Leopard Lord by Alanna Morland
(Ace, $5.99, G) ISBN 0-441-00606-X
It's always pleasing to find a new author whose book incorporates love, dark magic and destiny into a fast-paced story. First-time author Alanna Morland populates her medieval Europe-like setting with a strong hero facing an interestingly agonizing dilemma and a heroine in love with him and determined to save him. It isn't a wholly convincing story, but an entertaining one nonetheless.

Varian has unknowingly lived under the shadow of evil since the moment of his birth, when his black-hearted father, Lord Baird, offered Varian as a sacrifice to a dark deity. It seems that Lord Baird is secretly a shape-shifter, able to turn into a leopard at the full moon and on other nights. This vile man has made a bargain with the Nameless One: in exchange for power, he agrees to let the dark god control the leopard and use the creature to further his own violent ends. Poor Varian is completely in the dark about both his inheritance from his father and his future as a tool of the dark god.

Varian is shown as a young man receiving warrior training in his maternal uncle's court, staying honorable in the face of some tough choices, and making the personal connections which will have deeper meaning later in his life's story. The test of his character will come when his father finally summons Varian home to Leopard's Gard.

It is only now that Varian sees how decrepit Lord Baird has let his lands become and how corrupt his court. Varian is outraged but powerless to instigate change. And his position is further weakened when his father fully initiates him into his natural heritage as a were-leopard and his unnatural legacy as a plaything of evil.

Time passes, Varian outlasts his father, and learns to live uneasily with his dual nature as a good ruler by day and a vicious predator by night. But when his uncontrollable nocturnal activities hit too close to home, Varian makes a desperate deal with the dark god. The terms are that if Varian marries a certain young woman prophesied to be dangerous to the dark lord and delivers her as a chaste sacrifice, then Varian can expect to win not only personal freedom from his enslavement , but also the resultant ease of fear of his people from leopard attacks.

Varian locates this Cathlin of prophecy, obtains her hand in marriage, and then does the thing farthest from his own self-interest. He begins to fall in love with the wife he's sworn to sacrifice.

Events become very interesting as Varian faces a horrible dilemma. It is up to his strong, intelligent, bewildered wife to become a key player in resolving not only the conflict facing Varian, but the larger threat facing the entire kingdom.

Leopard Lord would have benefited from further exploration of its main themes the cosmic game being played by the gods, the political struggle, and the relationship between Varian and Cathlin. The second half of the story the more interesting, more action-filled, and larger-scope half felt rushed. Also, the resolution of the prophecy, and the device of the prophecy itself, lacked cleverness or originality.

Still, despite some occasional awkwardness in the plotting, Leopard Lord is an exciting enough story to make Alanna Morland an author to watch in the future.

--Preeti Singh

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