When Sammy Davis, Jr. sang “I Gotta Be Me,” he could have been singing about witches in romance novels. Whenever a witch is prevented from being herself (i.e. witchlike), disaster lurks. Sometimes it’s personal disaster for the witch who may become desperately unhappy and sometimes the disaster is much larger in scope.
Merely Magic falls under the latter category. Ninian Malcolm has been raised on stories of what happens when a Malcolm witch falls in love with a member of the aristocratic Ives family. The last time such a union took place, an Ives tried to force his Malcolm lady to deny her heritage and their village was flooded. Since then, the two families have stayed away from each other. That changes one moonlit night when Ninian meets Drogo Ives.
And so a romance begins. Woman is warned against having anything to do with a certain family. Man has dysfunctional parents and has had disappointments with women in the past, and therefore never wants to marry. The two meet, fall in lust, marry because they must, and live happily ever after. The plot is familiar, but when it’s done right, can be a joy. In Merely Magic, it’s almost just right.
Drogo Ives is the oldest of many brothers, only two of whom are legitimate. The men in his family are not known for successful relationships, but they do father a lot of sons, many of them out of wedlock. Although Drogo has avoided entanglements because of his family’s unhappy history, he has vowed to marry any woman he makes pregnant. No son of his, (and he’s sure it would be a son) will ever be illegitimate.
Ninian and Drogo meet on Beltane in the village of Wystan in Northumberland. Because she is known to be a witch, the villagers allow her to help them when their ill, but they don’t include her in many social gatherings. So while everyone else is dancing, Ninian is watching from the woods. Drogo, who has returned to Wystan to study the stars of Northern England, spots her in the woods and is immediately attracted. Having left London, in part, to get away from his demanding siblings, Drogo is surprised at his desire to bring Ninian into his life. Ninian is even more reluctant then Drogo. She is convinced that a relationship between them can only lead to destruction.
They don’t fight their attraction very long, and after their night of passion, Ninian believes the prophecies have come true. A massive storm hits Wystan, and something is poisoning the water that feeds the village well. Drogo refuses to believe any of her “superstitious stories” – his words – and tells her that they will marry if she is pregnant. Ninian continues to worry, but convinces herself that all will be well if she stays true to her heritage. As long as she doesn’t deny her own identity and continues to try educating Drogo, their marriage will work and Wystan will be all right.
The problem is in the educating of Drogo. He refuses to hear anything about any powers Ninian may have. He refuses to listen to her when she explains that she can’t leave the village for long. In short, Drogo rarely listens to Ninian at all. This is a problem for the reader. These two strong characters are both appealing but they spend a majority of the book talking around each other. Ninian continually tells herself that she will be able to convince Drogo of her needs. She never does so. Whenever she begins to discuss her concerns, Drogo cuts her off before she actually says anything, and she lets him. Of course, it doesn’t help matters that Drogo only hears what he wants to.
Drogo’s and Ninian’s frustrating discussions notwithstanding, Patricia Rice writes an enjoyable story. Drogo’s siblings are written with some depth. They’re annoying at times, charming at others. In fact, they are probably like your own siblings. Because of the attention given to their characters, I wouldn’t be surprised if they have their own stories in the near future.
Ninian’s witchcraft is only as real as you want it to be. Merely Magic can be read as a straight historical romance, or as a paranormal romance, whichever you choose. The magic is hinted at, but could be explained in any number of ways. Is it natural disaster or magic? The reader can decide either way. For this, and for the strength of her characters, I’d say that Merely Magic is just about right. I can forgive a little frustrating dialogue if I can meet great characters like these. Hopefully Ms. Rice will follow up with tales of Drogo’s brothers and step-sister (not necessarily in that order). Whether they all have theme songs from the Rat Pack, we’ll have to wait and see.