Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"One Reckless Summer," by Toni Blake

The Chick: Jenny Tolliver. After her husband cheats on her because she wears her Goody Two Shoes even in bed, she's tempted to rethink her "good Jenny" approach when she embarks on an affair with a Troubled Man With a Dark Secret.
The Rub: She could spend time exploring the meaning of Good and Evil when she discovers the Dark Secret, but she's too busy having Animalistic Monkey Sex.
Dream Casting: Jennifer Garner.

The Dude:
Mick Brody. When his terminally ill brother breaks out of prison and begs him for help, he uproots his entire life and heads back to the hometown that never truly accepted him to help his brother spend his last days out of prison.
The Rub: Mick's past Denial, Anger, and Acceptance - once he meets Jenny again, he moves right past to the Eternally Horny Stage of Grief.
Dream Casting: Ben Affleck.

The Plot:

Jenny: Gee, sure am ticked my husband cheated on me, but I'm still "Good Jenny," yes sir!

Mick Brody: Get off my land!

Jenny and Mick: *Woodsy SexyTimes*

Jenny: Whoopsie. Guess I better not do that again.

Mick: Hey, baby!

Jenny and Mick: *SexyTimes in the Rain*

Jenny: Well shoot. I'm just so clumsy. I'll be more careful not to have sex with you again!

Mick: 'Sup.

Jenny and Mick: *SexyTimes on the Ice-Cube Tray*

Jenny: Doggone it! Oh well, tee-hee, guess it might be love.

Ornery Meddling Dad: *meddles, ornery-ily*

Mick: I'm out.

Jenny: Really? No more sex?

Mick: Oh, all right.

Jenny: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Troubled Hero with a Dark Secret

1 Case of Abandonment Issues

1 Obsessed-Over Dead Cat

1 Ornery Dad

1 Dead Mother Who Continues to Influence from Beyond the Grave

Two Forgotten Condoms

The Word:
This book I read? It wasn't a romance. I don't know what it was, but it was neither what I was expecting nor what I was looking for. When I read the positive reviews and the backcover blurb, I know what I thought this story would be. An across-the-tracks class-difference romance. A small town romance. Or at least a story about two people who get to know each other and establish a deep, emotional connection that makes sense within the context of the narrative.

Instead, I got a story about two people who find out they really really really like having sex with each other, so it must be love.

What a disappointment. I mean, the writing in One Reckless Summer isn't terrible, and occasionally rises above the average, but when all is said and done, the novel has a weak and tired storyline that mainly serves to give the hero and heroine more excuses to bone each other in new and unnecessarily difficult ways when they're together, and angst endlessly to themselves when they're apart.

Jenny Tolliver has always been the "good girl." Never got in trouble in high school, married young, always returned her library books on time. When her husband accuses her of being "too good" (i.e. passionless) in bed to justify his cheating on her with her teaching assistant, Jenny gets a quickie divorce and heads back to her hometown of Destiny to find her bearings and indulge in her passion for star gazing and astronomy.

Unfortunately, the best view in Destiny for stargazing lies on the other side of the lake from her dad's cottage - the seedy side, where the troublemaking Brody family used to live. Jenny's one major teenage transgression was to steal across that lake and onto forbidden Brody territory, so she does so now, although it's only a token gesture as the Brodys are long gone.

Or so she thinks. She arrives on the other side of the lake only to literally run into Mick Brody, our Tortured Hero with a Dark Past, who orders her off his land. Jenny, tired of being the "good girl," refuses, and Mick chooses the most unorthodox Scaring-Off method possible: having sex with her. No matter how many times I read that scene, I don't understand how "Get Off My Land" turns into "Condomless Sex In the Woods With a Man Of Whom I Know Only A Little and All of It Bad." And as this is the Inciting Incident of the entire plot, you can tell that this novel doesn't even start on the right foot with me.

Afterward, during The Most Awkward Pillowtalk Ever, Mick orders Jenny not to tell anyone he's in Destiny and says he'll check up on her to make sure she sticks by her word. He then slips off into the woods to give his penis a stern talking-to for boinking the chief of police's daughter, especially since he's hiding his Terminally-Ill Escaped Convict Brother in his cabin so that he can live out his last days outside of a jail cell.

I thought the novel might pick up from there, because at least we have Drama. Mick's from the wrong side of the tracks, criminal activity and all, and Jenny is the squeaky-clean daughter of the chief of police who's never kept secrets from her father.

Unfortunately, the only time our protagonists spend time together (before the inevitable Kiss and Make Up at the end of the novel) is during (or directly before) sex. Mick shows up at her door, drinks ice tea, they have crazy sex, and then he leaves right away. Jenny spends the day promising herself she won't do it again, until Mick shows up and they have sex again. Condoms are forgotten again (and the heroine goes to the clinic one town over, again). Jenny thinks Deep Thoughts about Good and Evil and her Desireability as a Woman - until Mick shows up, they have sex, and he leaves.

Again.

They never meet in public. Mick's hiding a fugitive, after all, and no one's supposed to even know he's in Destiny. He shows up at Jenny's back door (only in the literal sense, pervs), they have sex, then he leaves.

They never talk. Or at least, more than the incredibly basic and vague conversations they have before sex like the one where Mick admits he's never Slow Danced with a Girl, which reminds Jenny of his Underprivileged Roots, which suddenly makes him Super Hot and quickly leads to bootknocking. Okay, I'm exaggerating a little, but the conversations and interactions in this novel are completely dwarfed by the sex. The main source of communication between Jenny and Mick is sexual, and frankly, given the extreme differences in their upbringing and backgrounds and interests and moral attitudes, I just didn't buy that sex alone would suddenly build up this Unbreakable Forbidden Love between them.

The romance itself is all internal - born not of the hero and heroine interacting with each other, but of both of them coming to isolated realizations on their own while analysing their past behaviour. And even then, while Jenny and Mick think more Romantic Thoughts when they're apart, they still spend a lot of their alone time thinking about, reliving, and obsessing over sex.

Mick spends a large chunk of novel thinking of Jenny as some sort of Sexual Teddy Bear to bang in order to comfort his grief at his brother's impending demise. Jenny spends it going "Don't have sex - don't have sex - don't have sex - d'oh!" and then quickly, "Don't fall in love - don't fall in love - don't fall in love - D'OH!" Their interactions are based so tightly around their sexual encounters that the romantic relationship with them is poorly developed and pops up out of nowhere.

It's because of this that I have a hard time considering this book a romance. Maybe it could be considered Erotic Woman's Fiction - Mick's POV is considerably limited compared to Jenny's, and her story is more centred around how she can change her life for the better and escape her patterns of limiting behaviour. Banging a complete stranger is definitely a way to change her life, but it's only a part of the story, not the story itself.

There's nothing wrong with Women's Fiction, but, like romance, it relies on strong characterization and it seems on both counts I'm doomed to damn One Reckless Summer with faint praise. Mick is - okay. He spends the majority of his "screen time" having sex or thinking about sex so his past is sort of glossed over. He's not explored very deeply and most of our understanding of his character comes through what the author or the character tells us, instead of demonstrating it with his behaviour. He does get points in the romance world for being a legitimately blue collar character - he's not the owner of a small, independent, and yet incongruously successful and money-making business. Or a secret artist. Or a soldier or spy. He's a bricklayer, and pretty much broke. So props to Toni Blake on that score.

Jenny only succeeds in being mildly sympathetic. We spend a lot of time in her head, but it's a surprisingly roomy space, if you catch my meaning. This story is supposed to be about her, and her decisions, and how she finds herself - but she still comes off as a passive participant in her own story. Things seem to happen to her more because she has little to no willpower than through any conscious choice on her part. She doesn't decide to have sex with Mick Brady until the middle of the book - for the first, oh, three or four times she swears she will NOT have sex with Mick Brady. It is wildly irresponsible (this much is true) and they are So Different and Wrong For Each Other. But then Mick shows up and touches her boobies and she melts like an ice cube on a barbecue. Um, you go girl?

I have to admit that my own disappointment contributed to my negative reaction to this novel. I was expecting it to be so much more, and instead it turned into the type of romance I absolutely despise, where the sex makes no sense and when it pops up it brings the pacing to a crashing halt. Around the seventh sex scene, I found myself going, "AGAIN? I have to skim another ten pages AGAIN? Come ON! Where's the story?!"

Objectively, however, the writing isn't bad. The characters aren't terrible caricatures. But the pacing is almost episodic and the romantic entirely unconvincing. I found myself bored more than once, and if you are like me, and don't like sex scenes that don't contribute to the plot, you'll find yourself skimming a great deal of this novel.

Save your money, and get a Victoria Dahl novel instead - she, at least, knows how to mix Business (Story and Romance) and Pleasure (bow chicka wow wow) in her novels.
C+

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Re-Read Review and Commentary: "Ship of Destiny," by Robin Hobb

*warning: Mad Ship and Ship of Magic spoilers ahead*

The Principal Cast:

Althea Vestrit: Now on board the Paragon, sailing onward to rescue Vivacia from Kennit's clutches.

Malta Haven: Survived both an earthquake and being magically inundated with memories of a long-ago past - only to end up babysitting a spoiled king in order to ensure her own survival.

Reyn Khuprus: Having lost the woman of his dreams to an earthquake, he's now expected to kowtow to the haughty demands of a newly-hatched dragon - the same reptile he believes let Malta die.

Kennit: Thanks to his luck, his crew members aren't just convinced of his awesomeness, but now believe he has magical powers. Can he make his luck hold, or will it leave him high and dry?

Wintrow Haven: After nearly dying trying to rescue a sea serpent from captivity, he discovers and unintentionally reveals the gruesome truth about Vivacia's heritage.

The Secondary Cast:

Bolt: Vivacia's dragon half. Not a lizard you want to mess with.

Paragon: Emo ship's got a past, y'all.

Selden Haven: After a close encounter with the dragon Tintaglia, Malta's baby brother becomes an avid dragon fanboy.

Serilla: The Satrap's brutalized Companion, who hopes to use the Satrap's disappearance in order to gain power for herself in Bingtown.

Brashen Trell: Still hot. Now drug-free. Pretty good captain. Totes in love with Althea.

Magnadon Satrap Cosgo: The spoiled, pampered, and drug-addicted ruler of Jamaillia who's the unwitting lynchpin in a massive powergrab conspiracy involving three nations.

Ronica Vestrit: Refusing to flee Bingtown during the riots, she hopes to bring Bingtown together again and clear her family's name of rumours of treachery.

She Who Remembers: A serpent blessed with her race's communal memories and freed from captivity by Wintrow, she hopes to find other serpents and lead them to where they may become dragons.

Tintaglia: A newly-hatched dragon. Desperate to repopulate her race by any means necessary, even if it means dealing with emo humans.

Fantasy Convention Checklist

1 Man-Crush Taken to an Extremely Disturbing Level

Several Serpent Fights

1 Rape

1 Spoiled Brat

1 Magical Allergic Reaction

Several Signed Contracts

1 Surprisingly Fashionable Cicatrix

1 Secret Baby

2 Tasty Walruses

1 Liveship Makeover

The Word: So here we are. The end of a truly fantastic trilogy, where all the pieces finally come together. You already know this is going to be a gushing fangirl review, so a lot of this is going to be more of a commentary.

The final book, Ship of Destiny, bases a lot of its narrative on politics - international politics, sexual politics, revolutionary politics.

In the last book, Mad Ship, some Traders discovered an international plot to murder the ruling Satrap during his visit to Bingtown, in order to blame Bingtown and give its sovereign nation Jamaillia and its skeezy ally Chalced an excuse to subjugate and plunder the trading city. While the Satrap was successfully spirited away, riots, looting and destruction destroyed Bingtown and crippled its power structure.

In this novel, we learn just how depleted the Vestrit fortunes are thanks to this predicament. While Keffria and her children fled into the Rain Wilds, Ronica - the family matriarch - remained in Bingtown as her house was looted, her possessions destroyed, and her family branded as traitors responsible for the death of the Satrap. Despite losing everything of material value, Ronica is a tough old broad, who quickly determines that if Bingtown wants to gain independence from Jamaillia and defend itself against Chalcedean attack, its peoples will have to unite - and that means all of its peoples.

Here is where all the great worldbuilding from the previous two books really takes off. Everything about how Bingtown used to be was based on tradition and status - the Vestrits, the Teniras, the Trells, and others took great pride in the political importance that came with being a Trader or a member of a Trader family, as opposed to being a vulgar New Trader, an immigrant, or a slave. Ronica ruffles more than a few feathers in this novel when she starts suggesting that if Bingtown wants to reign independently, all of its citizens will require an equal voice, not just the Trader ones.

Meanwhile, Malta learns the power of diplomacy firsthand when she rescues the overindulged teenage Satrap Cosgo and his bimbo Companion Kekki from an earthquake, only for all of them to be captured by evil Chalcedeans. Despite the fact that Cosgo is an unbearably spoiled and useless girly-man, Malta soon realizes that the only way to keep him, and therefore herself, alive, is to learn and navigate the political currents surrounding his capture. By this point it's (almost) hard to remember that, only a book or two ago, Malta was just as much of a brat as Cosgo.

And while this is going on, Althea and Brashen, who refitted the unstable liveship Paragon to use him to track down the captured liveship Vivacia, prove that even an island as small as a single ship has a chain of authority and command that can't be messed with. Brashen and Althea's growing attraction comes up against the complication that Brashen is the captain, Althea is only the second mate, and Lavoy, Brashen's first mate, might not be the most trustworthy knife in the drawer.

The difficulty that comes with writing this review is the fact that this only scratches the very surface of what happens in this novel. I haven't even mentioned the dragon Tintaglia's determination to revive her race, or how the liveship Vivacia changes once she discovers she's built from a dragon's stolen memories, or the secret horrific past between Kennit and Paragon. There's so much going on in this book, all of it important. In fact, this book, more than the others, makes some pretty dark, controversial, albeit intensely thought-provoking turns in its later chapters.

I've described the first two books for you, so you should already know that this series is Made of Awesome and that you should Go To Your Nearest Library or Bookstore and Read These Books RIGHT NOW, so maybe a more detailed synopsis here isn't really necessary.

However, is this novel just as gripping as the first two? Not quite. Pacing-wise, it does start to sag a bit in the middle, but after two unflagging novels I'm not going to begrudge a few slow bits here especially when the ending is so powerful and satisfying.

No, now that I've gone over the general review, I'd like to write a bit of a commentary.

I love Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy and her Tawny Man Trilogy. However, while each trilogy has strong and memorable female characters, they're both kind of sausagefests, narratively and thematically speaking. There's nothing wrong with that - especially since the protagonist of both series, Fitzchivalry Farseer, is one of my Favourite Fictional Characters of all time. I'm not kidding - he's up there with Anne Shirley and Jane Eyre.

The Second Son Trilogy is also a total man-party, but I can't group it together with the others because, um ... it sucks.

But the Liveship Trader Trilogy has a strong and pervasive feminine element that differentiates it from those other trilogies. Now, there are some pretty attention-consuming male characters - like the exquisitely written antihero Kennit, instigator of a Thousand Debates on the Nature of Good and Evil, Action and Intention. But throughout its three novels, the Liveship Trader Trilogy devotes a lot of time to the exploration of women.

And such a wide spectrum of women. We have the Traditional Fantasy Hoyden (or at least, we think we do) in the character of Althea. We have the elderly matriarch in Ronica. Keffria begins the series as a meek housewife content to live beneath the thumb of her dominating husband but ends the series as someone very different. With Malta we experience the pangs of both adolescence and destiny. With Etta, we have a whore who is immeasurably transformed and improved by her love for Kennit (whether it is reciprocated or not). We have Serilla, a Companion viciously raped at the Satrap's behest whose power-struggles are rooted in fear, and who must learn to overcome it in order to discover how much power she truly has. Vivacia and Tintagla explore femininity without the burden of humanity.

I mean, now that I list them all - look at them all. Women of all ages and walks of life, all of them integral to the story, all of them sympathetic and with their own strengths and weaknesses. But it's not only the characters. The worldbuilding is steeped in the question of how women should be treated. At one point, Ronica describes how the first generation of Traders in Bingtown required full female participation in all points, political and economical - a contrast to how Traders now see sheltering their daughters and denying them a practical education as a symbol of wealth and status.

Similarly, through Althea's point of view the novel explores the tenuous status of women on ships. Without her father's protection, she has to fight for every scrap of authority and respect on almost every vessel she sails on, and she can't rely on her fists the way her male counterparts do. The notion of liveships also explores the tradition of calling ships "she" - what's it like for an almost all-male crew to work a ship that is literally female, open to flirtation and seduction? Kennit, in particular, works this angle in Mad Ship by exploiting the jealousy between his human lover, Etta, and his liveship Vivacia.

It's also not an accident that when we learn about the series' Major Bad Guys - the nation of Chalced - the most prominently demonstrated aspect of their culture is their subjugation of women. The saying in their country is, "A woman without a man is no man's woman - and every man's woman." Meaning if you don't have a strong enough husband, father, or brother - you're rapebait. Every encounter our female characters have with the Chalcedeans demonstrates their hatred and fear of women, so let's just say it's Extra-Happy-Special when the Chalcedeans get their asses hand to them (or, if Tintaglia's fighting them, melted off).

I haven't read a whole lot of epic or high fantasy (i.e. fantasy that takes place in a pseudo-historical time period) that explores women as well as this series does, so this trilogy has a really special place in my heart. It's a delight and a relief that, even though books like C.L. Wilson's "romantic" Tairen Soul series can get away with female characters who are nearly all submissive victims or easily manipulated shrews, books like Ship of Magic, Mad Ship, and Ship of Destiny are still out there, waiting to be read.
A+

Saturday, September 11, 2010

ANTHOLOGY REVIEW: "Hot Spell"

Colour me surprised, disappointed, and a little disgusted: I originally got this book for one reason: to read Meljean Brook's "Falling for Anthony," a prequel of sorts to Demon Angel only with more Colin. And I thought, "Hey, I haven't read any of these other authors. This could be a good paranormal romance anthology."

Except it wasn't paranormal romance. It turned out to be paranormal erotic romance, something from which I've usually keep my distance, and for good reason. I, personally, do not like erotic romance, for the same reason I don't like reading horror. That's not the type of experience I'm looking for when I read, so if it works, I'm uncomfortable, and if it doesn't, I'm bored. So it's usually lose-lose for me. Each of these stories came packed with extremely graphic sex scenes that, with a few exceptions, were boring and pointless, gross and pointless, or both - and (for the most part) love comes in at the very end, almost like a tacked-on afterthought.

In fact, all four stories share these same traits:
  • The hero is a paranormal creature
  • The heroine is a human
  • The heroine is a virgin
  • More often than not, the heroine has to be rescued. Repeatedly.

I wish there had been a little more warning in the cover or the cover blurb. Yes, it says it the novellas are "scorching" - but a lot of romance blurbs use that language even if the love scenes are vague. I can tell you honestly that if I'd known this was an erotic anthology I would have picked it up from the library, only read Meljean Brook's story, and given it back. I'm officially sick to death of reading about "convulsing tissues," "diamond hard nipples," the exact number of veins on a paranormal dude's penis, and various unpleasant vagina terms brought to us today by the letters P and C. But since I pushed and skimmed my way through it, I might as well review it, eh?

"The Countess's Pleasure," by Emma Holly
The Chick:
Georgiana DuBarry, Countess of Ware. Exploring the exotic city of Bhamjran, she wants to experience something she's never had - sex.
The Rub: A gorgeous indentured demon could be just the thing, but what if she feels more for him?
Dream Casting: Kate Winslet.

The Dude: Iyan Efebre. A Yama, or demon, he performs sexy dances to pay off a debt. When a foreigner offers him an enormous sum for a night of pleasure - well hey, two birds, one stone!
The Rub: Normally emotionless, he grows to care for Georgiana more than he'd expected.
Dream Casting: Aidan Turner.

The Plot:

Georgiana: I need sex, but I don't know where to get it.

Iyan: *sexy dance*

Georgiana: Are you open for business?

Georgiana and Iyan: *SexyTimes*

Iyan: That was nice. We should get married.

Georgiana: Oh good. BTW, I found out a way to get you out of your debt. Pretty easily, in fact.

Iyan: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Virgin Widow

1 Sex Demon

1 Bowl Job (Yes, I spelled that correctly!)

1 Conveniently-Solved Kidnapping

The Word: Honestly, this is one of the better stories in the anthology, thanks in large part to the gorgeous world building and writing. In a fantasy world that mirrors the Victorian-ruled India, our prim and proper widow heroine is exploring a foreign land in search of pleasure - and discretion. Her deceased husband was impotent, as it turns out, and while she's determined to experience what she missed, she also wants to keep her husband's secret.

She finds what she's looking for when she witnesses a performance of a Yama, or demon, who puts on an erotic show for hordes of worshipful female audiences. Her heart in her throat, she propositions him afterward.

The Yama, a lower-class demon named Iyan, isn't a whore. He has to perform in order to work off a debt incurred when a high-class Yama's daughter vanished while under his mother's care. However, he's attracted to Georgiana, and the money could put a huge dent in his debt, so he accepts. Over the course of two days, they discover they have a lovely rapport.

Holly does a wonderful job explaining the existence of Yama in the human world that's actually quite interesting and doesn't rely on infodumps. It was intriguing to experience things from Iyan's perspective - the Yama are normally very reserved, like Vulcans, only sexier. They can also feed off of human emotion, especially during sex.

So with good worldbuilding, writing, and description, what's missing? Um - a legitimate conflict. Everything goes pretty smoothly for Georgiana and Iyan, and there isn't really anything keeping them apart except for a debt that is quickly, almost off-handedly, solved. To be fair, in this story the sex scenes aren't totally bad, because they are a part of the plot, but the plot itself was boring. Worse, I couldn't see how the love suddenly cropped up. The characters only know each other for a handful of days and don't interact much beyond sex, so I never bought the romantic aspect. B-.

"The Breed Next Door," by Lora Leigh
The Chick: Lyra Mason. Her next door neighbour is just so annoying!
The Rub: Her next door neighbour is also just so sexy! What's a feisty, independent virgin to do?
Dream Casting: Ginnifer Goodwin.

The Dude: Tarek Jordan. When he catches an assailant trying to break into Lyra's house, he suspects it's a villain who's out to get him.
The Rub: Protecting Lyra is like trying to speak reasonably to a three-year-old. A sexy three-year old.
Dream Casting: A younger Gerard Butler.

The Plot:

Tarek: I'm a secret killer with lion genes who knows how to protect you.

Lyra: NO! I am a STRONG, INDEPENDENT WOMAN. I don't need to listen to no MAN.

Tarek: No, seriously, someone is trying to kill you --

Lyra: I'm losing Strong Independent Woman Points even listening to a MAN.

Tarek: Hey, if you shut up I'll show you the barb on my penis.

Lyra: The who on the what now?

Tarek: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

3 Overprotective Brothers

1 Weeping Vagina

1 Surprise! Penis Barb

1 SoulMate Romance

The Word: "The Breed Next Door" is easily the worst story in the whole collection. Nonsensical story, nonsensical world building, little to no plot, gross and purply-described unnecessary sex scenes, and an idiot heroine.

Our hero, Tarek, is a Breed - a human-lion hybrid who was created and trained to kill by an eeeeeevil Genetics Council. Human governments eventually freed the Breeds and scattered the Council into exile and Tarek's secret mission is to hunt and assassinate those few Trainers (Council stooges) who still exist and perpetrate eeeeevil in hiding.

While doing so, he lives undercover in the suburbs and mutilates his pretty neighbour Lyra's rosebushes for no reason and lusts after her homemade bread and coffee. That is, until he prevents a creepy military-trained assassin from breaking into her house. He suspects the Trainer he's currently tracking has marked Lyra for death. For some reason.

That reason, ladies and gentlemen, is never explained. The plot is a paper-thin excuse to get the hero and heroine together, despite the heroine's valiant attempts to drive the hero away by acting as irrationally as possible. Yes, dear readers, she's one of those heroines, who has to have things Her Way, because "she can take care of herself," despite making idiot decisions like leaving her house unaccompanied in her nightgown right after her home was broken into by an assailant who got away. Honey, refusing to take an expert's advice isn't "strong and independent" - it's ignorant and childish.

Even worse are were the horrendous, pornographic, gratuitous and astoundingly disturbing sex scenes. Not only do we get copious descriptions of the heroine's "weeping vagina" - which in the real world would either be the result of a very nasty yeast infection or the name of a little-known southern swamp flower - but the hero is surprised to discover that his lion-hood is more anatomically-correct than he thought. He discovers his penis is actually barbed, so that it hooks him and the heroine in place like a Chinese fingertrap during sex. That's just - no. No no no. Never again. Pardon me while I go and gouge out my mental eyes with a fork.

Now, all of this is terrible, but what really gets me is the patently ridiculous worldbuilding of the Breeds. I was a sci-fi and fantasy reader before I was a romance reader, and my biggest pet peeves in paranormal romance are fantastical or sci-fi elements that make no sense except to further the romance.

Such happens here, when Tarek's tongue starts tasting like red hots and his buddy tells him it's releasing a spicy aphrodisiac because he's found his mate for life, and that kissing her will make them eternally, endlessly horny for each other until the end of time.

Are. YOU. KIDDING ME?! Lora Leigh manages to squeeze a Soul Mate romance where none should exist?

You're telling me that when "the spice flows," one kiss and Lyra's gonna wanna ride his sandworm for life? This goes completely against everything Leigh's established about Breeds. Breeds were created by the eeeeeevil Council solely to work as soldiers and assassins. They were specifically raised in a sterile, scientific, unloving environment. They were bred artificially. And you're somehow telling me that these eeeeeeevil brilliant geneticists who designed every aspect of the Breeds decided to intentionally design them to release Happy Sex Drugs when they met The One? There's so much narratively wrong with this, I have to start a list:
  1. HOW could these eeeeeevil scientists program the physical body to recognize The One based on emotional and spiritual cues to release Happy Sex Drugs when such a phenomenon doesn't exist anywhere in nature, and certainly not with lions?
  2. WHAT purpose does making your Eeeeeeevil Genetically Altered Killers produce Happy Sex Drugs accomplish? If anything, it would weaken the stability of your Eeeeeevil Genetically Altered Killers if they were always distracted by thoughts of spicy cinnamon-flavoured sex with their mates.
  3. WHY would Eeeeeevil Scientists who only want to create murderous tools program them to mate and be eternally horny for life? You only want tools, and it's clearly established at the start of the story that the Council's breeding is wholly artificial. As previously stated, it's not like something like this could occur by accident, since spicy-sex-tongues don't just happen in nature.
If the Breeds were a magical, paranormal creation, I could have bought the Soul Mate crap. But when you make it a science-fictional concept involving genetic engineering, the Soul Mate thing is impossible and makes NO SENSE. It's also clear that, at least in this story, it's a paltry plot device meant to explain how the characters manage to fall in love despite a lack of chemistry or romantic build up. D

"Falling for Anthony," by Meljean Brook
The Chick: Emily Ames-Beaumont. After her selfish, bitter actions drove most of her family away, she's determined to cure her mysteriously-ailing brother Colin, one of the last family members she has left - even as it looks like he's turning into a vampire.
The Rub: Help arrives, incredibly awkwardly, in the form of Anthony - the man she insulted and lost her virginity with, who supposedly died eight months before.Dream Casting: Rosamund Pike.

The Dude: Anthony Ramsdell. When he's killed on the battlefield by a nosferatu, he gets a chance to become an immortal Guardian and protect humankind, so long as he gives up everything about his human life.
The Rub: Thanks to that same nosferatu, he's able to see and protect Emily once again, but eventually he'll have to give her up and continue to be Guardian - right?Dream Casting: Cillian Murphy.

The Plot:
Anthony: I have a crush on Emily!

Emily: I have self-destructive Daddy Issues!

Anthony and Emily: *unpleasant SexyTimes*

Anthony: *dies in war*

Emily: Crap. Now I have guilt.

Anthony: 'S'okay! I was Guardianized!

Emily: Want to help me vanquish evil with a giant angelic sword?

Anthony: Hell yeah! And look - a Guardian loophole! *de-Guardianized*

Emily: HOORAY!
Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Set of Daddy Issues

3 Hot Winged Dudes

1 Unpleasant Deflowering

The Word: Just when I thought all hope was lost for this being even a remotely entertaining anthology, Meljean Brook's story comes along. Hooray! Yes, while it has the same basic story elements as the previous (graphic sex, virgin heroine, paranormal hero), it actually uses them as part of the story in an entertaining and original way.

It's 1811 England, and Anthony, the lower-class friend of the aristocratic Ames-Beaumont siblings Colin and Emily, walks in on Emily having a Very Bad Day. Thanks to some heavy Daddy Issues, Emily decides to shame her father by losing her virginity to Anthony, and won't take no for an answer. It's an extremely unpleasant and sorrowful scene, since Anthony has had a tendre for Emily for years and Emily's too full of bitterness and self-absorption to give a damn about his feelings.

Anthony promises to himself to offer for Emily to repair her reputation once he gets back from serving as a physician on the Peninsula, but he doesn't get that chance - he's attacked by a nosferatu (a bald, hairless sort of vampire), although he doesn't die. Instead, he's rescued by Michael, leader of the Guardians. The Guardians are a group of former humans gifted with immortality and angelic powers in order to protect humanity, and Michael transforms Anthony into a Guardian to help them with their work.

Cut to eight months later. Emily is a far different, more mature, and yet sadder woman, now. Her attempts to get back at Daddy by taking lovers and prostitutes (!) were rendered pointless when her father, older brother and sister-in-law were killed in a tragic housefire, leaving her the guardian of her young nephew. Even worse, her twin brother Colin now suffers from a strange illness that requires him to be chained to the bedpost at night to keep him from attacking people and draining their blood. Now that her family's been reduced to two (and one of those two is dying), Emily bitterly regrets her thoughtless revenge schemes, particularly her callous treatment of Anthony.

Anthony, meanwhile, is still a Trainee Guardian when Michael summons him and his mentor, Hugh (from Demon Angel!), to inform Anthony that he's to be put on the field early. It seems that the same nosferatu who attacked him, discovered that his friends the Ames-Beaumonts are in possession of an antique sword that is actually an angelic weapon capable of killing demons, angels, and nosferatu alike. The creep is willing to go to any lengths to obtain it, so Anthony's job is to both protect Emily and Colin, and retrieve the sword before it falls into the wrong hands.

Good storytelling saves the day! I really enjoyed learning more about Colin and the Guardians, although I suspect people who've read Demon Angel first might understand "Falling for Anthony" more than those who are Brook first-timers. Brook really knows how to pace and time the revelations of information. Emily's irrational and almost cruel actions at the start of the novel grow more and more understandable as more about her past is revealed, making the emotional payoff that much more rewarding. And, despite Anthony being a Guardian, he's still the lone Beta hero in this anthology, and it's very sweet to watch his gentle wooing of Emily.

What I didn't like? Well, sometimes the plot trips itself up a couple of times - in certain parts, we learn about things secondhand when we should have been shown them. Also, yeah, near the end of the story the sex scenes don't really have to be there and in that much detail. Otherwise, though, "Falling for Anthony" is a breath of fresh air. B+

"The Blood Kiss," by Shiloh Walker
The Chick:
Julianna Capiet. As the trueblood human daughter of a vampire, the only future she has to look forward to is as a broodmare for her father's bloodline.
The Rub: Helping the werewolf king Roman is a good way to get back at her dad, but the dude also wants to kidnap her. What's up with that?
Dream Casting: Liv Tyler.

The Dude: Roman Montgomery. As the wolfking, it's his job to rescue his hotheaded younger brother from the evil vampire king's clutches - but hey, he's still got plenty of time to shag a hot lady now and then.
The Rub: But what if said hot lady is the daughter of the vampire king? Awkward.
Dream Casting: Simon Baker.

The Plot:

Roman: Grrrr! I hate vamps! Let's go piss off some vamps! Gosh you're pretty.

Julianna: I'm the daughter of a vamp.

Roman: D'oh. I love vamps! Let's kidnap a vamp!

Julianna: Oh, for the love of --

Julianna's Evil Dad: First one to nail my daughter gets first dibs!

Roman: I have a solution!

Roman and Julianna: *SexyTimes*

Julianna: How dare you have sex with me to protect me instead of holding true to an unrealistic and irrational romantic ideal! I guess I have to be mad at you now because it's almost the end of the story!

Roman: Oh, for the love of --

Julianna: Okay, snit fit done. Let's get married!

Roman: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Alpha Male

1 Jackass Sibling

1 Very Bad Parent

1 Sexual Equivalent of Calling Shotgun

The Word: Hope you got a deep ol' whiff of fresh air back with Meljean Brook's story, because it's back to staleness with Shiloh Walker's, which is a shame, because she's great in person and I was looking forward to reading her stuff.

Unlike "The Breed Next Door," there's nothing heinously wrong with the worldbuilding. It's just bland. Big Giant Wolfclan doesn't like the Big Giant Vampire Group. Boo hoo. Roman, who's the current Wolfking of the Big Giant Wolfclan, is pissed because the Big Giant Vampire Group, the Capiets, has arrested his teenage brother for the crime of farting around on bloodsucker territory and they plan to hold him in prison for a couple of decades.

Roman's thirst for asskicking is briefly interrupted when he sees a pretty young woman on the street, and this comes back to haunt him when he crashes the leader of the Big Giant Vampire Group's party and discovers the pretty young thing who made his little wolf stand up and howl is none other than the Big Giant Vampire Leader's human daughter, Julianna.

Julianna's not a big fan of her Dear Ol' Dad, however, since he's mainly concerned with his plans to use her to push out as many vampire babies as possible, so when Roman turns up she helps him rescue his brother without a lot of fuss. In return, he kidnaps her in order to get back at the vamps.

Again, nothing heinously wrong, but there's not a whole lot there that's original, except for sex scenes that happen way too fast, a hero who's a shade too domineering to be very attractive, love that (AGAIN) occurs instantaneously and for no reason, and a heroine who throws a selfish personal snitfit for no reason while people outside are being killed.

Also - let's go over the names again. Roman. Julianna. The Montgomeries. The Capiets. Have you got it yet? Yup. Hey, if Shakespeare's turning in his grave you can just stake him. Frankly, I preferred that story the first time in Underworld - when all the vampires wore leather, Bill Nighy was a badass, Michael Sheen had an epic beard and Kate Beckinsale saved adorable Scott Speedman's ass.
C+
So what did I get out of this anthology? Not a lot other than an intolerance for Pointless Sex Scenes and too much information on how Lions Do It. There was only one story where I ultimately bought the romance as being True Love, rather than just lust, and that was Meljean Brook's. The other stories were just the type of romances I hate - where it's screw and screw and screw and somehow love pops up. I'm actually angry at this point - 3/4 of it were a complete and utter waste of my time. And to be honest, the anger at discovering a book was not what it was advertised contributed to the grade.

Meljean Brook's story: B+

The Anthology as a Whole: C-

Monday, September 06, 2010

"Lord of Fire," by Gaelen Foley

The Chick: Alice Montague. When her sister-in-law abandons her sick child to attend a scandalous party, Alice is determined to drag her back to her maternal responsibilities - even if it means taking her from the jaws of the devil himself, Lucien Knight.
The Rub: Her plans go awry when Lucien allows her slutty sister-in-law to leave - but only if Alice stays with him.
Dream Casting: Bryce Dallas Howard.

The Dude: Lord Lucien Knight. After years of dangerous spywork for the Crown, he realizes love is only a pipe dream - but when, miracle of miracles, he finds the One, he can't just let her escape. Even if keeping her is not quite exactly legal.
The Rub: Even as he tries to win her over, he knows he has to keep his spywork a secret - even as an old enemy threatens to destroy all he holds dear.
Dream Casting: Rufus Sewell.

The Plot:

Lucien: Wow! Fake pagan cults and orgies are a great way to find spies!

Alice: Where is my sister in law?! What is this place?

Lucien: ... and a terrible way to pick up chicks. I guess kidnapping is the only option.

Alice: WTF. WHY?

Lucien: Because I'm so lonely. *sad puppy eyes*

Alice: Oh, okay then. Let's get married!

Lucien: No! First I must defeat my mortal enemy who's planning something heinous for London!

Alice: How DARE you choose to defeat a villain who's planning on murdering innocent women and children over me? I'm OUT!

Lucien: Um, I'm an alpha male with money, a dark past, and a sixpack. I'm not that worried.

Alice: Curses! You saw through my bluff! Okay, let's get back together.

Evil Villain: Not if I kill you first!

Lucien: *impales* I think not.

Alice: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Tortured Hero with a Dark Past (and Asthma)

1 Jerkface Twin Brother

1 Precocious Child

1 Big Fat Ho

Several Cave Orgies

1 Fake Pagan Cult

1 Evil Frenchman

The Word: This was an incredibly difficult book for me to grade, for if I had to describe it in one word, it would be rollercoaster. It's hard to believe that some scenes and aspects of this book were so awesomely, deliciously good - while others were so stupidly, wallbangingly bad.

The second novel in a series concerning a group of aristocratic half-siblings who are all of different fathers because their mother was a Free-Spirited Ho (the first of which, The Duke, I adored), our hero is Lucien Knight, legally the son of the deceased Duke of Hawkescliffe, biologically the son of the Marquess of Carnarthen, and identical twin brother to Damien Knight, a celebrated war hero.

However, Damien looks down on Lucien because he chose to drop out of the army to become a spy, a line of work considered dishonourable and degrading to proper military gentlemen. Despite being hurt deeply by his twin's snubs, Lucien still tries to help his bro out by seducing Damien's girlfriends, thereby "testing" their virtue.

When the woman Damien had planned on proposing marriage to, a Big Fat Ho named Caro, "fails" this test repeatedly with Lucien (and plans to fail even more), Damien finally gives Lucien his "Fuck Off" notice. Lucien is devastated, but he has fake pagan cult masses to prepare and orgies to throw, and now that Caro's FaceBook status has gone from "In A Relationship" to "Ass Got Dumped," he sends her an invite. Just because he engineered her downfall doesn't mean he can't get a little sumthin'-sumthin'.

Before you get any ideas, the fake pagan orgy sex cult parties he throws in his personal underground cave are all just a front to squeeze information (among other things) from pervy spies and visiting dignitaries. Yes. That's all it's for. I swear.

Meanwhile, back at Slutty Caro's estate, her sister-in-law Alice is worried and furious since Caro's three-year-old son Harry is ill and his mother is nowhere to be found. Alice practically raised Harry, since Caro was always too busy putting the ILF in MILF to remember what the M actually stands for. When Alice discovers that Caro's partying at the notorious Lord Lucien Knight's house, she decides enough is enough and drives off in a coach to find Caro and drag her by her hair to her son's sickbed.

Because Alice is Stubborn and Nosy, she finagles her way past Lucien's armed guards and sneaks down to his cave where he's throwing his Fake Pagan Orgy Sex Cult Party. She fails to locate Caro but succeeds in catching Lucien's attention. In an admittedly sweet and beautifully-written scene, Lucien falls for her at once, then realizes she's not on the guest list and suspects her of being an assassin and proceeds to search her for weapons, then discovers she's on the level and is back in love with her again.

But now Lucien's in a bind. Alice is The One for Him, but being caught fondling ladies at a Fake Pagan Orgy Sex Cult Party and nearly subjecting her to a cavity search have pretty much blown any chance he has at making a good first impression. There's really only one reasonable solution - hold Alice at his isolated country estate against her will, for her own good. Brilliant.

I mean, by reading this review, the "Bad" in this story is obvious:
  • Silly hero names with obvious Satanic connotation (Damien and Lucien - aka Demon and Lucifer)? Check!
  • Heroine who's adored by the hero mainly for her "innocence"? Check!
  • Redonkulous kidnapping storyline? Check!
But - but - but Lucien is so adorable! Yes, the story is balls-out insane, but the writing is lovely, with lines like "He wanted to be held like the last man on earth"... Yum. Gaelen Foley does a masterful job depicting Lucien's painful loneliness, his isolation from polite society and his soul-killing separation from his brother, Damien. After years of doing Britain's dirty work and getting nothing but bad press in return, he wants someone truly virtuous and clean and untainted, and that's Alice. From the very start, they share a great chemistry, and it's beautiful watching Alice slowly thaw towards Lucien once she's forced to look beyond the dark guise he has to put up in order to keep Britain free of foreign menaces.

And Alice (at least until the last quarter of the book) manages to keep herself free of the Cloying Innocent stereotype. Hell, even Caro the Ho gets some depth, revealing a deep-seated albeit repressed shame for her Ho-ness that expresses itself in jealousy of Alice's purity.

However, even as all this good romantic development occurs, the shortbus-worthy story keeps butting in. Even as Alice falls in love with Lucien, I kept thinking, "Wait - he never explained the orgies." Lucien never reveals anything about his spywork to Alice until much later, in order to protect her, so, in theory, Alice falls in love with Lucien while still believing he's the High Priest of a Fake Pagan Orgy Sex Cult.

I mean, she thinks, "Oh, this poor tortured soul - he likes poetry and long walks in the forest" and yet never, not once, thinks, "Um, seriously dude, what's up with those orgies? I mean, a couple of Pier 1 throwrugs and a vase or two could really class up that private cave of yours." By the end of her stay at Lucien's estate, she starts referring to his parties as if they're mild annoyances that involve drinking too much beer with a bunch of football buddies, instead of pretending to be the avatar of a sex god while hundreds of people knock boots at the same time.

Which reminds me - who's responsible for cleaning that cave? Ick!

And she's actually mollified when he promises to have no more Fake Pagan Orgy Sex Cult Parties - after this last one. Really, Alice? You'd be okay with your husband-to-be throwing one more Fake Pagan Orgy Sex Cult Party where naked women throw themselves at him, provided it's just this once?

And then we have the last quarter of the novel, where the romantic conflict and the narrative conflict combine into a truly wallbanging couple of chapters. Lucien discovers an old nemesis of his who tortured him for five weeks is actually alive and planning to wreak havoc in London, and he's determined to stop the bastard and make him pay. Alice, who by this point knows Lucien is a spy, nevertheless throws a self-righteous snitfit and gives a condescendingly naive lecture about the Wrongness of Revenge. When Lucien refuses to call off his search of the villain, she leaves him - and proceeds to tell everyone who will listen that he used her and abandoned her.

Um, what? You left him, after he decided saving the lives of innocent civilians was more important than making sure you got to Gretna Green on time. Seriously, if your man is a nation-saving superspy, you want him to care about his work. You can't go to Gretna Green if it's a smoking hole in the ground.

But even that badness doesn't last - no, then super-awesome-adorable Lucien gives one of the most beautifully written, empathetic "I am a worthless nothing and you are the only light in my pit of despair" speeches ever and completely wins me (and Alice!) back over.

So what am I supposed to do? On the one hand, it's beautifully written and our hero is a dark chocolate bad ass. On the other, the story is crazier than a box of frogs and the heroine is a bit on the "it's all about me" side.

I guess if you're wondering about whether to read this or not, consider what you like best about romances. If you're more character oriented and like beautiful writing, you'll like Lord of Fire. If you need a coherent story that makes even a basic amount of sense, you may want to set this novel on fire. The choice is yours.
B-

"Under Fire," by Jo Davis

The Chick: Corinne "Cori" Shannon. An exotic dancer working her way through nursing school, she's wary of men, that is, until a sexy firefighter saves her life and steals her heart in the bargain.
The Rub: Despite their growing relationship, it's clear he's hiding something from her - plus, it looks like a creeper is out to make sure she dances her last lap dance.
Dream Casting: Yvonne Strahovski.

The Dude: Zack Knight. Unbeknownst to his firefighter buddies, beneath his glorious six-pack lies a desperate man who's up to his neck in debt to a ruthless casino owner. Lovely stripper Cori seems to be the only light at the end of his tunnel --
The Rub: -- until his learns she came into town to escape her controlling brother. Her controlling casino owner brother.
Dream Casting: Jake Gyllenhaal.

The Plot:

Cori: Hey! You crashed into my car! You're a dick!

Zack: Sorry...

Cori: Hey! You saved my life when that same car nearly went over a bridge! You're awesome!

Zack: No, you're awesome.

Cori:, No, YOU'RE awesome.

Zack: We are BOTH AWESOME. And I'm a virgin.

Cori: EVEN MORE AWESOME.

Crazed Stalker: Hey, mind if I repeatedly try to murder you both?

Zack: Not awesome. *defeats Crazed Stalker* Crap, guess it's time for some angst.

Cori: You're too awesome for angst.

Zack: You're right. Let's get married!

Cori: AWESOME. HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Virgin Hero

1 Stripper Heroine

1 Crazed Stalker

2 Car Accidents

1 Deceased Abusive Ex-Husband

1 "Don't Worry I'm On the Pill" No-Condom Excuse

1 Almost-Deceased Abusive Dad

Several Uses of Hero as Human Punching Bag

1 Asstastic Drunken Boss Destined for the Final Book in the Series

The Word: How the HELL did this book end up less than awesome? I mean REALLY. I went into this book with ridiculously high expectations, thanks to the following:
  1. I attended Jo Davis' synopsis workshop at RWA 2010, where she was both helpful and fabulous
  2. At the same workshop, we read the synopsis of this very book, and it sounded terrific
  3. It's about a firefighter who falls in love with a stripper
  4. And did I mention the sexy firefighter is both a bookworm nerd AND a virgin?
It was like a guaranteed recipe for a tasty romance souffle - unfortunately, perhaps my expectations stomped in a little too heavily and made it collapse, because when I took this book out at my library and read it, I was less than impressed.

Firefighter Zack Knight's life goes from bad to Hella Bad when he dozes off at the wheel and rear-ends a gorgeous woman's car. He sure as hell can't afford a higher insurance premium. Although he's hidden it from all but one of his team mates, he's already sold his house, emptied his savings, and worked himself sick trying to pay off his father's enormous gambling debt to a cruel casino owner. Despite running himself ragged, he's barely made a dent and the owner's threatened to hurt his father, who's been incapacitated in a nursing home since having a stroke.

However, despite his life suckage, when the station gets a call about a car accident on a bridge, he puts on his gear and heads out with the rest of his teammates. To his surprise, it's the same car he rear-ended, only with one major difference: someone put a bullet hole in the woman's tire. While he manages to get the woman, Cori Shannon, to safety, the car tumbles into the river with him in it and he only barely survives.

Cori knows a lot about nursing school and stripping - especially since the latter helps pay for the former. She only knows one thing about Zack Knight: that he risked his life to save hers. Still, that's enough to rouse her curiosity about a man who seems different from every other man she's ever met - particularly her abusive late husband. She visits him regularly at the hospital, and after he's released, allows him to bunk with her when he discovers he's been evicted from his shithole apartment.

Cori and Zack take to each other with incredible speed. However, a few things stand in the way - one of them being the deranged and incredibly obvious villain who wants Cori and everyone she cares about out of the picture.

So why didn't I like this book? Well, by the end of the novel, the main impression I took away from the characterization was that it was shallow. We are told a great deal about the protagonists, and while that sounds interesting in the context of a synopsis, when I read the book expecting to be shown the elements of such characterization, I was disappointed.

We are told that Zack is a nerdy bookworm hero, who wears glasses and struggles against a fat-kid past with an unloving father. But nothing in Zack's actual behaviour seems to indicate this. We aren't shown how his fat-nerd past impacts his present. Is he super careful about what he eats? No. Do we see any scenes of him reading or talking about books? No. Is he awkward or tongue-tied around Cori? Not especially. I think he mentions Greek philosophy once in a phone conversation and that's about it.

No, what we are shown is that he is Male Perfection Personified - he's sweet, he's caring, he's honest, he says all the right things, etc. etc., which in my book, translates to Dull. The only really interesting thing about his character is that he spends nearly every chapter getting the physical or emotional shit kicked out of him at least once. He gets pneumonia, he nearly drowns, he learns his has two weeks to pay his debt or else, he gets bashed over the head and gassed, he learns Cori's new house is the one he was forced to sell after building it from the ground up... He's just a nice dude reacting to a Series of Unfortunate Events, instead of a fully-fleshed out character. There's a wee bit of 11th-hour angst where he fears that wanting to go all Batman on bad people makes him a bad person, but it's weakly developed and easily vanquished.

Ditto for Cori. We are told that she is stripping her way through nursing school and that her late husband was monstrously abusive - but do we get any details? Does this impact how she behaves around strange men? Does this influence how she reacts to danger? Are we shown the damage this might have done to her confidence or sense of self-worth? No to all of the above. That's what I mean by shallow characterization, where what we are told about the characters is more interesting than what we are shown by the characters.

Oh, and one more thing about showing and telling, I nearly threw this book against the wall when the heroine - who is four months away from being a registered nurse - tells the virginal Zack he can ride bareback because she's been tested and is on the pill. AND *spoilers ahoy* when she winds up pregnant, she says (quoted verbatim): "Whoopsy-daisy, the pill isn't always one-hundred percent effective." OH REALLY?! Who would have thought? I mean, it's not like there are BOOKS in your CURRICULUM that could POSSIBLY have explained that to you. *here endeth the spoilers*.

Ultimately, the book I was hoping to read wasn't there. The romantic conflict is almost entirely external since Zack and Cori pretty much adore each other unconditionally from day one. The villain is obvious from the very start, so I'm not sure where the "suspense" part of the novel was supposed to come in. As a result, neither the romantic nor the external conflicts provide much heat. Under Fire under-performs.
C+