Merely Magic by Patricia Rice
Setting: 18th century England
The village of Wystan was once, according to legend, large and prosperous. The two local families of nobility cared for and protected the people. But the Ives and Malcolms were a bit unusual. The Earls of Ives had only sons, and they were all unlucky in love—scandal and divorce and illegitimate offspring (all boys, of course) litter the family history. The Malcolms only gave birth to daughters, and everyone knew all of them were witches. The Malcolm women each had a special gift, such as healing or foreknowing or reading auras, that enabled them to help others. And as long as the Malcolms were born in Wystan, they lived happy and long lives.
Then, the legend said, came the tragedy of the marriage of an Ives lord to a Malcolm lady. The incompatibility of their fates destroyed them and the prosperity of Wystan. The Ives family deserted Wystan Castle and chose to reside at their other properties in England. As villagers left to seek better fortune elsewhere, the Malcolm women were no longer needed, so they moved away to London or other towns with their aristocratic husbands—returning only for the birth of each daughter. Only one Malcolm woman at a time had to stay to tend the needs of the much smaller and poorer village. And through the generations, those who remembered the past and believed the legend hoped that the Malcolms and the Ives would stay far away from each other.
Which brings us to 1750. Drogo, the current Earl of Ives, returns to long-neglected Wystan Castle to find some peace to indulge in his hobby of astronomy. Unfortunately, he cannot totally escape his responsibilities to his huge family of brothers, bastard half-brothers, and various step-siblings (Drogo’s father had the typical Ives problem with women). His life is further complicated when he meets Ninian Malcolm Siddons. Ninian was raised by her Malcolm grandmother and is now the “Malcolm witch”, serving the villagers as midwife and herbalist. (Ninian’s mother died in childbirth with her fifth stillborn baby—she rejected her Malcolm heritage and refused to return to Wystan for any of the births after Ninian.) Ninian’s gift is best described as empathy—she can sense the emotions of others and functions as what we would consider a family therapist. Drogo does not believe in witches or legends and wants nothing to do with women, since they bring only trouble to his family. He keeps his emotions under strict control, preferring a cold and loveless life to the usual Ives chaos and pain. But now he must cope with the castle ghosts (possibly that tragic Ives/Malcolm couple of long ago?), a poisoned stream that is killing plants and sickening the villagers, a pregnant young woman hiding from her family, the inability of his brothers to stay out of trouble, and his stepsister’s conviction that Ninian is the woman fated to provide the next Ives heir.
What will happen to the village if Ninian and Drogo consummate their attraction? Can Ninian empathize with the ghosts and unravel her ancestor’s diary? Can she cope with London and Drogo’s brothers and her own aunts and cousins without being emotionally overwhelmed? Will Drogo understand the need to return to Wystan? Just who is that mysterious stranger who looks like an Ives and keeps turning up at critical times? And, most important, can Drogo accept his feelings for Ninian and understand her gift, or will the tragedy of the past repeat itself?
I stayed up most of the night finishing this story. I had to know what happened to not only Drogo and Ninian, but to all the diverse secondary characters. Drogo’s brothers are a lot of fun and Ninian’s methods for helping them showcase her special gift. Drogo is a well-drawn character; I felt as if I were inside his head and could understand his actions and motivations. It is entrancing to follow his humanization by his wife—his emotions slowly unthaw and he learns to listen to Ninian and treat her as an equal.
No book or author being perfect, there were some things that bothered me. The male characters are well written and developed, but I found most of the women annoying and inconsistent. Ninian is interesting and sweet, but she is basically a wimp. I wanted to scream at her to stand up to Drogo’s manipulative stepsister, to take on her responsibilities as the lady of the house, and to communicate honestly with her husband (as empathetic as she is with others, she is lousy at dealing with Drogo). And there was an occasional jarring modernism; for example, phrases like “unwed mother” and “give the baby up for adoption” don’t sound right for the time or circumstances.
But if you like historical romances, I strongly recommend this one.