by Anne Stuart, contemporary (2005)
MIRA, $6.99, ISBN 0-7783-2171-1
Chloe Underwood is somewhat-reluctantly pushed into a Plot by her colleague. An American expatriate working in Paris as an underpaid translator in a publishing company owned by lecherous coots, she dreams of having sex with dashing and dangerous strangers. Her more outgoing colleague Sylvia, whose Frenchness Anne Stuart pins her hope upon to hide the fact that Sylvia is yet another Slutty Best Friend stereotype, decides to pursue a more lucrative rendezvous with an aging but very rich lover instead of heading over to a private château for a translation gig that pays very well. Little does Chloe know, however, that Château Mirabel is the meeting point for some of the top criminal masterminds of the world and she is going to be a pawn in the game between undercover hero Bastien Toussant with his enemies.
I love Bastien. He's adorably ambiguous in his morality and while he eventually has some conscience impeding him from acting even more deliciously amoral later on in the story, he really fits as a spy who is willing to do all sorts of dirty things, good or bad, to complete his mission. In short, he comes off like a real spy.
But what causes Black Ice to fail as a compelling read with sexy ambiguous characters is the heroine and the plot. Chloe is such a complete let-down as the goody-two-shoes who is so out of her league that she is completely led around by the nose by Bastien. She doesn't know anything and she is always in need of rescue. I can see why a jaded man like Bastien can find Chloe's insipid and cringe-inducing mental simplicity a refreshing change from what his life usually is, but I can't see his interest remaining strong in the long run, not when Chloe has really nothing to offer Bastien other than permanent clinginess for him to indulge his forays into being a Prince Charming. The "romance" is more akin to a dependence of a helpless lamb to the sheepdog, the first "love scene" (which is not for you if you are not fond of "forced seduction") reveals how helpless Chloe is, and subsequently Chloe's "adventures" exposes how stupid she can be in "sensing" that she can trust the man who forced himself on her in their romantic first love scene when it comes to everything else because she "senses" that the other people in Château Mirabel are more icky than Bastien is. I mean, when the man whose eyes disquiet you and you shudder from his handshake, that means it's okay to trust the man who doesn't even give you a chance to say no, right? Because he gives you an orgasm in the process, right?
The psychology behind loving a man like Bastien should be dark, complex, and multifactered. Chloe has to show me that she enjoys reveling in the darker side of Bastien in order to keep loving him after the honeymoon. She has to be even a little similar to Bastien in some ways - in temperament, at least - for this romance to be convincing. Instead, Ms Stuart sets out to create Chloe as some one-dimensional "helpless, innocent, naive" sheep ripe for the hero's fleecing and the hero's rescuing this dim-witted sheep repeatedly is what drives him to his epiphany. I don't know, maybe it's just me not being a teenaged girl gushing about my fantasies of falling in love with a bad boy on TV by being so perfect and innocent that he will miraculously falls for me and changes his ways completely, but I find such silly fantasies too unreal for me. The relationship between Chloe and Bastien are so unbalanced that I can't see a happy ending for these two.
The plot is also a hopeless disappointment. The remainder of this paragraph constitute major spoilers so in order to read them (and be spoiled), you must highlight the text with your mouse. [spoiler starts] Bastien is sleeping with another woman until he decides that Chloe's codependency has miraculously killed his interest in skanky sex. I know, I know, we're definitely entering The Bookish Girl's Fantasy of Stealing That Football Captain From That Cheerleader 101 territory here. Just like how all those romantic suspense books out there always having the Other Woman as the ultimate evil whoring slut villainess in the end, this book does the same thing. Color me surprised, snort. I call this woman as the villainess in my cynicism early on in the reading of the story and I am disappointed that my cynicism is ultimately proven right... again. Sigh. I get more cynical sometimes from reading romance novels than from reading the papers. What are you doing to me, romance authors? [spoiler ends]
I don't know what to make of Anne Stuart anymore. When she's good, she's brilliant but when she's bad, she's more unreadable than many other authors when these authors are bad because Ms Stuart at her worst offers truly idiotic and spineless heroines paired to men who take advantage of them and be loved by these women for that. Black Ice is somewhere in-between, leaning a little towards the bad Anne Stuart book territory because of its inept psychology when it comes to the relationship between Chloe and Bastien. It's been a long time since I've read a book by Anne Stuart that I enjoy and it depresses me to admit that since this author used to be a favorite of mine. Where will I go now to get my bad boy fix?
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