by Laura Baker, contemporary (2001)
St Martin's Press, $6.50, ISBN 0-312-97709-3

This is not a sweet, happy romance. The heroine, Rheada Samuels, is gloomy and miserable as a child. The prologue sees her illusions shattered when she realizes that her "noble Indian archaelogist" father is actually just a tomb raider. After finding her father dead under mysterious circumstances, she has to take up tomb raiding herself under the name Raven to support her and her sister Tilly. This despite our heroine's utmost love and respect for everything sacred and antique. Oh, the pain.

Kee Blackburn is an FBI undercover who lost his sister when she decides to be another Raven. Now bent on revenge on this Raven upstart and at the brink of depressive breakdown, he comes to Aztec, New Mexico to shoot down this Raven, whoever he is. He encounters Rheada Samuels, now retired and just a tour guide, and they recognize each other as fellow lost souls. But really, what happens when Rheada tells him she's the Raven he is seeking to destroy?

Isn't it fun? I'm in heaven. Kee and Rheada are so, so, so, so, so miserable and pain-ridden I really doubt these two could actually walk off into the sunset without a busload of therapists on the standby. But it was beautiful when it lasted, all 302 pages of it.

Sure, in the first few chapters, Raven is under the misassumption that it is an Anasazi culture guidebook. While Rheada's tour-guide explanation of the myths and cultures of the Anasazi and Navajo is fascinating, really, pages after pages of textbook narration can be pushing it a bit too far. But when the story gets down to the action, oh my. Underneath the self-pity and the-world-is-conspiring-against-me facade of these two, there are actual human beings just waiting to get out. Rheada leans more towards the martyr heroine sort, while Kee, being a man, has the luxury of being selfishly miserable for his own sake, but really, the author does their torture and misery so beautifully it's almost poetry. Hence the final chapter when Kee and Rheada make a go at being the next Brady Bunch becomes even more precious as a result.

The setting is already steeped in mythos and symbolism typical of an American Indian romance, but Ms Baker humanizes her characters while exaggerating their mental baggage. It's a fine balance juggling character likeability and character baggages, but she acquits herself well. I find myself absorbed by every word, shedding a tear at Rheada's Grand Gesture of Sacrifice, and heck, I'm willing to overlook the villain that just pops out of nowhere or the Huh? nature of the resolution of Kee's bitterness.

Raven is a beautiful love song to guilt, regrets, mental demons, and salvation via love and healing. And I thought such "heavy, depressive" romances have gone the way of the dodos. Raven is a wonderful serendipitous find for me - let me just bring out the Prozac and party!

Rating: 90

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