St Martin’s Press, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-250-10403-8
Romantic Suspense, 2016
Over the last few years, we witness the resurgence of a kind of story line best described simply as “alpha male”. It’s basically that same old story line prevalent in urban fantasy romance – the one where we have a series composed of “super dangerous” and “super virile” men collecting women who need to be “safe and protected” 24/7, barking orders to or pushing the women around as the bad guys flail to get their hands on these women, often because these women are fought over for the fecundity of their womb – transplanted to the modern day. Vampires and werewolves are now members of motorcycle clubs, boxing teams, covert military organizations, organized crime syndicates and what not. The heroines are often sassy and quippy to hide the fact that, ultimately, they have very little ability to make anything happen for themselves and they need the big strong men to make those things happen instead, and their prized traits invariably boil down to their innocence, loyalty to the men, and their ability to spawn brats for those men.
And now, we have one more variation of this theme. Sarah Castile’s Ruin & Revenge series kicks off with Nico, and revolves around the hot and sexy, dangerous men of the Mafia. “Men”, of course, because while we romance readers will forgive our heroes of anything as long as they have abs, lots of money, and a big pee-pee, we will be so triggered into apoplexy when the heroine steals some coins off a cashier. So yes, don’t worry, people – the men are the ones here doing all the bad things, so we can read and drool with our conscience clear. Hot!
I know I have serious issues with this one when, in the opening chapter alone, Mia Cordano – intelligent, sassy, sexy, et cetera – sneaks into Las Vegas Mafia boss Nico Toscani’s casino to hack its security system… only to realize that she doesn’t know where the exit is. Firstly, I don’t know why she needs to be physically in the casino to do what she did, but worse, why didn’t she do the homework to find out something as basic as the location of the exit before she did her thing? Does the author want me to peg the heroine as an imbecile from the get go? Why? Is imbecility sexy in female characters now? Wait, don’t answer – I’m already down enough having read this book.
And then, Mia considers the actions of a security staff wanting to paw her as “sexist”. She dresses up to show off her assets to distract them by pretending to offer what she has no intention to offer, and when they reach out for the offerings… they are the “sexist” here? Seriously, in a story where I’m supposed to clench my thighs in rapturous delight over a hero that kills people, I’m also expected to be outraged when some man buys the heroine’s act that she is really offering him some sexy time? What’s next? Nico’s casino has gender neutral bathrooms?
Anyway, Nico captures her – of course – and his penis is immediately rock hard (yes, that’s what it says here) and ready to play. Not sexist, because it’s never sexist when it’s being done to a woman by a hot, rich, young man sporting the same generic tattoo as every other alpha male in the romance genre. He considers her “liquid sex”, which I suppose is different from “fire sex” and “wind sex” – maybe those are reserved for the other books in the series.
Meanwhile, Mia is predictably enough saddled with all kinds of issues that will force her to need Nico even if she doesn’t want to. Mommy issues, daddy issues, brother is running wild and making Nico mad (surprise, the Tutucappies and the Cowdungos are like, totally hating one another)… she really wants to get away from her nasty daddy’s Mafia connections, so how fortunate for her that Nico Tofuspaghetti is here to do it for her. You can argue that she’s just replacing one defective daddy figure in her life with an upgraded better version, but come on, that’s the end game for the romance heroines in this kind of stories. It’s a good thing!
Predictably, Nico is mean and dangerous, but he’s never that mean and dangerous. He even has the older second in command confidante dude who plays the benevolent conscience. Much of the Mafia stuff in this story feels like wallpaper. Everyone goes through the same old routine, says the same old predictable stuff. The hero looms, his chauvinism melts into the background when he realizes that the heroine is a loyal putty after a few rounds of shagging, only to doubt her loyalty for the obligatory conflict late in the story. The heroine acts sassy and makes quips, but she’s ultimately a character created to need the hero no matter what, and her sexual acquiescence is rewarded by having the hero make her problems go away. Just switch “Mafia” with “MC” (which, incidentally, is the setting of the author’s last series) or any other typical alpha male story backdrop, and this one will still go on as it is with minor cosmetic modifications.
So, to sum things up, Nico is a very typical, generic read with Mafia elements that never feel genuine. Everything screams “formula” and the main characters are by-the-number stereotypes. Add in awkward phraseology and flashes of stupidity designed to move the plot, and the end result is a cringy, lumbering kind of generic whose saving grace is its occasional moments of unintentional hilarity.