Dark Ruby by Lisa Jackson
(Topaz, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-451-40776-6
*
This story may be dark, but it's no jewel. If keeping a running total of anachronisms, including a Welsh peasant alewife who invokes the Greek god Zeus, isn't your favorite thing and you'd rather read a book with decent, moral characters, a book with an intriguing plot, a book with a realistic historical feel, then Dark Ruby probably won't satisfy.

The book opens as the hero Trevin, described as a fifteen-year old waif, is about to steal a ruby ring while hiding behind velvet curtains in thirteenth century Wales. He is interrupted when the heroine Gwynn (described as a fifteen-year old woman--is this a double standard?) brings a midwife into her chambers to check her for pregnancy. Trevin spies on the two of them during this episode lusting after Gwynn's creamy white flesh. I didn't find this voyeurism particularly romantic. Gwynn is desperate to be pregnant because her husband had killed his previous two wives when they failed to bear him a son. The midwife declares there is no pregnancy and departs. Gwynn calls for Trevin to come out, then insists that he make love to her so that she can become pregnant. I didn't find this adultery romantic, either. Trevin takes her virginity (that could explain the absence of a pregnancy), and he and Gwynn spend the next three days in bed, being extra diligent, I guess.

Thirteen years later Trevin (now inexplicably referred to with the Irish surname McBain) is the baron of a neighboring estate having acquired it by gambling with the former baron and winning the castle and title from him. Gwynn frequently refers to him as an Outlaw Baron, but he doesn't seem to have been outlawed at all. He has married, but his late wife never bore him a living child.

Gwynn's husband returns from captivity and, in spite of her and others' protestations, denies that her son Gareth is his. Hmmmm, wonder how he knew. The husband is killed, Gwynn is forced to marry his despicable brother (forbidden by the church on the grounds of consanguinity – remember Henry VIII's grounds for annulling his first marriage), and she and her son flee separately into the forest where she pairs up with Trevin and Gareth with an elderly magician.

There's a lot of scene-jumping from one set of characters to another as the bad guys are determined to search out Gwynn and Gareth, and Trevin is equally determined to protect them. Of course, this life-and-death chase isn't so time-consuming that Gwynn doesn't have time to bathe in the stereotypical forest pool where Trevin can once again spy on her and the two of them can end up spending the night in a passionate encounter. Remember, she only married her second husband to save her son so this doesn't really count as adultery, or at least that's how Trevin rationalizes it. (Trevin rationalizes a lot, it seems.) Trevin makes plans to save his son, and, between vivid memories of Trevin's lovemaking and contemplation on how he's the only man she's ever loved, Gwynn is equally resolved that she will be involved in any scheme he devises.

I was bothered by a couple of details regarding Trevin. At this period of history, Wales was only starting to come under English rule. The Welsh system had a far less centralized government with princes ruling geographic regions rather than the English feudal system of kings and barons. If Trevin is a baron, he holds his land directly from the king so he could not have won it while gambling. If the land is not under feudal ownership derived from the king but could be won from the owner, then the lord of the castle is not a baron.

The change in Trevin's name also wasn't fully explained. The Gaelic-speaking Irish and Scots used "Mac" or "Mc," to denote "son of", and the Welsh used "ap" or "ab"—for example, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. When the author gave Trevin the surname of McBain, she effectively transported him to another country, plus Trevin is a bastard who doesn't know his father's identity. How'd he get a patronymic surname?

The overall tone of the book is dark and gloomy. These are dour characters with serious problems; there's no time for lightness or frivolity. The magician appears to have been inserted for a hint of comic relief, but he isn't nearly as amusing as the rather jarring anachronisms which I trust were unintentional.

There's a lot of mental agony and introspection on the part of Trevin and Gwynn, but they seem to lack that emotional connection that translates into love. Other than lusting after each other every thirteen years, they seem pretty self-centered and self-involved, and there doesn't seem to be much caring between them. If the characters don't care for each other all that much, readers aren't going to either, and unless readers come to care about the characters, the story is going to drag. That's the case here. The episodic jumping from one location to another, from one plot complication to another, in and out of the various characters' minds makes for an uneven, stumbling story.

--Lesley Dunlap


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