Danegeld by Susan Squires
(LoveSpell, $5.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-505-52446-5
Kudos to Leisure for their willingness to let authors push the envelope a bit. Danegeld is a wild, adventurous romance that's loaded with atmosphere and touches of the paranormal, all set in a time when Vikings and witches were equally feared and respected. Be warned, the violence in this book, while historically accurate, will not be for everyone.

The story opens with Britta, twenty years old and possessed of healing powers, living alone on an island where the villagers fear to tread. Five years ago, Saxon marauders came to her village of Dunsford. Her mother was murdered and Britta was brutalized by the Saxon leader, Offa, and his men. She escaped to the island, a place rumored to be cursed. Nobody bothers her there. She lives alone, only returning to the village when she needs to trade her skills as a healer for supplies.

It is Britta who first spies the Viking ships. A band of them arrives to raid the local church. She notices one tall warrior in particular, a blonde man with a close-cropped beard. Why her eyes are drawn to him, she cannot say, but he seems apart from the others, different somehow. In the ensuing raid on the village, many are killed and the mysterious Viking is badly wounded after a ferocious fight. Britta is called to Offa's keep in order to tend to the wounded. Offa wants the information that the Viking possesses, and he attempts to force it from him in the most degrading manner a man could suffer.

Britta is horrified to find the naked, wounded Viking and feels a spark of empathy at his treatment by Offa. She manages to smuggle him out of the castle and to her island, where she tends his wounds and attempts to communicate with him. The Viking, Karn, fears that she is trying to kill him. Gradually, they begin to understand each other, and Karn learns Britta's secret: that she possesses magical powers, but they are undisciplined and uncontrollable. Karn, for his part, has lost much of the use of one arm and leg, and the shame of no longer being fit for a warrior's life is almost more than he can bear.

When Offa decides to tempt fate and grab Britta off the island, it is Britta's powers that will save them. Soon they are on the run, in search of an old wicce, or witch, who lives in the fens and might be able to teach Britta. Karn, now a stranger in a strange land, accompanies her.

Danegeld (the title refers to a tithe of sorts) is a rich, complex novel. Both Britta and Karn are presented as sympathetic and flawed, and their quest to understand each other is rife with misunderstandings, as it would be. This part of the story unfolds slowly; bit by bit, we see these two wary souls lowering their guard. But Britta is terrified of any kind of intimacy after her treatment at Offa's hands, and Karn is filled with a frustrated rage at his own newfound limitations, as well as the people who savaged him. Can she trust him? Can he trust her in return?

The chemistry between Karn and Britta is the novel's only weak spot, and to call it weak may be too strong of a term. Perhaps lukewarm would be better. These two connect, it's true, and eventually find their way into a romantic involvement, but the emotional bond between them felt a bit tenuous.

The settings, however, are a standout. Places and people are described is such vivid detail that it's almost as if they are standing in front of you. Britain in the time of the Vikings and Saxons was not a particularly pretty place, and Squires doesn't attempt to make it so. Flesh rots, blood spurts, the houses are little more than rude huts. Yet none of this is presented to shock; it's merely a natural background and as such, seems almost matter-of-fact. And it certainly makes the story vivid. Even better, you'll find no "rippling muscles and flowing blond locks" nonsense here. Britta and Karn are scarred, battered, realistic people. It's easy to root for them. Too bad the cover had to be so schmaltzy; it really does a disservice to the story.

Danegeld is an outstanding debut novel that takes some risks and succeeds. Susan Squires gives us a gritty, complex love story that is as engrossing as it is endearing. This is definitely an author with an interesting voice and a bright future, and if you like historical romance with a different feel to it, Danegeld is one you won't want to miss.

--Cathy Sova

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