Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Book Review: Twice a Hero

Back when I was complaining about how much I hated Seize the Night, it was suggested to me that I read some Susan Krinard before I totally write off paranormal romances as utter twaddle. I took this recommendation with a small grain of salt, as it was coming from Susan Krinard's own husband, and I know that husbands often think that their wives are great writers (mine still maintains that the short novel I wrote at age 14 is awesome, whereas I know that it is garbage). Nonetheless, I felt that I should give Susan a fair chance, so I looked for her at the used bookstore* and found that they did not have Kinsman's Oath, which was recommended to me, but they did have a bunch of her books. I chose Twice a Hero, because it had time travel, and most of the others were about werewolves. Now, I don't hate werewolves the way I hate vampires, but I do love a good time travel story, so it was an easy decision.

The good news is that Twice a Hero avoids a lot of the problems that I've had with previous romance novels. I didn't feel like the author was ramming home to me that the leading man was "ohmygawd, the sexiest thing on the face of the planet." The description of his handsomeness was succinct and relatively objective, describing his features and allowing me to decide if that was what flipped my cookie. There was no "hot sexual chocolate" or "long, flowing hair." He read to me as ruggedly but believably handsome.

Likewise, the leading lady believes herself to be plain and unattractive, and describes herself in such a way that we can see how she feels that way, but when we see her through the eyes of the male lead, we can understand how and why he finds her traits attractive. It's not a case of a drop-dead gorgeous woman who believes herself plain, it's a case of a non-standard beauty and a man who finds that she's the sort of woman who revs his engine, so to speak.

And perhaps most importantly, the love scenes were sexy without being ridiculous, and were not the main thrust (if you'll forgive the pun) of the story. The romance is believably interwoven into a tale of being misplaced in time, along with a love quadrangle and a bit of intrigue, all set in the backdrop of 1880s Guatemala and San Francisco. I didn't feel like the story simply served as a way to get the characters from sexy scene A to sexy scene B. It served to introduce the characters, put them in trying and sometimes steamy situations, occasionally pulling them apart to bring them together again.

I'm not an expert on 1880s San Francisco, where most of the book takes place, but the story felt well-researched, and the characters felt authentic to their time. Almost too authentic, in the case of the male lead. Typically chauvenstic, I found him to be abrasive and really questioned whether he'd ever be able to adapt to living the rest of his life with a headstrong woman of the 90s (this book being set in the year it was published, 1997). I often have this problem with romantic stories about people from different times (whether it involves time travel, or centuries-old vampires). It's hard for me to believe that once the initial glow of passion subsides, that the vast gulf of eras will be so easy to bridge.

And really, that's my main complaint with Twice a Hero. I loved watching the clashing personalities of the two characters, as they traded barbed comments frequently throughout the book. And I found their attraction natural and believable (I also appreciated that their courtship spanned a month or more, rather than mere days). But I couldn't see them having a viable, long-term relationship. I also frequently found myself off-put by the leading man's condescending and at times almost abusive attitude towards the leading lady, not to mention his habit of turning to the bottle when he was upset.

Over all, the writing was good and relatively error-free. There was the occasional metaphor that I felt was over-the-top, but there was no throbbing manhood or burning groins or anything else laughably bad. The plot moved along at a believable pace, the secondary characters were believable and likeable, and the things that I thought were going to turn into stupid misunderstandings to tear the characters apart were actually usually handled in a reasonable manner.

Unfortunately, this felt like more of a gateway fantasy romance than a full-blown one. It was heavy on the romance and light on the fantasy, with only a possible family curse and the time travel to differentiate it from a standard romance novel. Perhaps I would have been better off with the werewolves in that regard. I'll probably pick up another of this author's books, one that looks to be more fantasy-heavy, and see if it has a less off-putting male lead. If so, they could definitely be a good guilty-pleasure read.

In the meantime, if you'd like to see some hilariously bad romance writing, worse even than anything in Seize the Night, click here. It has NSFW language, and may cause you to bust out laughing. Don't say I didn't warn you.

*Having learned how little authors get per book sold, I usually try to buy books new these days, to support the people who provide so much of my entertainment... but when it's a new-to-me author, I do prefer to hit the used bookstore, so I'm not out seven bucks if it's not any good.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review, AJ. Susan comes from an F/SF background, and sometimes it's not easy to have to hold back when writing stories aimed at people whose background and inclinations aren't necessarily towrd F/SF/

AJ said...

Serge, I was really disappointed when I saw on Susan's page that her fantasy series was dropped by her publisher. Do some of her romance novels lean a little more heavily towards the fantasy? I mean, the one I read was 12 years old, and the paranormal/fantasy romance genre has really taken off since then.

My local B&N has an island display currently for "dark fantasy" and almost all of it could more properly be categorized as paranormal romance. Some of it even looks like paranormal chick-lit.

Anonymous said...

Sue was quite disappointed too when her fantasy series was cancelled. She hasn't given up on writing real fantasy though, and is working on a novel based on her magic & mystery short-stories about Kit & Olivia. As for romances that lean more heavily toward fantasy, I'd recommend The Forest Lord and Lord of the Beasts, both of them about the Shea and late-Victorian England. If the one that interests you is out of print, just say so - we have copies.

AJ said...

Oh, those sound pretty good! I'll have to check for them when I hit the bookstore within the next week or two. Thanks :) And you'll definitely hear from me if I need an out-of-print fix.

AJ said...

Hey Serge, I don't know if you've got it set up to e-mail you followup comments, but just in case... I loaned this book to my Mom (had to stop her from reading *shudder* Nora Roberts and then asking me about the pseudo-Celtic mythology in those books), and she liked it enough that she wanted to know if there was a sequel :)