The Lion's Shadow by Marthe Arends
(Avid Press, $6.99, G) ISBN 1-929613-05-9
Romance readers who want a story set in a time period no mainstream publisher will touch should order up a copy of The Lion's Shadow. Its unusual setting (turn of the century) and intriguing characters, coupled with a lively and suspenseful romance, make this a pleasurable read.

Cassandra Whitney, independently wealthy spinster, has joined the Women's Suffrage Union, partly out of interest in their cause, partly as a possible cure for her ennui. When we first meet her, she is attempting to chain herself to a fence outside Kensington House, where the annual Hospital Ball is about to get underway with the Prince and Princess of Wales in attendance. The suffragettes hope that such a public demonstration will bring attention to their cause. Cassandra, however, is merely struggling to get the chain through the fence when she is knocked off her feet and lands right on top of a man in formal evening clothes.

This distraction proves to be enough to prevent Cassandra's arrest with the other suffragettes, and she leaves the demonstration feeling like a failure. The next day, as Cassandra visits with her Aunt Caroline and her smarmy cousin Freddy, a political acquaintance of her uncle comes to call, bringing his family. One of them turns out to be Griffin St. John, noted explorer and Cassandra's man-in-the-mud. The two immediately strike sparks. Griffin maintains that women don't possess enough sense to be able to vote; Cassandra vehemently disagrees. Before long they are shouting at each other across the drawing room, much to the horror of their families. But from sparks come a flame: for Griffin, a flare of interest in this strong-minded woman who faces him squarely; for Cassandra, a spark of awareness like none she's felt before.

Matters complicate when Griffin's younger sister, Helena, returns to Cassandra's home and asks to be involved in the suffragette cause. Against Cassandra's better judgment, they attend a meeting and on the way home are accosted by two men who steal Cassandra's handbag. Helena proves to be made of stern stuff, and will not be dissuaded from joining the cause. Soon other, more sinister events take place. Someone is out to destroy the suffragettes by whatever means necessary. Will Helena and Cassandra fall victim? Or can Griffin protect them?

Griffin and Cassandra are so carefully drawn they are almost larger than life. Griffin, who finds all his preconceived notions of womanhood challenged by this defiant beauty, is at first resentful, then confused, then besotted. At last, a woman who can match his stubbornness and his sense of adventure with one of her own. Cassandra, thirtyish, must rearrange her own notions of love and romance now that she has met a man who will not back down, but in fact thrives on their heated exchanges.

The mystery was a little less engrossing, though quite adept. The story dragged a bit in the middle, and there's a trace of Big Misunderstanding that may irk a few readers. Seems even the noble Griffin can engage in a fit of the sulks. The secondary characters are well-rounded, though, and the overall pacing is brisk. The Lion's Shadow is just the ticket for readers who are feeling a bit of Cassandra's ennui. Marthe Arends has crafted a witty, stylish romance with a lively dash of suspense. Avid Press is to be commended for bringing this story into print. Small presses do indeed have a lot to offer.

--Cathy Sova

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