The Gifts of Christmas
by Mary Balogh, Merline Lovelace
& Suzanne Barclay
(Harlequin, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-373-83372-5
***
It's unfortunate for some anthologies that we rate a book as a whole because most anthologies have stories of varying quality so that the good stories suffer with the inclusion of less worthy companions. The Gifts of Christmas is no exception. I hope that readers won't be deterred from considering purchase of this anthology because of its three heart rating, but I couldn't in good conscience give it any additional stars. If I could rate each story individually, that would give readers a more accurate perspective on this book. One story's great, one's quite good, and one's a waste of paper, ink, and time.

Each story is set in a different historical time period with the regency being the first and most recent proceeding to the Elizabethan era and then to a medieval setting. The stories' titles follow the theme established by the biblical allusion in the anthology's title.

The best of the three stories is "A Handful of Gold" by Mary Balogh. In a story reminiscent of Joan Wolf's His Lordship's Mistress and Ms. Balogh's own The Temporary Bride (both all-time favorites of mine), Julian Dare, Viscount Folingsby, is being pressured to marry and produce an heir. He is decidedly unenthusiastic about the prospect.

Julian accepts an invitation for him and a female companion to make up a Christmas party with a friend and his mistress. He has been attracted to Blanche Heyward, an opera dancer.

Verity Ewing, the daughter of a church rector, is dancing as Blanche in order to buy medicines for her sick sister. When Julian offers her a fantastic sum for her company, she agrees. But things don't work out as he had planned, and Verity reveals her true self as she directs her energies towards a proper celebration of the season.

Over the past several years, Ms. Balogh has written charming Christmas romances. She is one of those rare authors who can combine romance with a Christmas message and not diminish the impact of either. "A Handful of Gold" is a worthy installment in that tradition.

In "A Drop of Frankincense" by Merline Lovelace, Lady Margaret Walsh was married as a child to Sir Christopher Walsh. If the marriage is still unconsummated by a certain date, it will be annulled. Even though her sea captain husband has not been near her in years, Meg is determined that the marriage be consummated so that her wastrel cousin cannot marry her and gain all her property. She sets out a seduction plan that succeeds but also incurs Kit's anger.

Meanwhile, the Spanish Armada is threatening England, and Kit, one of Queen Elizabeth's favorites, is about to go to sea. But what to do about his wife?

It would have been better if this story were "A Bucket of Frankincense." A short story is not just a slimmed down version of a novel; this one has promise as a much longer work. The conflict, the sexual tension, the historical events all would have allowed expansion to a full-length book. While I liked the story and the characters, I believe that a longer story would have been even more satisfying. I felt as though I were being blown by a storm (like the Spanish Armada was) to arrive quickly at the conclusion. The Christmas theme is of very little significance and could have been completely eliminated without lessening the plot.

"A Touch of Myrrh" by Suzanne Barclay doesn't achieve the quality of the other two stories.

Lord William Sommerville (the family was introduced in earlier Barclay books) lost his beloved fiancée the previous Epiphany and is resolved to leave England because he can't endure another Epiphany without her. Rosemary Bainbridge operates an apothecary stop with her uncle. She breaks into Sommerville's warehouse when rare spices they've ordered are withheld.

Thieves have been stealing spices, and Will is determined to catch the band. His initial suspicions of Rosemary are relieved when she too becomes a target for the thieves. Can they discover the culprits in time?

The primary Christmas connection is the count-down to Epiphany. The necessary connection, however, between the hero and heroine that makes a romance never develops between Will and Rosemary. There's a lot of running back and forth and up and down streets between warehouse and shop and home, but all this action doesn't compensate for the lack of character development. The characters are one-dimensional: the good are really, really good and bad are utterly despicable. Yes, it's more difficult for an author to create multi-dimensional characters in a shorter format, but it's been done in other stories (for example, there's excellent character development in "A Handful of Gold" in this anthology).

Readers may want to obtain a copy of The Gifts of Christmas in order to read the stories by Ms. Balogh and Ms. Lovelace. It's unfortunate that all the stories weren't of the same caliber. If they had been, a higher rating than "acceptable" would have been justified.

--Lesley Dunlap


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