Utterly Charming
by Kristine Grayson
(Zebra, $5.99, G) ISBN 0-8217-6472-1
****
This light-hearted romance stands behind its title 100%: it is utterly charming. It's also somewhat uneven and not without faults, but the charm goes a long way towards compensating for any shortcomings.

Nora Barr is a struggling young attorney whose resemblance to a head cheerleader belies her intelligence and strong personality. She is trying to run her own Portland, Oregon practice, but she's broke. Thus she is in no position to turn down prospective clients, even ones as crazy as the two who confront her in her building's parking lot. One is a tiny man with a warped sense of humor who insists his name is Sancho Panza. The other is tall, dark and gorgeous but no more rational. His name is Aethelstan Blackstone, and he wants Nora to help him gain custody of a young woman whose guardian forbids any contact. Nora realizes that there is nothing she can do from a legal standpoint, and dismisses the pair. But her involvement with Blackstone has only just begun.

Two weeks later, Nora is again contacted by Sancho Panza, only now he needs her help to get Blackstone out of jail for setting fire to an entire neighborhood. With her friend Max's help, Nora learns the real truth: Blackstone is a thousand-year-old wizard who has been battling a witch named Ealhswith for custody of a sleeping beauty named Emma. If Blackstone manages to keep Emma and her magical coffin in his possession for ten years, she will awaken and Blackstone can then marry his soul mate. He implores Nora to find a safe hiding place for Emma and insists the witch will not be able to do any damage if Nora keeps the hiding place a secret from him.

Flash forward ten years. Emma's mausoleum has been unharmed in its unusual location. Neither Blackstone nor Ealhswith have contacted Nora. And it's time for the Sleeping Beauty to wake up. But contrary to fairy tale lore, she doesn't exactly fall into Blackstone's arms. And Nora's problems are just beginning, as she finds herself utterly charmed by the wizard herself.

Utterly Charming never takes itself too seriously. The alleged rules that govern Blackstone's and Ealhswith's magical powers don't make sense, but that's easy to overlook. The novel is packed with sly humor and amusing cultural references from the past millennium, including everyone from Jimmy Hoffa to William Shakespeare and Monty Python. And the biggest joke of all is Emma herself, who turns the Sleeping Beauty fable on its ear. Kristine Grayson makes a very good point -- if you were asleep for a thousand years because two witches were battling over you, would you be grateful when you awoke? No, you'd be mad as hell -- which is exactly how Emma reacts, with predictably troublesome results.

Nora is a great heroine. By the second chapter I forgot that she was blonde and beautiful, and I focused instead on her personality. She's brave, feisty, resourceful and smart-mouthed, and thinks nothing of going head-to-head with ancient and ageless magical beings. She uses her attorney skills in humane ways, but she doesn't take gruff from anybody -- not even a witch who loves to watch old movies featuring villainesses like Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis for moral support.

Blackstone is actually a weak link in the story, and the romance between him and Nora isn't convincing. He just isn't in the picture often enough to make a strong impression, and his few scenes find him consumed with guilt for ruining Emma's life. He's a nice guy at heart, but I actually found myself thinking Nora deserved someone even better than a gorgeous, charming wizard.

Grayson is planning a sequel to Utterly Charming, entitled Thoroughly Kissed, that will relate Emma's story. I am not sure she will make as strong a heroine as Nora -- she's portrayed as rather narcissistic and flaky -- but I will definitely look for it to find out the rest of the story. If future books by this author are as entertaining, she will have a long and glorious career.

--Susan Scribner


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