My Wicked Fantasy by Karen Ranney
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-380-79581-7
***
My Wicked Fantasy is the latest release from the talented Karen Ranney. It's a ghost story of sorts, and the lead characters are anything but typical. Neither are most of the secondary characters. In fact, the strong characterizations are the best part of this book.

Mary Kate Bennett is the young widow of an elderly barrister, whom she married to elevate herself out of the servitude she'd known since being abandoned by the side of a road at age ten. Her Irish roots are obvious in her flaming orange hair. Finding herself virtually penniless after her husband's death, she resolves to try and trace her remaining family members. She begins to make her way to a small English village, the last place she remembered being mentioned from her childhood.

Mary Kate's luck hits bottom when she is thrown out of a wagon and ends up in a coma. Coming to, she finds herself in an inn, being watched over by the elusive Earl of Sanderhurst, Archer St. John. Archer is on his way to London to try and locate his missing wife, Alice. It was his coach which collided with the wagon carrying Mary Kate.

Mary Kate begins to have strange dreams, in which she can see through Alice's eyes. She feels a strong sense of impending danger. Alice is trying to warn someone, and Mary Kate is the courier. But where is Alice? And how can Mary Kate convince Archer that her strange story is true?

Archer isn't about to be convinced. Believing that Mary Kate is somehow mixed up in Alice's disappearance, he drags her to Sanderhurst and locks her up until she is willing to tell what she knows about Alice. His growing fascination with the warm and defiant Mary Kate takes him by surprise, as he recalls the coldness of his marriage.

And Mary Kate can't get Alice's voice out of her headů

The premise of this book struck me as quite original and very engaging. I was hooked at the beginning and it certainly kept me reading. Mary Kate is a delightful heroine, one who has been a milkmaid, scullery maid, and barmaid. She holds no illusions about her meager background, but she isn't apologetic, either. Archer does a fine turn as a tormented hero, one who has never known love or passion and finds himself falling under Mary Kate's spell even as he tries to repel her.

So why the three-heart rating? Well, this book had some serious problems with pacing and flow. Ms. Ranney seems to be experimenting with a slightly different style of writing, one that is almost TOO lyrical. The story takes quite a while to build up steam. I felt that the plot was often sunk under the weight of the style, and after a while I found myself skimming over certain passages. In short, too often the lyrical writing seemed to exist for its own sake, and did nothing to advance the story. And this was a good story.

Readers who enjoy historical romance with a gothic flavor will no doubt want to have a look at My Wicked Fantasy. All the right elements are here, and the villain is kept well-cloaked until near the end. Karen Ranney crafts a fine plot with interesting characters. Hopefully her next book will be a little less meringue and a little more bread-and-butter.

--Cathy Sova


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