by Angela Knight, fantasy (2004)
Berkley, $6.99, ISBN 0-425-19684-4
Angela Knight's debut Berkley romance novel is too busy for its own good. It tries a little too hard to be sexy, a little too much to be funny, as if Ms Knight is trying to simultaneously challenge both Dara Joy and Karen Marie Moning for their readers. I haven't read any of the author's books published with Ellora's Cave or her novellas in the Secrets anthology, so unfortunately I can't tell whether her style has changed in any way for her mainstream debut. Still, I like Ms Knight's way with eroticism if this book is anything to go by.
Fans of Terminator may recognize the premise: our Temporal Enforcement Court agent hero from the future, Baran "The Death Lord" Arvid, is pulled from a crucial mission to save the world to go back three hundred years and save our present-day heroine Jane Colby from an assassin Kalig "Jack the Ripper" Duras, Jack also being from the future. Jane Colby is an editor-in-chief who also somehow finds time to cover murder cases. She comes home after some investigative field work to discover Baran at her place telling her things that she isn't sure she should believe. Soon she's changing her tune as Baran tries to protect her from Kalig Duras. Unfortunately, Jane also insists on helping Baran in his quest to save the world and destroy the evil General Jutka, the villainous mastermind in the future.
Baran has a genetically enhanced body that makes him as strong as five men and he is as alpha as they come. Personally, "steroids", "cheese", "himbo", and "Fabio" can't help crossing my mind whenever I read the author's glowing account of Baran's virility, size, strength, or valor. From the cheesy nicknames ("The Death Lord") to the over-the-top appearence and prowess of the hero, Jane's Warlord has plenty of cheese to go around. It also tries to be a drama - Baran is tortured over the death of his first love at the hands of General Jutka while Jane had an abusive father. And there's comedy - Baran's talking wolf sidekick sprouts wisecracks and terrorizes Jane's cat for which it has a fetish for. Oh, and there's sex, rough, even clinical sex that is a jarring contrast to the cheese overtaking everything else about the story.
The setting is ambitious - if not too original - and I appreciate the fact that the author tries to deal with time travel in a scientific manner. I'm kept in the dark as to why Jane is the target of the bad guys until late in the story, but it's a reason that I can correctly guess. In the meantime, I'm not too enamored of the walking cardboard cheesecake that is Baran or the one-dimensional Tortured Spunkball that is Jane. Some of Jane's scenes with Baran, especially when she starts learning who he really is, are really fun, but on the whole, the characters never come alive to me.
At the end of the day, I find the overall tone of this story too schizophrenic for my liking. The talking wolf and other physical and overt comedic elements make it hard for me to take the author's attempts at drama seriously. It is hard to care for the hero's angst when he's written as some cheesy invulnerable superhero who is also the best ever in bed. It is hard to be emotionally invested in the characters' quest or share their feelings of insecurities or vulnerability when the story is cheesy enough to hammer into me again and again that Baran is So Powerful, So Hot, So Alpha, So Cheesy, and So Not Going To Fail In Any Way. Because of this, half the time I'm not sure whether the author wants me to enjoy the cheesiness of her story or to take Jane and Baran seriously.
I get this impression that the author adds some angst for her characters in order to avoid being accused of writing superficial stories. Well, here's a newsflash: only a severely lactose-intolerant stiff will fail to recognize the high cheese quotient of the story. The half-baked attempts at "depths" via the cheap and easy "Just Add Some Guilt And Abuse" manner will not magically bestow some mythical gourmet properties onto the story. A cheesecake is a cheesecake, period. Some of the reasons the movie Terminator works very well is because the hero has flaws and weaknesses, which makes his protectiveness of Sarah against a more powerful enemy even more romantic and to-root-for, while the main characters don't try too hard to be angst-ridden. On the other hand, there's no doubt ever that Baran will triumph - he's just too over-the-top amazing - and the characters' baggage is inserted just because the author can and wants to.
Maybe if Ms Knight has focused on writing either a straightforward romantic cheesecake adventure or a sober romantic action fantasy, I would be able to enjoy Jane's Warlord more. As it is, this book tries to be too many things at once and the result is one disoriented reader.
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