Cupid's Kiss

Miss Carlyle's Curricle

Night Fires

Dark Enchantment
by Karen Harbaugh
(Dell, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-553-58421-9
A wonderful combination of effortless style, intriguing story, strong characters and appealing romance, Dark Enchantment is a gem.

Catherine de la Fer is living on the streets of 1659 Paris. She has no memory and her life resembles the instinctive struggle for survival of a wild animal. When she sees an attack on a young girl in an alley, her reaction is equally instinctive; Catherine draws her sword to fight off the would-be rapists. In her weakened condition, however, Catherine is fighting a losing battle until Sir John Marstone arrives.

In Europe with King Charles while Charles plots to reclaim his throne from Cromwell, Jack has lost his estates to the Roundheads. Always looking for ways to raise money, for himself and his king, Jack takes one look at Catherine and realizes she must come from a good family. One, he hopes, that will pay handsomely for her return.

Catherineís back and palms are covered with bloody wounds and Jack has some misgivings about returning her to a family that might beat her, but without memories itís impossible to know who actually hurt her. While Jack tries to discover where she belongs, Catherine persuades him to give her sword fighting lessons so she can defend herself more effectively in future.

Jack finds Catherineís aristocratic family, and also that she was betrothed to a wealthy neighbor, the Marquis de Beauvin. The de la Fer family has fallen on hard times but itís rumored that the ambitious de Beauvin wants Catherine for a different kind of power that the family supposedly possesses. Does this have something to do with the weals on Catherineís back, which are healing with unnatural speed?

Karen Harbaugh does so much right with this book that itís difficult to know where to begin. The paranormal element, while the backbone of the story, is very subtle. It adds a sense of mystery, but never becomes more important than the characters. She also takes one of the most hackneyed plot devices in romance Ė amnesia Ė and makes it totally convincing.

Catherine is a fascinating character, forced by circumstance to live completely in the present. She has no memory, so she canít wallow in the past (how refreshing), but she has powerful instincts and follows them without hesitation. We know her by what she does and her actions consistently indicate strength, intelligence and integrity. We can see only the surface, but all indications point to interesting depths of both character and emotion.

Jack lives in the present by choice. Not, one suspects, much given to introspection at the best of times, Jack is an opportunist by necessity. This is tempered by the fact that honor is all he has left of his birthright. Even when it is inconvenient he canít set it aside. I personally find this enormously appealing in a romantic hero Ė he tries to do whatís right because he just canít help himself.

Catherine and Jack are people of action, wary of intangibles, so there is a very nice tension in their emotional response to each other. Jack tries to ignore it, Catherine tries to convince herself itís simply friendship, but the power of their feelings slowly grows until it becomes undeniable. Now thatís romance.

The deceptive simplicity of Ms. Harbaughís beautifully controlled writing has a slight formality that lets us know weíre in a different place and time without being pushy about it. As the suspense built toward the end, I wondered if the style would work against the pacing, but I forgot my misgivings in my hurry to turn the pages.

If I have one quibble, it would be that although there were some nice sexy moments, I donít think the book delivered on the dark eroticism promised on the cover. The villain and the supernatural element give the book some dark attributes, but Catherine and Jack are too forthright and decent for the book to achieve a truly gothic sensibility.

Having said that, however, Dark Enchantment is my first happy surprise read of the year, and Iíve already ordered a copy of the companion book, Night Fires. It wonít sit in the TBR pile for long.

-- Judi McKee

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