Wild Irish Skies by Nancy Richards-Akers
(Avon, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-380-78948-5
You know when you go into something with a preconceived notion, and the reality turns out to be nothing like what you'd imagined it would be? Well, in the case of Wild Irish Skies, I took one look at the cover (half naked Fabio-type), read the synopsis on the back and figured it was going to be just another one of those rather run-of-the-mill "historic" romances that are long on fashion and short on history. I'm very glad I was wrong.

I loved this book.

As readers, we have all (hopefully) experienced that genuine thrill of elation you feel when you're two chapters into a book and realize "this is special!" The anticipation of what will lie on each page somehow makes you enjoy the book all the more. Yet, you simultaneously regret that the turn of each page brings you closer and closer to the end of the experience. Author Nancy Richards-Akers creates just such a pleasure/pain principle by offering up a richly moving story of two people whom fate has clearly earmarked as soul mates.

The year is 1399 in an Ireland that has already been divided ethnically by British conquerors. Destined to hang, Rian O'Byrne is offered an escape...he must "kidnap" Annora Picot. A wealthy Anglo-Irish woman who has always been fascinated by the "wild Irishry" and the clan culture that flourishes beyond the Dublin pale, Annora hides her fascination despite the season of joy she shared four years earlier with very same Rian O'Byrne now designated as her "kidnapper" and protector.

Annora has remained unmarried for the simple reason that she refuses to marry for anything other than love. Her fortune, however, becomes a tool in the games of war being played out by King Richard and the clan chieftains resisting English law. When the King orders her to marry a boy less than half her age, Annora realizes she must flee Dublin forever or give up her most precious possession -- her ability to decide her own fate.

The early chapters set the stage by recounting Annora and Rian's initial love affair, one so passionate and earthy that neither of the lovers can feign indifference when they are once again thrown together. Hunted by the King's own soldiers, Annora and Rian take to the wild wooded hills beyond Dublin, where their love is once again given a chance to flourish. But four years separation has led to change in both Annora and Rian. Yet even as they try to fight their feelings, fate conspires to tighten the strings that bind them together.

Nancy Richards-Akers is a wonderful storyteller with a remarkable talent for bringing life to even the most inconsequential characters. Annora and Rian meet all kinds on their journey to safety, but each is unique and much more fully drawn than the lead characters in all too many a romance. The sympathy of Annora's uncle, the kindness of Isobel, a clan chieftain's wife, the unleashed savagery of King Richard -- these are emotions that are easily conveyed to the reader.

In Rian, the author has created a hero that could melt stone. The easy, seductive charm he wears like a cloak is slowly drawn back to reveal a man who believes his life holds no purpose. His smooth sexuality fairly drips from the page, so it's not at all shocking when the author launches into a rather descriptive depiction of his exploits with two prostitutes. Rian masks his hurt and disappointment with a sensual smile. It takes Annora to make him realize that he holds the key to his happiness.

As heroines go, I found Annora Picot to be sweetly gracious and goodhearted, yet she lacks that saccharine quality so often seen in romance heroines. She lives her life on her own terms, and if it isn't quite what she'd hoped it would be, well, she has only herself to blame. If her immediate attraction to Rian is a bit pat, it works well the story's underlying theme of fate.

As someone who has read a great deal of Irish history and literature, it was a pleasure to read a romance so couched in accuracy. The author obviously did her homework, and it shows on every page. Her descriptions of fourteen century Ireland are vivid, yet not so cerebral as to put the reader to sleep for lack of entertainment. Richards-Akers gives the reader a real sense of time and place, all the while gifting her characters with strength, sensitivity, humor and a zest for life that is delightful to share.

I'm happily looking forward to Nancy Richards-Akers' next novel.

--Ann McGuire

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