A SAGA CAN BE engrossing even when the characters and plot aren't quite real. If you're one of those people who have to know how things turn out, how a character dies and how a family's destiny turns and twists over a span of time, then Hers the Kingdom will be right up your alley.

In 1887 Owen Reade, a wealthy Easterner with a flair for seeing opportunities and making money, marries Willa Porter of Illinois, takes her to California in its boom days and builds a ranch on a magnificent property called Malibu. They have two sons, an illegitimate daughter, and a pair of twins that are not exactly twins (you'll have to read it to find out). As in many sagas, the sins of the parents are visited upon later generations, and the Reades are no exception. There are births, deaths, fire, murder, rape, betrayal and adultery, all viewed through the eyes of Willa's crippled spinster sister, Lena, a narrator who sees more than she tells and understands far more than she admits to.

Hers the Kingdom is a mixed blessing. The novel is well- paced and chockful of dramatic emotions, but many of its characters are cardboard cut-outs than can barely stand on their own two feet. The beginning of the book, highly colored with details of California ranching, is far better than the novel's end, where the author is frantically tying all the threads of the plot into a knot of unlikely coincidences. And the theme of women standing strong in the face of dramatic change is appealing, but independent, stubborn Willa struck me more as a 20th-century transplant than as a product of her time.

The novel has a wide scope and even if it doesn't quite make the grade, the reading is good. A word of warning, however. The publisher has penny-pinched on paper and set the book in a typeface small enough to produce eye-strain.