The Courtship

The Deception

The Edge

Hemlock Bay

Pendragon

Riptide

The Scottish Bride

The Target

 
The Penwyth Curse
by Catherine Coulter
(Jove, $7.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-515-13436-8
**
I’ll say this for The Penwyth Curse: it was an adventure - rather like Dorothy’s trip to Oz inside a tornado. (Where am I? What’s happening? And what the heck is that outside the window?)

In 1274, an ambitious knight arrives at Penwyth, in Cornwall, planning to advance his status by taking the castle and marrying the orphaned daughter of the house, red-haired, green-eyed, fourteen-year-old Lady Merryn de Gay.

To his surprise, he is invited in, only to be told that he is doomed by an ancient Druid curse if he forces Merryn into marriage:

The enemy will die who comes by sea.
The enemy by land will cease to be.
The enemy will fail who uses the key.
Doubt this not,
This land is blessed for eternity.

Maiden’s heart pure as fire
Maiden’s eyes, green as desire
Maiden’s hair, a wicked red
Any who force her will soon be dead.

The knight finds this doggerel difficult to take seriously but he’s face down in his trencher before the wedding feast is over.

Four years, and four dead would-be husbands later, King Edward is tired of the knight-eating curse and of Merryn’s grandfather’s ludicrous requests to make her a Baroness and put her in charge of the strategically important castle. Instead, Edward sends his most creative problem solver, Sir Bishop of Lythe, to Penwyth with instructions to lift the curse or prove it unfounded, marry the girl, and take charge of the Penwyth asylum.

Fortunately, Bishop has a plan….

I was alternately frustrated, infuriated and fascinated as I battled my way through the first half of this book. Part of my aggravation was due to a premise which, as first presented, is so convoluted and far-fetched that it threatened to make my eyes roll back in my head. It also unravels in a whirlwind of information that makes it impossible to tell what’s significant.

Bumping up the annoyance factor is a heroine of excruciating immaturity. Although insisting that she would make a highly capable custodian of Penwyth, her idea of appropriate behavior is to be unceasingly rude, and to repeatedly kick and punch Bishop. This isn’t a woman; it’s an eight-year-old. If her behavior has a motivation, a hint would have been nice. Since no hints were forthcoming, I was appalled to find some primordial corner of my psyche rooting for Bishop to turn the brat over his knee.

He doesn’t, of course, because, unlike Merryn, Bishop is smart, mature, strong and attractive - in short, hero potential - and, thanks largely to him, the story begins to gather me into its chaotic yet oddly compelling rhythm. Then, about a third of the way through, it abruptly flings me from 1278 (“The Present” according to Ms. Coulter) into “Sometime Else.”

Not in Kansas, apparently no longer in Oz, and expected to start all over again in a new world before I’d managed to figure out the rules of the old one, I’d have put (hurled) the book down at this point, except for the review.

Then, something astonishing happened. The pieces started to fit together, and I could actually see why there were two storylines. Both the 1278 and “sometime else” pieces started to grab me, and the conversations, which started out oddly disjointed, began to make sense. Merryn even started to act her age (this was abrupt, but such a blessed, blessed relief I didn’t like to complain). Everything (well, almost everything) is made clear in the end for those with enough stamina for the trip.

The end lost me again. After building a strong mythology of her own, Ms. Coulter’s attempt to link her story to an existing - and overtaxed - mythology seemed contrived and precious.

Assigning a rating to this book was a challenge. My pleasure wasn’t exactly unalloyed, so I can’t exactly recommend it. But three hearts are for the ho-hum books that never really get your attention.

This book had my attention by the throat every minute and, even if it wasn’t always fun, it was entirely to the author’s credit. Two hearts, in this case then, doesn’t so much mean “think twice” as it does “tornado warning - approach with caution.”

-- Judi McKee


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