Apaches, Komodos, a coven, Celts

Books of the Region

July 14, 2002|By James H. Bready | By James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

Summertime and the readin' is easy Among history's freedom fighters, Lucia St. Clair Robson of Annapolis bids us not to forget the Apaches. In her new novel, Ghost Warrior (Forge, 749 pages, $27.95), she arms us and mounts us for one more raid on the Pale Eyes moving into the ancestral southwestern homeland, in the later 1800s. We know very well who's going to win in the end; but watching the evil deeds of Mexicans on the lower side of an invisible boundary and the imbecilities of U.S. military commanders on the upper side, we flinch.

The Dineh, or the People, as Robson speaks of them, live by a code of their own, in which marauding, ambushing and plundering are standard occupations. (Is it more moral for them to be rounded up, confined to a reservation and told to farm arid Arizona desert, as did happen?)

Among the Apaches were the celebrities Cochise, Victorio and Geronimo, and a woman named Lozen, who here has not only the gift of divination, but also outdoor skills equal to most men's.

Robson invents a white settler, Rafe Collins, or Hairy Foot (he wears socks, which he makes from buffalo fur). Lozen is attracted, but romance is impeded by her equally passionate desire to steal Rafe's horse.

Robson's at pains to reconstruct Apache food, clothing, games, surroundings and folkways (which means recurrent, lethal blood and guts). But amid the research, and all that action, her Apaches are distinctive individuals. With this one, Robson goes national: Larry McMurtry and Tony Hillerman have endorsed her book. Let us do better, joining in the tribal dance and whooping it up for Ghost Warrior.

Five tests of strength and agility await Gavin Elliott, an Anglo-American merchant who in 1835 has arrived at an island named Maduri, in the East Indies. Five barter terms must be met, if he is to rescue a young English widow and her daughter from slavery: He must climb a mountain, outmaneuver a Komodo dragon, outdrink the local sultan, then outwrestle him and finally, violate his own western code of domestic relations with people watching.

Is Mary Jo Putney perhaps warming us up for the next Olympics (or urging us to visit the world's largest archipelago?) Not really, even though physical tension is high among her writing fortes. In her latest novel, The Bartered Bride (Ballantine, 324 pages, $22.95), one crisis eases only for another to surpass it. Elliott's happy return to the western world suddenly goes awry, and now he is on trial for murder.

The count of Mary Jo Putney titles has reached 26. In this one, Alexandra, her harem heroine, delights when allowed to read Sir Walter Scott. Novels by Putney are more entertaining.

Spring, autumn, winter -- the phenomenal Nora Roberts of Keedysville will have a new book out for any of them. This time, it's Face the Fire (Jove, 358 pages, $7.99), the third and concluding novel in a series about the mythical Three Sisters Island, "a little bump of land" off the coast of Massachusetts. Sam Logan grew up there, made love to Mia Devlin, walked out on her to go have a career, New York-style, Eleven years later, after buying the island's biggest resort hotel, he walks into her rival business, Cafe Book. By now he wants her. She tells him to get lost.

The outcome is hardly in doubt; the story lies in their friends, memories, impulses -- and mutual standing in a witchcraft coven. An old curse hangs over the island's cliffs.

In years ahead, students will be drafting theories to account not just for Nora Roberts' force-of-nature productivity (Face the Fire is preceded by three full pages of previous titles -- fewer than half her published works) but also for the vastness of her readership. Nora Roberts' expert prose pours forth not just with facility but with the sound of actual people, talking now inside their heads, now aloud.

Today, she burns for him, while he finds her a bore; tomorrow, the roles will reverse. These lives forever point toward romance, but the terrain in which they daily move about has the look, the feel of reality.

Chicago; October 1871. Heat, drought, wooden buildings and 334,000 busy people. Some sleep in sheds, boxes, horse-barns: the street children. Jozef himself has a bed, upstairs from his immigrant Polish father's butcher shop. But one day as 12-year-old Jozef is carrying to the bank a canvas bag with the shop's weekly proceeds, two youngsters in the sidewalk throng distract him and make off with the money bag. Striving to identify and locate them, and get the money back, Jozef is aided first by neighbor children, who call themselves the Red Flame; and then by his older brother, a sour amputee left over from the Civil War.

One street thief turns out to be the saucy, green-eyed, teen-age Bridget; the other, her urchin group's Fagin, known as Wolf. In The Secret of the Red Flame by K.M. Kimball (Aladdin, 228 pages, $4.99), of Silver Spring, Chicago might not be big enough for two such opposed organizations.

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