Truly by Mary Balogh
(Berkley, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN: 0-425-15329-0
****
In less deft hands, this Truly could have been a mess. The plot is tricky and somewhat convoluted, there are many secondary characters and subplots to keep track of, and the book is set in a particularly tumultuous era in Welsh history. And don't forget all those impossible-to-pronounce Welsh names with all those darn consonants strung together. I also think it's fair to say that not many authors could set a romance against the backdrop of a farmers rebellion and make it interesting.

But I have to give Mary Balogh a lot of credit. She has managed to successfully weave a compelling romance around one of the most fascinating, and little-known episodes in Welsh history, writing a story as fresh and complex as its premise.

The story is set in the early 19th century, in a little village of Glynderi, where Geraint Penderyn spends the first 12 years of his life being shunned for his illegitimacy. When it's discovered that he is the indeed the legal heir of the Earl of Wyvern, he is whisked away from all that he holds dear (including his mother) to take his place among his peers in the English aristocracy. He leaves behind many childhood friends, including Marged, a young girl who loves him.

Fast-forward a decade, and young Geraint has grown into a typical English landowner, giving little thought or care to the village he left behind, or the people who are slowly being squeezed out of their livelihoods by taxes, rents and tolls. When Geraint returns as the Earl, he finds much resentment and hatred directed towards him for his neglect -- to his great dismay and bewilderment, it is the spirited Marged who hates him the most. She holds him personally responsible for the death of her husband.

Sounds like your typical romance, right? Well, I'm usually not enthralled with books that are heavy on the history lessons. But Balogh introduces these historical elements so skillfully, propelling this book out of the realm of the ordinary. Maybe I'm just sick and tired of reading about the ton and 19th-century London society, because this book seemed refreshingly different.

During the early 1840s, to protest the imposition of costly tolls on major roadways, the farmers of Wales organized a remarkable rebellion known as the Rebecca Riots. I don't want to spoil the story by describing the nature of these midnight protests in too much detail. Suffice to say Balogh skillfully utilizes these protests as a backdrop to an exciting and very passionate romance between Geraint and Marged.

This book is far from perfect, in fact there are several scenes that really sent my credulity meter into the red zone. I found it mighty hard to believe that Marged would be able to repeatedly make love to a man without figuring out his identity. And a few scenes in the final portion of the book get rather muddled with characters and events, making it a little tough for the reader to sort out exactly who is doing what. At one point, a character is running down the road, another is following that character and still another is following that character. I had difficulty keeping it all straight.

And the hero sometimes doesn't exercise great common sense -- if I knew a patrol of troops was out looking for me and my protesters, I think I'd lay low for a few days.

But overall, the sheer "different-ness" of this story makes this book a winner. This book Truly offers a little taste of a unique period in history, plus a darn good love story.

--Leslie McClain


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