Heart Of A Lion
by Hillary Fields, historical (2001)
St Martin's Press, $6.50, ISBN 0-312-97917-7

Hillary Fields may be still under everybody's radar at the moment, but I must say she is fast becoming adept at writing great swashbuckling romances in dangerous lands. She has done seafaring pirates in The Maiden's Revenge, archeologists in Marrying Jezebel, and now Heart Of A Lion, a romance set in the post-Children Crusade era (early 1200s) in Northwestern Persia.

Isabeau was only a child of eight or nine when she scurries off alone to witness a "miracle boy". This miracle boy is recruiting children for the ill-fated Children's Crusade. In a scuffle, she is rendered unconscious and taken along with the rest to the Middle-East, where the Crusades are raging.

Jared de Navarre is the sixteen-year old boy who is more or less adopted into Isabeau's family. Isabeau's mother lashes out at him in anger and grief for failing to keep watch on missing Isabeau. Jared leaves his home to look for Isabeau, vowing never to return under he finds her.

Cut to sixteen years later, where Jared is now a hardened mercenary in Persia known as the Black Lion. (Oh, the names here, I must say, are most unoriginal. When the heroine has a horse she named Zephyr, I am ready to scream.) Convinced that Isabeau is probably dead, he has given up all hope of returning home. When his life gets entwined with the Shadow Hunter, the mistress of a bunch of bloodthirsty assassins, little does he know that he will find Isabeau soon enough. Isabeau, you see, has fled the harem, dressed up as a guy, and starts a career as Shadow Hunter. She hires the Black Lion for a mission, only to realize too late that he is Jared.

Cool. As these two embark on their dangerous mission, all their neuroses spring free. No baggages spared. Jared is definitely a tortured guy who is somewhere between alpha male and beta - he can be aggressive, but he isn't arrogant like a mule. Hey, this is a man who crosses oceans for find the girl he is supposed to protect. You can't guess more noble - or stupid - than that.

This story is not very pretty. It's not graphic, but there are mentions of violence and abuse committed to the children of which Isabeau was with on her ill-fated voyage to the Middle East. Jared isn't a pretty sensitive guy, and neither are most of the characters here. The country is rife with civil war and leftover Crusade sentiments, and Ms Fields doesn't play coy and pretend that this is a Disney cartoon.

Unfortunately, she plays very coy with Isabeau. She is the biggest disappointment in this story. In the hands of - say, Taylor Chase - Isabeau would be an almost inhuman killer to be redeemed most wonderfully by love. Hillary Fields however treat Isabeau with cotton mittens. She bends over backwards to preserve Isabeau's virginity. (Living among horny and nasty sailors, and then living in a harem, and lo, hymen intacta... what the heck? Nothing but a explosive-proof chastity diaper can convince me of Isabeau's virginity, I tell you). And she's not doing all this for survival but to save some innocent girlie from a villain. I hate these forced gentility in the heroines. Damn it, damn, it, damn it, where's the credibility? Can't we make Isabeau dark even a little? Lo, watch as our Little Spunky Heroine ("Doin' It For The Kiddies" is her theme song) save the world. Zzzz.

It is times like this that I wish Taylor Chase will write faster. Oh yeah, she has a new book in December. Oh goody. Then again, knowing my luck, it'll never show up and I will have to do an Amazon.com again.

Still, silly treatment of heroine and all, Heart Of A Lion is an exciting, swashbuckling read. The backdrop is rich and atmospheric, although this author like so many others still can't get the greeting Assalamualaikum right (still, Ms Fields missed by only one syllable, which is better than other attempts at Anglicizing this greeting). It's dark and gritty without being overwhelming, and I have a really great time reading this great story.

It's just too bad about Isabeau's stereotypical characterization and the way the relationship between her and Jared dip too much towards the stereotypical towards the end. But I guess that's why this book is called Heart Of A Lion and not Heart Of A Hunter. The hero rules, but the heroine just can't keep up.

Despite my nitpicking, I must concede though: this is one good story. I can't wait to see what this author will come up with next.

Rating: 90

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