The Raven Prince
by Elizabeth Hoyt
(Warner,$6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-446-61847-0
****
Brava, Elizabeth Hoyt - this engaging and satisfying romance is a debut novel to be proud of.

Anna Wren is a respectable widow, and she’d be perfectly content with her life if they had enough money to live on. Unable to find local work as a companion or governess, Anna leaps at the opportunity when she discovers that Edward de Raaf, the Earl of Swartingham, is returning to his nearby estate and is, according to his steward, in desperate need of a secretary to transcribe a book he’s writing on agricultural practices.

The last few secretaries have all fled the earl’s employ in the face of his appalling temper, and although it is unconventional, to say the least, to have a female secretary, Anna has a fair hand and is not intimidated by Edward, so the job is hers. In spite of his reputation, he proves to be a not-inconsiderate employer, teaching Anna to ride so that she may accompany him on business around the estate, and sending her home in his carriage at the end of the day so she doesn’t have to make the trip on foot.

One evening while returning home, Anna finds a destitute woman, clearly ill, stranded at the side of the road. Over the objections of the coachman, who realizes the woman is a prostitute, Anna takes Pearl home and takes care of her. The villagers are scandalized, and the earl is horrified that Anna would play fast and loose with her reputation in this way. Anna knows from papers that she has seen in his office that Edward patronizes a brothel in London and she’s incensed by his hypocrisy. Why should whores be anathema when the men who use them remain perfectly respectable?

In fact, the whole issue gives Anna, who has missed the comforts of the marriage bed, an idea. She is unaccountably attracted to the clever, if not terribly attractive Edward. The next time he plans to visit London, and his favorite brothel, Anna persuades Pearl to help her meet him there, masked to hide her identity, so that she can be his lady for the evening.

Ironically, after a highly satisfying night with the mystery woman, the earl cannot shake the feeling that he has somehow been unfaithful to his lovely but respectable secretary.

Although this book employs many common romance devices, the author combines the elements skillfully. The result is that the story has a sense of comfortable familiarity without ever feeling shopworn or clichéd, and the story clips along at a nice pace that pulled me through the pages.

It also helps that the characters of Anna and Edward are so real and so grounded in the reality of their situation. Edward is no handsome, dashing rake. In spite of his aristocratic heritage, he’s a blunt, unpretentious farmer who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and only regrets his looks because women find him unattractive. Edward’s first wife died in childbirth several years ago, and he’s been thinking that he would like to marry again.

Anna is not quite as distinctive, but she is a strong, intelligent, likable woman who surrenders to a wild impulse, then finds that what she feels for Edward is not just simple lust she can satisfy and forget. It’s a nice twist on the Beauty and the Beast story – which I must admit is one of my favorite romance themes.

Nobody in this book has a secret life as a spy, thank goodness, but this character-driven book does have a blackmail plot to keep things ticking over. The brisk pace is also assisted by the fact that Ms. Hoyt eschews the ever-boring info dump. Background information is nicely woven into the story such that it gives the reader necessary information without ever interrupting the flow. Very nice work, indeed.

I also enjoyed the excerpt from Ms. Hoyt’s next book, The Leopard Prince, and will happily spend my own money to read it.

-- Judi McKee


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