Midnight Bride

The Night Drifter

The Dark Queen by Susan Carroll
(Ballantine, $13.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-345-43796-9
This intriguing historical romance is set in 16th-century France during the time of Catherine di Medici, a woman who was widely hated and rumored to be a witch. An unusual period in which to set a book, and luckily for readers, the writing is up to the task. Susan Carroll has penned an ambitious start to a planned trilogy about three sisters whose lives are intertwined with Catherine, The Dark Queen.

Ariane Cheney is the Lady of Faire Isle, a title inherited from her mother, Evangeline, who was a true Daughter of the Earth. The Daughters were once powerful healers and wisewomen, but are now looked upon as herbalists and, sometimes, as witches. Their influence has faded. Most live quiet lives. The Lady of Faire Isle, however, is renowned for her powers, and Ariane doesn’t feel she capable of walking in her beloved mother’s footsteps. Her father, the Chevalier de Cheney, is off exploring somewhere and Ariane is struggling just to keep the estates afloat and care for her two younger sisters.

Justice Deauville, the new Comte de Renard, is determined to make Ariane his wife. Ever since their chance meeting in a forest near his home, he has been sure that Ariane is the woman foretold in a prophecy to be his soulmate. Ariane will have none of it, however, and stands him up at the altar when he declares they will wed. Undeterred, Justice heads for Faire Isle and confronts Ariane, who finally agrees to accept a strange silver ring from him. The ring is magic, Justice tells her, and it can summon him to her side if she only wishes it. The catch is this: after the third summons, Ariane must agree to become his wife. Desperate to get Justice away from her, Ariane agrees to accept the ring, while privately vowing never to use it.

That vow is tested when Ariane is sought out by a Huguenot captain named Nicolas Remy, who entrusts her with a pair of ladies’ gloves. He believes that Catherine used them to poison Diane de Poitiers, the late king’s mistress, and if he can prove her guilt, the despicable – and overtly Catholic - Catherine may be brought down. But Catherine has sent witch-hunters after Ariane and her two younger sisters, and Justice is the man who can save their lives.

This is only the early portion of an intriguing and vivid romance that is equally engrossing as an historical novel. Susan Carroll does a masterful job of bringing this time period to life. Court intrigue plays a large part, as Catherine employs her ladies-in-waiting, who are skilled courtesans, to further her own ends. Catherine, once a friend of Evangeline, eventually betrayed her and now alternately hates and fears Ariane. This betrayal, along with Justice’s family background, forms the driving force of the plot. Ariane wishes to use her powers for good; Catherine will use any means, and any powers, to further her own ambitions.

The romance develops slowly, as both of the leads have quite a journey of self-discovery to make. As Ariane gradually leans on Justice, she discovers he is a man of honor who may be her perfect match. Justice is afraid to put the word “love” to his growing feelings, but gradually admits that Ariane is firmly embedded in his heart.

The two younger sisters were a bit problematic. Their stories will complete the trilogy, yet neither is particularly sympathetic. Gabrielle is portrayed as a rather vain young woman who, having been betrayed in love, now wishes to become a king’s mistress and live a life of luxury. Miri, the youngest, communes with animals and is an impulsive, and rather annoying, child. The author is spacing the books several years apart in chronology, though the second book will be released in only a few months. Perhaps these two will be more likable as adult lead characters than they are here.

The Dark Queen is a rich treasure for readers who love complex, lush historical romance. This is a great way to start the summer reading season.

--Cathy Sova

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