Heart of a Lion by Hillary Fields
(St. Martins, $6.50, R) ISBN 0-312-97917-7
If I didnít realize that Heart of a Lion would be unlike any romance I had ever read when the heroine has her little finger bitten off by a street urchin, then I definitely would have when the two main characters get high on hashish.

Beautiful eight year-old Isabeau de Lyon and sixteen year-old Jared de Nevarre have been betrothed since Isabeauís birth. The live a happy, privileged life in France where Jaredís biggest problem is how to keep Isabeau out of his hair on the practice field. Charged with watching over his young fiancťe, Jared is devastated one day when she is abducted and transported to the Middle East as a slave. Vowing never to return home until Isabeau is found, Jared leaves his childhood behind and becomes a man fighting in the horrible Crusades.

Thirteen years later, Jared is the notorious mercenary called the Black Lion. He has been summoned to the secret hideout of a man known only as Sayyad al-Zul, translated to Shadow Hunter. The assassin wants Jared and his band of mercenaries to help steal something valuable from the sadistic emir Malik al-Fayed.

What Jared doesnít know is that Shadow Hunter has hidden reasons for revenge against al-Fayed. The emir is the man who bought a young French girl off the slave block to be added to his harem. The girl was Sayyad a-Zul back when she was still Isabeau de Lyon. Although Isabeau recognizes Jared at once, Jared has no idea that this renegade is his lost love.

Fields obviously did a lot of research before writing this book. It is filled with rich detail of Middle-Eastern culture and tradition. This is no typical romance novel Kasbah with a dashing sheik, blushing harem girls and pretty pictures. Fields gets beneath that and entices every sense with the heat of the desert, the taste of exotic spices, and yes, the smell of a hookah pipe. Though I thoroughly enjoyed this attention to detail, it gives the book a more straight historical fiction feel that others may not care for. The romance is often second to the emotional development of the characters as individuals and the plot against al-Fayed.

The difference in the characters is also refreshing. Isabeau isnít a woman dressed up like a man because itís clever. Sheís gritty, muscular and at times downright nasty. She can be difficult to like, but itís very true to character considering what sheís been through. Isabeau is murderously angry at Jared when she sees him and itís not just a petty temper tantrum. Sheís seeing him through the eyes of the eight year-old girl she was, seemingly abandoned by him in her time of need and given over a decade to nurse her disillusionment. Jared is also convincing in his disillusionment, realizing that what he thought of as honor and glory is nothing more than a boyish fantasy.

After such a strong beginning, it was disappointing to see Fields move away from her more daring writing and start slipping into more usual territory. Unbelievable coincidences start to occur that detract from the story. For example, Jared just happens to find the perfect hiding space where he and Isabeau can recover from an attack. Also, Isabeau starts acting out of character, behaving foolishly and jumping to conclusions about Jaredís feelings for her - in short like an annoying romance novel heroine rather than the tough fighter sheíd been up to then.

Most inexcusable, however, was the contrived reasoning why Isabeau would still be a virgin after thirteen years in a harem. One had hoped that the author would stick to her guns and take a more controversial route as she had previously.

Still, despite these flaws, Heart of a Lion is quite possibly the most unique romance novel Iíve read in a long time. That alone makes it worth a look.

--Anne Bulin

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