Stealing Heaven
by Madeline Hunter, historical (2002)
Bantam, $5.99, ISBN 0-553-58356-5


I'm a little wary of reading this book, as Madeline Hunter is going into mass production the big way. Four books will come out late next year, one in October, another in November, one more in December, and another in January 2004. McDonald, sorry, Madeline Hunter is on a roll. I have no idea why she is writing so fast. It is as if she has a life-threatening disease and she must write a thousand books as her legacy to a grateful world before she croaks. Or something. Maybe she has a lot of bills to pay.

But lucky for me, even when she's rushing out romance novels like Whoppers in a Burger King production line, her characterization hasn't suffered - yet? - and Stealing Heaven is so far the best book she has ever written in my opinion. It's far from perfect, but I have a wonderful time reading it.

Marcus of Anglesmore - a rags-to-riches dude apparently related to everybody in every book Ms Hunter has written so far - is ordered by King Edward (it's 1340) to marry the daughter of a Welsh rebel. All in the name of diplomacy or something. Marcus isn't happy, but he changes his mind when he does some late night reconnaissance and discovers a lovely, enchanting beauty wearing very little wandering around the gardens. Yes, this is standard "snog before I learn that he is the man the King ordered to marry me" set-up, but with a slight twist: the woman Marcus pawed is actually his intended's sister, Nesta verch Llygard, also known as the King's Whore.

Let's put something out of the way: readers, if you are afraid that this Whore thing is much ado about nothing and that Nesta will end up yet another misunderstood Virginity Statement, don't worry. Nesta is experienced, and she knows how to use her sexuality to gain what little power she can obtain in a time when women are essentially pawns to men's silly games. Not that our heroine is aggressive or skanky, but Nesta remains true to character to the very end. She's a smart, independent, and courageous woman who is as proactive - sometimes even more so - as the hero, and she can take care of herself. In fact, there's a delicious irony in here, as the King's Whore ends up the most honorable, most courageous, and most noble character in this story.

Nesta and her sister support their father's cause, naturally, and they skirt fast and loose at the wrong side of treason. Their actions will set in motion a road trip that will end up with the younger sister Genith fleeing with her secret lover, the bard Dylan in one direction, and Nesta in the other in an attempt to throw Marcus off their trail. Guess which woman Marcus ends up chasing after.

Marcus and Nesta really play each other off, intrigue upon intrigue, and while Ms Hunter is guilty of dumbing down Nesta in the name of plot contrivances at least twice in this story, on the whole whenever Marcus takes two steps forward, Nesta will catch up with him soon after and plot a countermeasure. Yet at the same time, this story adeptly sidesteps the "Hate/lust/hate" trap - Nesta and Marcus' chemistry can singe my eyebrows off if I'm not careful.

But if I am allowed to complain, I'll start with the underused Genith, who pretty much disappears towards the second half of the story. She is actually more interesting a character than her "honorable woman of experience" sister - here is a seemingly helpless and clingy younger sister who adeptly hides her razor-sharp intelligence, haughty pride, and iron will from everyone but her sister.

And Marcus is a bigger problem. For far too long, his actions do not match his words. I confess that I really like what the author is trying to say when she has Marcus telling Nesta that her infamous moniker, the King's Whore, is not a liability as much as it gives her power over people. Indeed, Nesta commands the attention of the people around her. As she displays confidence, ability, and poise, I can easily see why. Nesta isn't Xena, but she can stand her own in this chess game of politics, and if she can't see the gaping pit that is the trap Marcus has set up for her, it's not her fault, it's Madeline Hunter's. As I've mentioned earlier, Ms Hunter isn't above dumbing down Nesta to give Marcus the upper hand always.

Which causes problems, as Marcus may claim to respect Nesta, but his actions often indicate otherwise. He has no qualms offering Nesta as a sacrificial lamb even after he has slept with her, and this attitude persists almost to the final pages. In fact, he actually repulses me in at least two instances, when he wonders whether Nesta was willing when she was the mistress of the English King (Edward, Marcus' best buddy). If she wasn't willing, his main concern was how this will affect his relationship with the king if the king still wants her. This attitude still persists after he has told Nesta that he doesn't mind that she's called the King's whore and nasty songs are sung to celebrate her fallen status. Marcus says one thing but does another, and in the end, he just confuses me.

Even more puzzling is that I have no idea how he comes to this epiphany that he loves her. It just happens, and I scratch my head. One moment Nesta is railing at him for lying to her all the time, then I turn the page and I am staring at the epilogue. Huh? I check, but no, all the pages are intact in this book I'm reading. Huh? No matter how feisty and smart Nesta is, in the end Ms Hunter beats her down and shackles her to a ruthless, humorless control freak.

It's depressing, but not as depressing as the fact that I can love a hero like Marcus. There are scenes of him with Nesta that actually sing, especially when how he tells Nesta that he doesn't care if she's a Madonna or a Whore - he knows, because he has his own baggage, that life is not all black and grey. In those moments, Marcus is a tortured hero worth fighting for. Then the author has him acting like a hambrained arrogant boor that contradicts whatever poetic words he has spoken earlier, and everything is ruined. Ruined, I tell you!

Nonetheless, it isn't that big a problem. I do wish that Ms Hunter has let Nesta and Marcus play at a more equal footing, but I appreciate that Nesta and Marcus are equals when it comes to intellect and subterfuge. In fact, it is Marcus who stoops to lies and deception and heavy-handed force to keep Nesta down (read that how you want), while Nesta is the one who bends the rules while coming off the more heroic of the two. If you ask me, the King's Whore is the better chess player of the two. Yet at the end of the day, I find myself completely caught up in this story. Whatever its flaws are, Stealing Heaven has me caring for the characters even as I root for or curse them. Even as the story starts to plod towards the middle of the book, the interplay between Marcus and Nesta keep me turning the pages. Like or hate them, these two definitely have me hooked line and sinker in their relationship.

For engaging my emotions and making me care, Stealing Heaven is a most enjoyable slice of romantic adventure nirvana. It's amazing what smart characters in a decently plotted story can do, really. Keeper!

Rating: 92


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