has also reviewed:

Stargazer

 
Legend by Laura Baker
(St. Martin's, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-312-96662-8
****
Laura Baker is carving an interesting niche for herself as the author of contemporary Indian romances featuring elements of mystery, suspense and the paranormal. She is an intelligent, thoughtful writer whose polish belies her relative inexperience.

Jackson Walker returns reluctantly to the Navajo reservation where he was born. An FBI agent and expert at solving serial murder cases, Jackson has an unusual ability to see through a murder victim's eyes in his or her last moment of life. This ability makes him an object of awe, fear and some derision, but no one can question his successful record of catching the culprit. Although he is a full-blooded Navajo, Jackson long ago turned his back on his heritage and feels contempt for those who insist on following the old, superstitious ways.

Ainii Henio lives a quiet life on the Res as sheep herder, weaver and amateur healer. She recently filed a complaint against Joe Clah, a false medicine man, for terrorizing and threatening tribe members. Now Clah is dead, visciously torn apart by wolves - or a man pretending to be one. His murder is similar to several other recent homicide cases on or near the Res. Ainii is first on Jackson's list of suspects, but when he meets her he is surprised by how strongly she affects him. He is scornful of her adherence to traditional Navajo beliefs but incredibly attracted to her as well.

As Jackson struggles to solve the serial murders on the Res, he finds that instead of his usual empathic connection with the victim, he feels the emotions of the murderer instead. He's convinced this shift means he is losing his touch. Ainii, however, has a different theory, one that requires Jackson to accept his Navajo destiny and confront an ancient Navajo legend. Unfortunately, Jackson isn't willing to do either one of those things.

Laura Baker's first novel, Stargazer, featured an impressive heroine but wooden hero. Legend's characterizations are much stronger. Jackson struggles with his own identity, and with his fear of man's inherent capacity for evil, but he remains strong and admirable enough to solve the mystery and finally appreciate Ainii's wisdom. Ainii is also struggling to find her niche. Her late father was a medicine man, but he refused to train his own daughter as his successor. She was hurt by his inexplicable rebuff and has retreated to her safe, quiet world of weaving. Her involvement with Jackson reawakens her desire to use the skills that her father employed. Ainii's patience in gently overcoming Jackson's skepticism is notable.

In my Advance Reading Galley of Legend I found no glossary of Navajo terms, and several times I wished one was provided. Baker doesn't always provide translations of the Navajo phrases used by her characters, and I felt I was missing out on some important dialogue. Perhaps the published version of the novel includes such a glossary. Similarly, a few aspects of the plot was slightly confusing to me. I had a feeling that another Navajo reading the book would understand perfectly, but without being steeped in the culture's legends and philosophy I was a little out of step.

But all in all, Legend was an intelligent, thoughtful read. Laura Baker may be the romance reader's answer to Tony Hillerman.

--Susan Scribner


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