As Jean Ross Ewing:

Flowers Under Ice

Love's Reward

My Dark Prince by Julia Ross
(Jove, $6.99, R) ISBN 0-515-12883-X
When Mary Balogh talks, I listen. Especially since she doesn’t give all that many cover quotes. So when she says, “Brilliant...the best book of any genre I have read in a long, long while...I am in awe,” I have high expectations. Julia Ross did not disappoint me. My Dark Prince is a powerful story of the redemptive power of love, with one of the most tortured heroes I have come across in quite a while. It is also a tour de force of plotting and story telling that leaves me in awe. Let me explain.

Ross has created an imaginary prince of an imaginary country somewhere in the Alps. She has placed him at the center of a complex intrigue against his throne. She has tied his situation to the diplomatic goings on in London after the fall of Napoleon in 1814. She has also made him a British earl. And she makes this all hang together, with nary a misstep. There are no implausible coincidences, no convenient surprises, no discontinuities at all. This is an extremely well-crafted story that succeeds in making what should be unbelievable seem perfectly reasonable. Impressive!

Our hero is Prince Nicholas, Grand Duke of Glarien. His mother, although a princess in Glarien, had married an Englishman, the Earl of Evenlode. When her brother died, eleven year old Nicholas was ruthlessly uprooted from his beloved home and carried off to distant Glarien to become his grandfather’s heir. Now, he is returning to England for the first time in sixteen years.

His purpose is diplomatic. The future of his country depends on his marrying Sophia, the heiress to the neighboring principality of Alvia. To insure that the great powers respect the independence of these two small countries, it has been arranged that Nicholas and Sophia marry in London, under the hopefully benign gaze of the European monarchs gathered there to celebrate “the monster’s” downfall. Then, disaster strikes. His cousin and heir presumptive (and long time nemesis) Carl, has kidnapped the princess to make it seem that she has rejected the match. Unable to proceed to London, Nicholas decides to go the his English home, Rascall Hall, to regroup.

There he discovers a possible solution to his dilemma. Miss Penelope Lindsey looks just like his betrothed. If she can be “induced” to masquerade as Princess Sophia until the true princess can be found and rescued, all may not be lost.

Here we have the first those improbable plot contrivances that so often weaken a story. But have no fear; Ross provides a plausible explanation for the striking resemblance. More than twenty years ago, the then Countess of Evenlode had arranged for a local woman to go out to Glarien as a governess. There she had met and fallen in love with Prince Frederick of Alvia. Penny is the result of their liaison. Thus, she is Sophia’s cousin.

Penny has led a sheltered life in the small village of Rascall St. Mary’s. She doubts very much that she can impersonate a princess and tries to refuse the prince’s command. But Nicholas will not accept her refusal; no one says no to the Prince of Glarien. Thus, Penny finds herself caught up in a masquerade whose stakes include the future of Glarien and Alvia. That she might also lose her heart to this ruthless yet fascinating man is still another peril that she faces.

My Dark Prince has loads of danger and adventure as Nicholas and Penny, with a strong cast of secondary characters, seek to foil the plans of the evil Carl. Ross keeps the reader turning the pages to discover what will happen next. But what makes this such a compelling story is the hopeless romance between Nicholas and Penny.

Nicholas is a truly tortured hero. He had never truly belonged anywhere. In England, he was taunted for his foreign blood; in Glarien he was suspected of English weakness. His childhood and youth were truly horrific, as the reader gradually comes to understand. Moreover, as a ruler with enemies everywhere, he has learned to trust no one and leads a lonely existence. He has had to become devious and ruthless simply to survive.

Penny, with her cheerful disregard of his status and position, with her willingness to challenge him, to talk with him, and to laugh with him, begins to crack the shell he has built around himself. He falls in love with her, unwillingly but inevitably, and she with him. But his duty to his country must come first. Their love is doomed and their knowledge of this makes the story all the more poignant.

OK, this is a romance novel. And yes, we know there will be a “happily ever after.” Here again, Ross shows her storytelling talent and her cleverness. The ending, like all the other twists and turns of the plot, works wonderfully.

I’m glad I listened to Mary Balogh. While I’m not sure this is “the best book of any genre I have read in a long, long while,” it’s very, very good. I am going to want to revisit Nicholas’ and Penny’s story, which is, after all, the definition of a “keeper.”

--Jean Mason

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