The Bargain

The Bartered Bride

The Burning Point

Captured Hearts

The China Bride

Kiss of Fate

One Perfect Rose

The Rake

Shattered Rainbows

The Spiral Path

Stolen Magic

Twist of Fate
The Wild Child

The Marriage Spell
by Mary Jo Putney
(Ballantine, $24.95, PG) ISBN 0-345-44918-5
Veteran author Mary Jo Putney launches a new historical fantasy series with her latest release, The Marriage Spell.  While it’s her strongest book in several years, it doesn’t approach the classic status of earlier work such as The Rake and the Reformer or Shattered Rainbows.  The novel’s central idea is intriguing but underdeveloped, and the romance between hero and heroine lacks the passion of her most memorable couples.   

In Putney’s alternative Regency England, magic is commonplace and wizards practice their art openly.  However, the upper class, having realized they can’t control magic, eschew it instead.  They look down on “wyrdlings” and utilize them only when necessary.  Certainly no member of Society would practice magic – or at least admit to it.   

As a young boy, Jack Langdon displayed a shocking interest in sorcery; as a result, he was sent by his stern father to the dreaded Stonebridge Academy, where he was beaten and terrorized into forsaking his innate skill.  Twenty years later Jack, now Lord Frayne, is thrown from his horse while hunting in the English countryside and is brought to the home of well-known healer Abigail Barton on the slight chance that she can save his life.  Abby agrees to form a healing circle with her fellow wizards to treat Jack’s critical injuries, but her price is high – if she is successful, Jack must marry her.  When Abby and her friends harness their energy and heal Jack, he does the honorable thing and fulfills his end of the bargain, even though Abby provides him with the opportunity to back out of the deal.   

Abby has been in love with Jack for years, worshipping him from afar during his frequent visits to her village.  She never expected him to go through with the marriage and she fears he will resent being saddled with a magical wife who is too tall and shapely to be fashionable.  Fortunately, as Jack and Abby get to know each other better, they realize they are very compatible.  Respect turns to friendship, and passion quickly flares.  But there are challenges facing their fledgling marriage.  Jack has to accept Abby’s magical abilities and the magic that lies dormant within him as well.  Abby has to conquer her insecurities and fears when she accompanies Jack to London and is introduced to Society as the wife of a lord.  The biggest challenge comes when Jack returns to the family seat in Yorkshire, where the newly wedded couple must combine their powers to confront a perverse evil that has literally sucked the life out of the land and its inhabitants.  

Putney’s juxtaposition of magic and Regency England is a promising premise, and she sets up a fascinating tension between snooty upper crust Society and practical wizardry.  But in some ways the setting is underdeveloped and many questions unanswered.  How was Abby trained to use her magic skills?  How does Jack recover his abilities so easily after years of denying them?  Why does Abby’s father so easily accept a husband for his only child who disdains the very thing that defines her?  Putney promises additional books about the “Stone Saints,” Jack’s fellow former classmates at Stonebridge Academy, and perhaps she will delve deeper into the subject as the series progresses.   

I also had to question the likelihood of Abby’s extensive medical knowledge.  How did an early 19th century healer learn about brain functioning, spleens, spinal nerves and blood vessels?  Her understanding of human anatomy seemed advanced for the Regency period; again, a little background into the development of her special skills would have made the story more plausible.   

Abby and Jack are a sweet couple, with a refreshing honesty and lack of game-playing, especially considering the manner in which they are thrown together.  It’s enjoyable to watch their relationship slowly develop, and rewarding to see liking and respect co-exist with strong attraction.  As Jack comes to accept his own magic he becomes more heroic, and as Abby conquers her own insecurities she blossoms as well.  I couldn’t help wishing, however, for some of that desperate, yearning passion displayed by Putney’s previous star-crossed lovers such as the terminally ill hero of One Perfect Rose or the married heroine of Shattered Rainbows.  Even as Jack and Abby fell in love, I never felt they couldn’t live without each other.   

Despite my few misgivings, I do recommend The Marriage Spell.  As always, Putney’s writing is elegant and evocative, and the story moves quickly.  The secondary characters, primarily Jack’s sister and brother-in-law, are well-drawn and Abby’s cleverly-named cat almost steals the show.  After more than two dozen Regencies, historicals, contemporaries and now historical fantasy, Putney shows no signs of resting on her laurels.   

--Susan Scribner

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