by Lisa G Riley and Roslyn Hardy Holcomb, historical/fantasy (2010)
Loose Id, $5.99, ISBN 978-1-6-737-520-3

Given is the first entry in a series set in Ohio in 1850, a time when the Underground Railroad is actively ferrying runaway slaves from the Deep South to freedom up north. The authors toss in some fantasy elements into the mix: we have the Eshu, folks that can change into animal forms at will, and were once part of a failed crusade to eliminate the agents of evil, Thakathi, from this world. The Thakati would clearly want payback, and it seems like they are willing to wait until it's time to strike.

In this story, Mary Katherine Day is a conductor, doing her part to give her "passengers" shelter and some comfort before they move on to their next stop. Also in the neighborhood choo-choo train brigade is Jacob Adams, who makes her naughty bits tingle every time he's within her sight. When he actively makes the moves to get into her bloomers, how is a woman to resist? Too bad he neglects to inform her that he's an Eshu who favors the bear form before she gets a glimpse of his ursine assets, and that's even before he drops another bombshell that would make her go, "What? Oh no, you didn't!"

Mary Katherine is a pretty memorable heroine. She's feisty in a good way, she's capable, and she doesn't take any crap from anybody, not even Jacob. I like her, although there are times when she seems to be a little too capable to the point that I have to wonder how she came to be how she is in the story. There has to be an interesting story there, surely. Jacob is stubborn - oh boy, he really is - and he has some way to go before he gets that "communicating effectively with your partner" thing right. However, the authors manage to make his mule-headed moments more amusing than obnoxious, and it also helps that I'm convinced that Mary Katherine knows how to handle this man when he gets too overbearing.

Like many Loose Id titles, this one seems to lose track of the plot once the characters start getting physical, and the sex goes on for a bit until any momentum in the plot up to that point is completely dissipated. Indeed, I feel that the story's biggest flaw here is its inability to balance its paranormal and romantic/erotic elements. The story starts out with a compelling prologue about the Eshu's failure to take out the bad guys, but when the story moves to 1850, the focus is limited to basically Mary Katherine and Jacob getting it on, with some loose ends in their relationship wrapped up in last few chapters.

Sure, the bad guys show up now and then, but their scenes feel like pure filler. The epic scope, the battle of good versus evil, everything about the prologue - these elements seem largely disconnected from the rest of the story, to the point that I actually wonder why they are included in the final package.

The romance is pretty fun to follow, if a bit on the under-developed side at times, but I can't help feeling that the story ultimately doesn't know what it wants to be. If the bulk of the paranormal elements are removed and substituted for more down-to-earth elements, such as if this was a straightforward historical romance, it would still work pretty well. And that's the problem in a nutshell. Why serve a paranormal historical romance in such a rarely-used setting if the paranormal elements end up just sitting there looking pretty and doing not much else?

Rating: 72

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