Emma Stokehurst is a flame-haired young woman who is unusually tall. She is a gentle free-spirit who often dresses in men's clothes and cares for a menagerie of abused animals. Emma is one of the few female members of the Royal Society for the Humane Treatment of Animals, and works hard for animal rights. Because of her appearance and perceived eccentricities, she has become a wallflower at balls and parties and finds it difficult to find a man who suits her. She fancies herself in love with a young Lord named Adam and has been secretly meeting him, because her father, Luke, will not allow them to see each other. Adam is penniless, and Luke believes him to be a gold-digger. Adam for his part is too timid to stand up to Luke, and seek Emma's hand.
Prince Nikolas Angelovsky has been living in exile in England for several years. He is a darkly brooding man with a history of childhood abuse as well as torture at the hands of the Russian government prior to his exile. His past makes it nearly impossible for him to love or trust anyone, but he has been drawn to Emma since she was 13. He finds her spirit and eccentricities fascinating, and as he puts it, she is the only woman who has never bored him. Now that she is a grown woman, he will go to nearly any lengths to have her.
Nikolas easily scares off the too-timid Adam, so that he can freely pursue Emma. Of course, Emma is heartbroken by Adam's sudden departure and easy prey for Nikolas' manipulations. The two form a tentative yet strangely intimate friendship, with Nikki revealing some of the secrets of his past to Emma. For her part Emma is still not over Adam, but when she sees an announcement for Adam's engagement, her heart is torn open again, and she seeks out Nikki for comfort and solace. They become lovers, and Nikolas unexpectedly proposes a marriage of convenience which Emma accepts. Her father is furious, but as Emma still blames him for Adam leaving her, Luke grudgingly accepts the match to avoid loosing his daughter altogether. Luke and Emma's stepmother, Tasia, spend the weeks before the wedding trying to convince Emma that Nikki is cold and ruthless and not to be trusted, but Emma is stubborn and determined to see this marriage through.
Nikolas and Emma's marriage is an easy alliance of friendship with some affection beginning to creep in, until one day, an unexpected event brings Nikki's past bearing down on him. The darkness of his soul begins to grow, and Nikki starts alienating Emma with his terrible behavior. Just as Emma has nearly had enough, Nikolas looks at an old painting that she found in the attic of one of his ancestors who bears a striking resemblance to him. He promptly passes out, and is transported back in time to the life of that ancestor. Emma is there too, and just as was told in an old legend, the two marry and share a great love. When Nikki returns to his own time, he is a completely changed man. Emma has become so familiar now with his machinations though, that he will not have an easy time convincing her that he is sincere, and then they have another obstacle in the form of Adam who returns to stir up trouble and settle an old score.
Prince of Dreams started off with an excellent, engaging story that was hard to put down, but like it's predecessor in the Stokehurst series, Midnight Angel, it tends to loose steam during the second half. The book is arranged in four sections, and the first two sections are full of the deep, dark emotions that have become a Lisa Kleypas trademark. Prince Nikolas is quite possibly the darkest hero that Ms. Kleypas has written and that I have read, yet I found him to be thoroughly fascinating. He was not unlike Emma's wounded animals in his unpredictability, one moment being manipulative and cruel, the next tender and gentle. The reason I was able to like Nikki in spite of his dark nature is that I felt the author gives the reader sufficient insight into his psyche to understand what truly makes him tick, and he certainly had good reasons for behaving the way that he did. I was also able to give him some measure of respect, because unlike dark heroes in some other books, he never tried to force himself on Emma sexually nor did he ever physically abuse her in any way. Unlike some readers, I wasn't overly disturbed by Nikki's interest in Emma from the time she was only 13. If taken in historical context, one has to realize that girls were sometimes betrothed and/or married at a young age. Also, Nikki had minimal contact with Emma over her teen years, never outside the supervision of her parents, and he never acted on his interest until Emma was a grown woman old enough to make her own decisions.
I also thoroughly enjoyed Emma during the first half of the book, as she was still every bit the free-spirited young girl that we had met in Midnight Angel, only grown up now with a few new eccentricities that made her all the more delightful. She still harbors the same insecurities about her height and appearance which I found very relatable in the previous book. As an animal lover, I really enjoyed her menagerie and her involvement with stopping animal cruelty. I really enjoyed watching Nikolas and Emma find solace in their shared friendship and then trying to relate to each other in the context of marriage, when Nikki was so resistant to accepting or giving love. It was also nice to watch Emma mature and realize the meaning of true love.
I felt the problem with the story came about with the time travel aspect in section three, and then when Nikki returned to his own time in section four, the whole dynamic of the story changed. The time travel section was a nice little love story on it's own, but I never felt like Ms. Kleypas gave the reader any reason for Nikolas allowing himself to fall in love with the past Emma other than the legend fulfilling itself or perhaps him being alone in a different time and place with no familiar faces other than hers for comfort. It seemed like this whole section was simply a plot device for returning Nikolas to Russia, since he was in permanent exile and unable visit his home country any other way. Once Nikki returned to his own time, I felt the story fell rather flat. He was no longer the fascinating, complex character he had been during the first half, having been magically transformed into a "prince of dreams", doting on Emma and openly declaring his love. There was also a complete role reversal as Emma became the cynical, jaded and distrusting one. Though understandable considering Nikki's past behavior, this side of her faded rather quickly, again with little explanation. The ending had a few interesting developments and some mild excitement, but it wasn't really enough to make up for the previous weaknesses I've mentioned. I simply have a preference for watching characters work through their dark pasts or any other difficulties they might face without the use of "magic" plot devices.
While Prince of Dreams was an improvement over its prequel, Midnight Angel, as with that book I still would not recommend it to first-time Lisa Kleypas readers. Try one of Ms. Kleypas's other books first and save this one until you've become a fan like me. It is also much better when the prequel is read first, since Nikolas and Emma played pivotal roles in that story, and while Luke and Tasia from Midnight Angel did not play a huge part in Prince of Dreams, they were still seen several times. For a book with a similar storyline including a dark, brooding hero who suffered childhood abuse, try Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels. The two books reminded me a great deal of each other, but Lord of Scoundrels was done much better in my opinion.
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