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Heart of the Dragon

The Shielded Heart
by Sharon Schulze
(Harlequin, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-373-29042-X
Anna de Limoges is a talented artisan; her enameled metal pieces grace religious altars in early thirteenth century England. Her parents had left her as a child at an abbey in the Welsh Marches in penance for their sins. Since that time, she has lived in the village of Murat erected to provide a workplace for her and her helpers. (The abbot doesn't want her on the abbey grounds because she might tempt the monks.) She has devoted herself exclusively to her art.

Swen Siwardson, a Norseman (introduced in the author's earlier book, The Heart of the Dragon), has isolated himself from friends and family because he feels powerless to prevent his visions from coming true.

Swen comes upon a camp of several armed men accompanying Anna on the trip back to Murat from the abbey. They welcome him and are impressed by his recent service with Prince Llywelyn's Dragon. Swen is immediately attracted to Anna but is startled to realize that he has dreamed of her in the past. Anna is struck with an unfamiliar sense of awareness upon beholding the tall, brawny Norseman. When the camp is attacked and Anna seized, Swen is pivotal in defeating the attackers and saving Anna. He accompanies the party back to Murat.

It is apparent that the attack was not the random action of outlaws but was specifically intended to abduct Anna. Anna's fame has spread beyond Murat and the abbey, and someone is determined to steal her away.

Swen offers his strength and fighting ability to protect Anna, but the abbot extracts an additional vow from him. The abbot is convinced that Anna's artistic gift is tied to her virginity. Swen further vows that he will not attempt to take her virginity. He tells Anna that he only desires to be her friend.

Of course, there's nothing like a vow of perpetual chastity to get the hormones going. Both Swen and Anna are increasingly attracted to one another and constantly court the limits of Swen's vow. But it's not only their desires that threaten to disrupt their lives. The unknown force that endangers Anna and the safety of Murat grows bolder threatening the entire village.

The Shielded Heart has many of the elements that make a terrific book: admirable hero and heroine, conflict, ample sexual tension. All this promise, however, fails to deliver. I never got caught up in the story, and my primary motivation in finishing it at all was in order to review it.

The basic plot outline suggests lots of lusty action, but the story bogs down in numerous slow passages. The characters simply aren't up to the task the plot requires. I appreciate that the author created historical characters who aren't of the nobility (although there's plenty of "milording" going on anyway). The major part of my reservations can be attributed to the uninspiring character development, particularly in the character of Swen. I like a sensitive hero. The powerful steamroller hero who mows down the heroine without even noticing, then apologizes on the last page announcing he loves her passionately makes me see red. I want him to have some awareness of those qualities that make her unique other than a beautiful face, tumbling tresses, and a stunning figure.

Swen's sensitivity, however, stretches the limits of credulity. He's a Norseman, a trained warrior in the harsh thirteenth century, able to vanquish three opponents armed only with his knives, impervious to winter's cold, respected by lords and commoners alike. And he's so sensitive he could lead a New Age inspirational seminar. He's positively fixated on Anna. As a "friend," he wants to introduce her to new experiences. Given the story's time period, Swen seems most unrealistic.

Anna, on the other hand, is a believable, well-developed character. She has suffered emotionally from the separation of her parents and has completely immersed herself in her art as a result. Her attraction to Swen marks the end of her emotional isolation, and over the course of the story she gains new understanding of herself and of her needs.

The other characters aren't nearly as well developed (characters from Heart of the Dragon make an appearance); few even have names. Their sole function is to provide background for Anna and Swen.

Perhaps some readers will think the abundant sexual tension compensates for the book's flaws. For me sexual tension doesn't exist in a vacuum but depends on the characters. Give me a lusty hero and heroine before the lusting begins. If I can't believe in the characters, I can't believe in the sexual tension. Unfortunately, that's the case in The Shielded Heart.

--Lesley Dunlap

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