After enduring a nightmarish wedding night and the agony of his continued indifference, she is relieved when he sails off to do battle in France.

Once there, Tristan is captured almost immediately. For the next eight years, he languishes in prison, sustained only by dreams of the life he will create with Amiranth upon his return. When he finally does escape, he learns from Amiranth’s identical cousin, Lily, that his wife has died of the plague…or so Lily claims.

In fact, “Lily” is actually Amiranth, who has taken her dead cousin’s identity in order to avoid being forced by the king into another loveless marriage. Her shock at seeing Tristan alive is rivaled only by her intense resentment, for she knows nothing of his imprisonment, and believes he has willfully abandoned her. Yet as Tristan’s growing attraction for “Lily” deepens into love, Amiranth begins to recall why she first fell in love with him, and her scarred heart wrestles with the temptation to trust him anew…

All clichés have a basis in truth, but there is no less convincing context for love at first sight than a nine year old glimpsing a much older boy who is doing nothing more remarkable than standing around with his friends. In each of Amiranth’s subsequent and similarly uneventful sightings, Tristan never once proves himself to be remotely worth her (or our) interest; and even once he has broken Amiranth’s heart, they have yet to exchange ten words. Accordingly, the couple’s eventual reunion is invested with a patently false tension. We believe that Amiranth resents Tristan, but we can’t understand why she’s still drawn to him, because we never did understand it in the first place.

Still, the author’s biggest mistake is assuming that Amiranth’s romantic feelings as an adult will be viewed as the natural extension of her childhood infatuation, requiring no further development or justification. Accordingly, the bulk of the book charts Tristan’s feelings. Since Amiranth certainly isn’t friendly to him, and most of their conversations are brief and impersonal, his affection seems to be fueled mainly by eight years of celibacy. This does little to endear him, or make Amiranth’s love any more creditable.

Alert readers will also be annoyed by dangling threads and inaccuracies. Many characters refer to the mysterious deaths of Tristan’s family, yet the true story never emerges. Amiranth pretends to be her impoverished cousin because she knows that, as a wealthy heiress, she will be forced to wed rather than be allowed to enter a convent. But in the 14th century, the church was incredibly powerful; it regularly defied the king’s will, and actually required a substantial monetary dowry from its entering novices.

However, historical realism does not seem to be a priority here: Amiranth and Tristan’s plague-ridden world feels post-apocalyptic and altogether two-dimensional, with almost every other character in the book popping up from nowhere to harass them, be bested by them, and sink back into the woodwork. Clearly manufactured to create obstacles for a non-existent plot, they lend the book a game-arcade feel: set ‘em up and shoot ‘em down.

Ms. Abé’s strengths have always been her striking imagery and highly original writing style. They are in evidence here, particularly in the gripping first scene, when Tristan wanders through his deserted manor in a state of feverish wonder. However, I expected far better from the woman who wrote the stunningly beautiful Intimate Enemies. It is only as a testament to the brilliance of that book that I will eagerly await the release of her next one.

--Meredith McGuire

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