Signet Eclipse, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-23827-6
Historical Romance, 2012
You’d probably think that the bounty hunter in the title Beauty and the Bounty Hunter refers to the hero, right? Well, no. The bounty hunter is our heroine, who currently goes by the name Cat O’Banyon. Heh, the title is somewhat misleading, isn’t it? But it’s not exactly lying, as the con artist hero, who currently goes by the name Alexi Romanov, is a gorgeous fellow. At any rate, this is an interesting book to review, because it has some amazing strengths as well as horrific flaws.
Cat and Alexi have a very interesting history. Cat was once happily married to Billy, although it wasn’t easy when Billy came back from the war a haunted man. However, things seemed to be changing for the better when they decided to pull up their roots and headed west to start anew as farmers… until Billy was killed right in front of Cat by an unidentified villain (she could only hear him as she was blindfolded). Cat sort of drifted in a limbo of depression until one day, she decided that she couldn’t keep living like she did. She eventually caught Alexi in his act and asked him to teach her everything he knew about his art. Eventually, they became lovers, but she soon left him to hit out on her own.
She became Cat, the infamous bounty hunter who brought down many outlaws and criminals in her quest to identify and kill Billy’s murderer. When this story opens, Alexi and Cat are reunited when Alexi hears that someone has placed a huge bounty on Cat’s head and realizes that Cat is in danger. Together, they realize that the villain who killed Billy must know that Cat is after him, and Alexi must convince Cat to stay by his side in order to stay safe. Whether Cat will agree is something he will have to find out the hard way.
Lori Austin is actually the pseudonym of Lori Hendeland, whose Western historical romances I’d enjoyed in the past. While I didn’t exactly follow the author when she started writing urban fantasy stories, I’m more than happy to dip my toes back into the water, so to speak, when she returns to Western romance romps as Lori Austin.
And oh, what a fabulous story this one could have been! Alexi is absolutely fantastic as the scoundrel who hides his very capable and ruthless persona under a mask of careless loving and happy-go-lucky demeanor. The author has given Alexi just the right touch of angst without having him brood like a constipated mastiff, along with just the right amount of crazy-obsessed-insane streak in his feelings for Cat to make him come off as dreamboat of a bad boy hero. And Cat is a fabulous sidekick, as they work together like hand in glove. With him, she’s as capable as the author claims Cat is when it comes to pulling off various disguises and coming up with tracks to get them both out of hot water without batting an eyelid. Together, Cat and Alexi are one of the most entertaining lovers-in-crime couplings I’ve come across in a long time. They have chemistry, and I especially love how it is the heroine who treats sex and passion in a rather cavalier manner compared to the hero. Oh, and Cat has a painful past, and the author treats her pain and slow healing in a sensitive and often heartbreaking manner.
The problem is this: when Cat strikes out on her own, and she does this a lot in this story, her IQ plummets straight down into the abyss. The situation always unravel in one of two possible manner: either Cat screws up again and has to be rescued by Alexi and his friend Mikhail, or those two show up before Cat can screw up further. Perhaps this is an effort to make sure that Alexi gets to flex his manly muscles, or maybe making the heroine weak and useless on her own is an effort to make her seem vulnerable, and hence, likable? Whatever the reason, this story flings itself into the twilight zone of stupidity every time Cat deigns to leave Alexi’s shadow. Look, she doesn’t even know that her gun is unloaded until she tries to fire! Seriously now, Ms Austin, I’m supposed to believe that this woman managed to carve a reputation on her own – when she makes stupid mistakes more typical of novices?
If Cat turning dumb isn’t bad enough, the plot soon makes a shrine out of Cat’s stupidity and turns this plot point – that Cat is stupid and helpless – into a pivotal catalyst of Cat’s healing and embracing her love for Alexi. I don’t know, maybe it’s a genre thing, where we just cannot have a heroine – even a bounty hunter heroine – do something bad like the bang-bang-bang-you-die thing on bad guys, so we basically have Cat being helpless and useless in the late quarter of the story. She doesn’t even get to do the bang-bang-bang thing – the man-child Mikhail does everything. And I’m not even going to start on the unfortunate implication of having the functional-but-not-quite-together sidekick do the dirty deed because the genre forbids “good guys” from killing people even if those people deserve to die.
Back to my earlier statement, yes, this book has some amazing moments, especially when Cat and Alexi work together like a beautiful beating clockwork heart, but it also falls apart spectacularly when the author turns Cat into a stupid and incompetent twit to further the agenda of Cat turning into a useless wimp in the name of… I don’t know, love or something. I love parts of this book, and I loathe other parts with equal intensity. It’s all because of the author’s bizarre equation of female incompetence and stupidity to virtue and redemption.