As a big Modesty Blaise fan, I’ve always enjoyed Peter O’Donnell’s writing ability and reread his 15 Modesty books every couple of years. Imagine my surprise from his obituary to discover that he wrote gothic historic romances under the name “Madeleine Brent.” Merlin’s Keep (named after the birds and not the wizard) won the Romantic Novel of the Year for 1978.
While I’ve probably never read a gothic historic romance in my life, I ordered several of his romances and started with Merlin’s Keep (because of the wizard thing). I didn’t have high hopes as this is not my genre, but the romance in this takes a backseat to the adventure of a young woman raised by a British sergeant in a tiny village in Tibet. A handsome young captain tracks down the sergeant, accusing him of murdering a British officer and his wife, the Maharani of Jahanapur. The sergeant, fleeing with his ward, Jani, confesses to the crimes and claims the half-Indian, half-English girl is his daughter.
His death in the mountains as they try to escape starts a long journey for Jani. She becomes deathly ill and is saved by the captain, left at a British hospital, and shipped off to Victorian London as she’s half-British. There, she is placed in an orphanage and taught the basic skills of a “civilized” servant girl. She misses the life in Tibet, particularly the animals which she has a strange rapport with. Not working out as a farm girl after being released from the orphanage for fighting, she encounters a man standing frozen in a field. He’s stepped on a poisonous snake and has been afraid to move for hours.
After saving the gentleman and telling him her story, he insists she join his grand household. His daughter, Eleanor, takes to Jani immediately and sets about moving her from “downstairs” as a maid to “upstairs” as her secretary. A prophecy by a monk in Tibet said she would be saved by a woman in red (Eleanor wears red to assert her individuality) but to beware of the Silver Man, the devourer of souls.
After Eleanor’s father passes away, she travels to Greece without Jani to clear her head. Jani works with the village vet to talk to the animals while he treats them. The vet is madly in love with Eleanor, but she has refused his offers of marriage. To Jani’s surprise, Eleanor wires that she’s coming home with a husband! When she does, Jani doesn’t recognize her dearest friend for the woman is completely enthralled by the strange man with silver hair and occult ways. When Jani refuses to partake in a supernatural ritual, she’s exiled from Merlin’s Keep, and Eleanor, dazed and withdrawn, doesn’t stop it.
At this point, I assumed the book was going to be about Jani defeating the Silver Man, but I was mistaken. Jani moves into a small cottage to be close to Eleanor, continues working with the vet, and seeks to clear her former guardian’s name. She knows Sergeant Sembur did not kill the Indian ruler and her husband. He certainly wasn’t her father. She’s surprised when a Lord and Lady call upon her from London to seek information about the young captain who saved her in Tibet. Their son, Adam, is missing. Jani is forced to accept the Silver Man’s help in locating Adam through occult means and travels to the rough side of London to find him. But when she does, she discovers why he hasn’t returned home. He’s blind and estranged from his father. Jani, smitten by the young man even when he’s handicapped (probably moreso), reunites him with his family.
The Silver Man, a powerful warlock, is draining Eleanor’s life force as a spirit guide. He offers to cure Adam’s blindness if Jani assists. She does, and Adam regains his sight. After some miscommunication (the vet proposes to Jani), Adam reveals his love for Jani, and they make the warlock an offer if he’ll release Eleanor before she dies.
He wants the Teardrop of Buddha, held in a monastery in Tibet, that only Jani can procure. He will release Eleanor if they obtain it for him so he can destroy it.
This is one of the few books I’ve read in a long time where I begrudged the parts of my life that took time away from reading. As the end raced closer (another sign of a good book: checking how many pages are left), I didn’t see how our young lovers were going to obtain the Tear and defeat the warlock. But they did.
Is there romance in this? Sure, but the first-person account of a young woman who is kind and determined and unwilling to give up on her friend Eleanor is the meat of the story. I hope the other Peter O’Donnell/ Madeleine Brent books are as exciting.