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Dark Emerald by Lisa Jackson
(Topaz, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-451-40778-4
**
As I finished Dark Emerald, Lisa Jackson's latest installment in her Dark Jewel series, I felt like I do when I bite into a Peanut M&M that by some fluke of nature does not have a peanut tucked within its candy-coated chocolate center. It looked okay. The plot was intriguing and a little different. The characters had potential. But in the end, it left me frustrated.

The story's heroine is Tara who for nineteen years has believed herself to be the daughter of Lodema, the village cunning woman. Under Lodema's guidance Tara has led a simple, yet happy life, learning the "old ways" of the Celtic gods along with herbal medicine, Christianity and ladylike behavior.

This all changes when Lodema tells Tara that she is in fact an orphan given to her by Father Simon, the priest of Twyll, upon the condition that Lodema never tell anyone that she did not give birth to Tara. To prove that she is telling the truth, Lodema presents her foster daughter with the gold coins and emerald ring that are Tara's only heritage. The ring is the "Dark Emerald," whose existence during the past nineteen years has become a local legend, for it is said that only the true heir of Twyll will possess the ring and control its mythic powers.

The only problem is the legend does not say anything about the heir being female.

Twyll, the castle and lands, is under the control of the ruthless Tremayne, son of Merwynn of Gaeaf who murdered the old lord and lady, Tara's parents. Tara, heedless of the danger, takes the ring and sneaks away to travel to Twyll to speak with Father Simon to discover the truth.

Rhys the Bastard, the leader of the local band of outlaws and Lord Tremayne's brother, happens upon Tara during a pit stop to offer up a few prayers to the old gods. Thinking she is just another old hag, he watches as she begins to disrobe and very quickly is entranced by the sight of her lovely body. However, his attention shifts from the now naked Tara (it is, of course, impossible to pray to the gods with your clothes on) to the ring she is holding the legendary dark emerald.

Stunned and unable to believe that this beautiful young woman might possess the means through which he can destroy the brother who nearly killed him and banished him from Twyll, Rhys attempts to discover her identity and where she got the ring. But during the questioning he is overwhelmed by desire and gives Tara a kiss that batters through her resistance and common sense.

Rhys takes Tara to his robber's hideaway because he knows that she is in danger and also because she holds the key to his revenge. Tara is angry because Rhys will not release her and fears that he means to steal her only link to her past.

The remainder of the book centers around Tara's efforts to escape and Rhys' growing attraction for her that makes it difficult but not impossible for him to force her to give him the ring. In the end, he takes the ring and gives it to a neighboring lord in exchange for the privilege of helping him destroy Tremayne.

It was at this point in the book that I really began having trouble with their relationship because not long after Rhys takes her ring and foils yet another escape attempt, Tara allows him to make love to her! You see, Tara can no longer resist her growing feelings for him and the desire that he inspires. Now the only desire I could imagine any self-respecting woman entertaining at that point was the desire to kill him.

In Rhys' defense, he did have second thoughts about taking the ring and kept her prisoner in part for her own safety, but that only goes so far. In his own way, Rhys was no better than his brother. And to me this was the novel's biggest flaw. I simply couldn't understand why she loved him and vice versa. He is not a very nice man on any level, tortured yes handsome yes nice, no. And Tara is no prize herself, as she throws herself into one dangerous situation after another, without care for the consequences.

The second problem was that all of the characters, major and secondary, were fairly two-dimensional and woefully underdeveloped, a circumstance that reduces the dramatic impact of the novel. When a major character is wounded during the climactic battle scene and makes a startling deathbed confession, instead of despair, all I thought was "Well, that's tidy."

Also, it almost seemed that somewhere around page 250 the author decided that the story had gone on long enough and now needed to end with a tidy flourish that would leave no loose ends and pave the way for the final installment in the trilogy.

As much as I love a good medieval tale, Dark Emerald simply has too many shortcomings. A jewel this one is not.

--Walaika Haskins


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