Friday, November 30, 2012

Review: Fatal Deception

Fatal Deception
By Marie Force
Publisher: Carina Press
Release Date: 
November 12, 2012

D. C. Police Lieutenant Sam Holland and her husband Senator Nick Cappuano are settling into their life as one of the city’s celebrity couples when another of Sam’s cases intersects with their personal lives. Victoria Kavanaugh, wife of White House Deputy Chief of Staff and friend of Nick, Derek Kavanaugh, has been beaten to death, and the couple’s thirteen-month-old daughter has disappeared. For once, the spouse is not a suspect. Derek was at Camp David with his boss, the President of the United States, when the murder occurred. The crime seems motiveless until Sam and her team begin to uncover Victoria’s secrets.

Heartbroken for Derek, Sam has to face additional complications with a cold case involving her father that forces her to suspend Detectives Jeannie McBride and Will Tyrone just when she needs them most. Then there’s the pressure of working the Kavanaugh case with Special Victims Unit Detective Ramsay and FBI Special Agent Avery Hill. The former dislikes Sam, and the latter likes her too much, a fact that provokes Nick’s jealousy and possessiveness.

On the personal front, Sam is fighting with her dad, discovering her estranged mom’s story may involve more than Sam ever suspected, and trying to control her envy of her sister Angela who is about to give birth to her second child. Meanwhile, Nick’s campaign is proving successful beyond their dreams, and it becomes clear his party has bigger things in mind for him. Most important for Sam and Nick, they are preparing for a three-week visit from Scotty Dunlap, the twelve-year-old they are hoping to adopt. It’s Scotty’s visit that persuades them they need a personal assistant to organize their lives and be there for Scotty when they can’t be. Reenter Shelby Faircloth, also known as Tinker Bell, the wedding planner.

I’ve been a fan of Force’s Fatal series from the beginning. The mystery is always a page-turner, often with the added fascination of political contexts, but it is the characters that have made this one of my favorite series. I love Sam and Nick. They are richly developed protagonists with complex personal histories, complicated relationships, terrific chemistry, and an emotional connection that manages to be both stable and evolving. The secondary characters, who include family members, friends, and professional colleagues, are dynamic and interesting in their own right and add dimension to Sam and Nick.

This is the fifth book in the series, the second since Fatal Destiny, the novella in which Sam and Nick were married. I confess I worried that the series might suffer from the Moonlighting syndrome after the wedding, especially when Fatal Flaw, Book 4, although a solid read, lacked that extra something that made the earlier books more than just good. But Fatal Deception proved my fears were groundless. The mystery in this one is a compelling story that presents a challenge and stirs the reader’s emotions, and the relationship between Sam and Nick continues to grow. All that kept this from being a five-star read for me was the kinky sex. I’m sure some readers will see it as a significant part of the novel’s appeal, but it added nothing to the story and was just too bandwagony for my taste. But it wasn’t enough to cure my Sam-and-Nick addiction. I eagerly await future books. I’m hoping Dr. Harry Flynn will get a happy romance, and I’d love to see something develop between Shelby and Avery Hill.

Like J. D. Robb’s In Death series, to which Force’s Fatal books are often compared, the series follows the relationship of the same characters, and story arcs often carry over from one book to the next. Do you like continuing stories, or do you prefer a tightly resolved ending?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tuesday Review: The Importance of Being Wicked

The Importance of Being Wicked
By Miranda Neville
Publisher: Avon
Release Date: November 27, 2012

Caroline Brotherton, who is introduced in the novella “The Second Seduction of a Lady,” was a romantic seventeen-year-old when she eloped with Robert Townsend. Seven years later, Caro is a widow with little more than a scandalous reputation, enormous debt, and memories of a marriage that had its happy moments but also its troubling ones as Robert’s addiction to gambling consumed his fortune and eventually his life. Caro is preparing to take on a new role. She is to chapherone her young cousin, the heiress Anne Brotherton, during a visit to London.

Thomas Fitzcharles, Duke of Castleton, is a conservative, staid gentleman very conscious of his duty to his name and his family. He belongs to a long line of aristocrats who have married well and improved the family coffers. The fact that his father departed from the tradition makes it imperative that the current duke marry an heiress. Anne Brotherton seems perfect for his purpose, and Castleton is prepared to make her his duchess.

Appearances lead to the conclusion that Caro and Castleton are opposites, and thus it should come as no surprise to any experienced reader of romance fiction that the two fall in lust at first sight. Less predictable is that Caro proves to be less shallow than she appears and Castleton less bound by convention than one might suppose. Neville gives her readers a story that fits the deceptive externals of her characters: what appears to be mere froth and sizzle upon closer examination reveals unexpected subtlety and complexity.

Caro is another Neville heroine with an interesting history that makes her choices comprehensible even when they make her less than a fully sympathetic character. Brought up by a domineering mother, disowned by her family upon her elopement, abandoned emotionally by her irresponsible husband even before his death, she is loyal to those who have become in effect her family. Her near obsessive attachment to the valuable Titian is more logical when the reader understands that the painting affirms that Robert Townsend once loved her. Her immaturity is a correctable flaw, as the story shows, and her intelligence, humor, and warmth are always in evidence, offsetting less positive qualities.

Castleton can be sober and contained, but it is clear fairly early that he has a sense of humor that includes the ability to laugh at himself, hardly a characteristic of a hero who truly deserves the epithet with which Caro endows him. I loved the exchange after Castleton overhears Caro use her name for him.

“I don't like to be particular,” Thomas went on, “but that really should be the Duke of Stuffy, you know. Or, if you insist on ceremony, His Stuffiness.”

Her smile stretched into a delighted grin. “No formality between friends, surely. I shall simply call you Stuffy.”

It sometimes seems to me that far too few couples in romance novel share a sense of humor. I believe laughing together is a prime requirement for the level of intimacy required for an HEA in which I can believe. These lines went a long way toward helping me believe that Caro and Castleton would give me the kind of ending for which I always hope.

Miranda Neville has consistently proved to be one of those authors whose books have added value. I find her characters engaging and her stories interesting and intelligent, and I also find her fictional worlds places where I like to linger because they are always different in significant ways from the norm of historical romance. The Importance of Being Wicked is the first book in the Wild Quartet. I’m eager to see what’s next in the series.

How important do you think a sense of humor is in relationships? Is humor a quality you look for in fictional characters?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Revised Reader/Writer’s Gratitude List (in alphabetical order because no way could I rank them)

I wrote the first version of this post for Thanksgiving three years ago. Since the book world and I have changed in that time, I’m claiming a writer’s privilege and revising, keeping the parts that still hold true, cutting sections that are outdated, and adding new thoughts.

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a lovely, eleven-line poem called “Pied Beauty” that begins “Glory be to God for dappled things.” The speaker goes on to offer praise for the freckled, speckled beauty in the created world. I always read this Hopkins poem during the Thanksgiving season. It reminds me to be more attentive to all that is praiseworthy in my world. While I will certainly offer thanks on Thursday for big things—friends, family, faith—and small ones—a single, perfect, golden leaf, the curve of a baby’s plump cheek, the sound of rain at night—I will also give thanks for bookly things, and my thanksgiving will include the fun of coining a word like “bookly” when it suits my purpose.

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird
I read lots of books on the craft of writing, and I have found useful tidbits in nearly everyone I’ve read. But my favorite continues to be this book by Anne Lamott. It’s wise and funny, and Lamott’s voice makes me feel that she’s someone I’d love to have lunch with. I’m thankful she wrote this book, and I’m thankful that I have all these pithy quotations from the book that I can copy and stick all over my desk. It’s as if she knew exactly what I most needed to hear.

I worry about whether my plotting is an irredeemable flaw, and Lamott says, “Plot grows out of character…. I say don’t worry about plot.  Worry about the characters.  Let what they say or do reveal who they are… The development of relationship creates plot.”

I battle perfectionism, and Lamott says, “Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist's true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I'm sure) forget to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here - and, by extension, what we're supposed to be writing.”

I wonder if writing is too important to me, and Lamott says, “Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong."

Books on my keeper shelves
I have several thousand keepers that I have collected over the years—mysteries, poetry, women’s fiction, and literary fiction as well as lots and lots of romances. The oldest ones belonged to my mother, others date from my childhood, and a few were published this year.  Most are books that I return to again and again, sometimes to reread in their entirety and sometimes to reread favorite passages. They make me laugh and weep and grow and remember. They hold within their pages pieces of the person I was when I first encountered them—the ten-year-old exhilarated and terrified by the idea of growing up, the twenty-something consumed with grief and finding healing in worlds that offered happy endings, the graduate student seeking escape from the “storm and stress” of literary studies, the teacher weary of marking student essays, the writer running short on inspiration and aspiration.

Friends who are writers
When I feel that everything I’ve written is crap, when I want to shelter my progeny from the blasts of rejection, when an agent’s words convince me that in the current climate publication is an unattainable dream, I have friends who zap my self-pity, cheer for my word count, challenge me to send my offspring into the world, and give me the courage to get up again when I stumble. Each shares my dream of producing a publishable novel and battles the same demons that plague me. They inspire me and sustain me. I am immeasurably grateful for them individually and collectively.

I’m also thankful for the joy of seeing friends’ publication dreams come true. It’s an experience that always brings particular delight, but this year that joy has had an extra measure as I’ve seen two that I count among my dearest friends reach different points on this journey, one with books published and readers raving and one with a golden finalist position and a contract in hand.

My book budget is inadequate for the list of books I long to read, but thanks to my public library I get to read everything on my list. If I discover an OOP back title of a paperback romance that is unavailable in electronic format and is I can find only for $103 on, I can usually locate a copy via my library.  I have access not only to books on the shelves of my local library but to 9.6 million books on library shelves across the state. Add to this bounty the more than 3 million volumes plus countless electronic copies available through my university library, which allows me to check out books for three months plus renewals, and the wonders of ILL and the resources are vast indeed. My gratitude is boundless.

Online romance community
The online romance community is huge and diverse. A quick google of the term offers 106,000 sites. I’m grateful for that larger community because it’s evidence of how large the romance umbrella is and how active romance readers are. But my greater gratitude is for my online community—the people I meet here at Just Janga and on the boards, blogs, and email loops I frequent who love the books I love (usually), read my raves and rants, make me laugh with their witty quips and bawdy humor, impress me with their intelligence and insight, and just generally make my world bigger, brighter, and better.

Writers who keep writing
I’ve lost count of how many Nora Roberts books line my keeper shelves. I only know that I loved The Witness in 2012 as much as I loved the first one I read, All the Possibilities, in 1985.  My Mary Balogh collection begins with A Masked Deception (1985) and ends with The Proposal (2012). On shelves filled with books by Elizabeth Bevarly, Jo Beverley, Connie Brockway, Robyn Carr, Loretta Chase, Christina Dodd, Anne Gracie, Eloisa James, Lisa Kleypas, Teresa Medeiros, Mary Jo Putney, Julia Quinn, Barbara Samuel, Kathleen Gilles Seidel, and many others, tattered copies and shiny new covers coexist, mute testimony to my history with these authors. I love discovering new authors, and I am grateful for their books; but my thanksgiving song is more fervent for those writers who after five years or ten or twenty-five are still giving me reasons to be glad I am a reader.

Where would writers of books or blogs be without readers to respond to the words we weave, to share their own ideas, and to be our best critics and most enthusiastic supporters? I am grateful for each of you who takes the time to read my posts, to answer my questions, to tell others about this blog. When I count my blessings Thursday, you will be among them. Thank you.

Do you celebrate Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November or any other date? For what bookly blessings are you most grateful?

Friday, November 16, 2012

It Started with a Hero

I spent several hours recently searching through old files for a drabble I wrote when we used to do them regularly on the Eloisa James bulletin board, and in the process I came across the very first blog post I ever wrote--a guest post at The Romance Vagabonds in February 2006. I found it interesting because it was all about the hero of my first book and how he fit into the patterns of romance heroes. All these years later I'm still dealing with some of the same concerns, and I still love the hero with whom it all started.

Here's that first post:

I was excited when Lindsey invited me to guest blog with the Vagabonds. (Have a terrific time in Florida, Lindsey!) Then it hit me—guest blogging means I have to start the conversation—not just riff on somebody else’s topic. Panic! Then this low, lazy voice whispered, “What about me?”

I have been thinking about heroes a great deal lately because mine is giving me trouble. I’m afraid that he’s too nice. He’s neither a rake nor a rogue; he’s neither a spy nor a SEAL. He can pop a top with the guys or share a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon with the heroine. He follows NASCAR and reads John Donne. He tells me that he doesn’t do angst well, and though he’s wounded, he is an optimist to his marrow.  Have I made a mistake? Is Max really not a hero but—gasp!—a best friend?

I did what I have been trained to do when I need a question answered. I started to research heroes. I began with my own keeper shelves, and I soon found the bad boys, the rakish lords, the tortured souls: Heyer’s Damorel. Chase’s Dain, Kleypas’s Derek Craven, Dodd’s Ian Fairchild,  the Nora’s Cameron Quinn and Tucker Longstreet, and, of course, EJ’s Mayne. These were the heroes I adored, the ones whose stories I returned to. Alas! Max seemed to have nothing in common with them. But wait—there are other heroes on those keeper shelves too. Heyer’s  Gervase Frant, Brockway’s Avery Thorne, J. Quinn’s Colin Bridgerton, Nora’s Murphy Muldoon, MJP’s Stephen Kenyon—these too are men I dream of, nice guys who like women and are smart and sweet and tender.  Perhaps I wouldn’t have to jilt Max after all. Clearly more research was needed.

Databases and Google yielded information on Alpha heroes and Beta heroes and Gamma heroes, but there much debate about what the terms mean. “Alphas are everything,”’ insisted some writers; “An alpha’s a jerk, not a hero,” declared others. Still others advised throwing the terms out and going with eight types. My head was whirling. Max was quiet.

Then I found a treasure trove, a page on Bookbug on the Web where nearly two hundred romance writers offered words of wisdom on heroes. True, some of the writers I never heard of, but many were long-time favorites. Some were clever. Christina Dodd summarized a hero’s requirements in one word: “Stamina!” Nora Roberts, Victoria Alexander, and Elizabeth Grayson all agreed a hero should have “a great butt.” (Max preened.) Some talked of unconditional love, and others talked of sexual prowess. (“Why not both?” Max asked.) Some spoke of derring-do, and others raved about changing diapers. (I’ll pass on both,” Max said.) But then I realized there was impressive consensus on two qualities: a deep sense of honor and a ready sense of humor. More than a fourth of these writers thought these qualities were essential for a hero. (“Did somebody call me?” Max was grinning broadly—or maybe he was smiling quirkily, a quality Emilie Richards approved of.) Honor and humor—yeah, they seem essential to me too. How can you have a hero who fails to be true to core values? And who wants a hero who can’t laugh at himself and at life’s absurdities?

Two final sources completed my search. The trusted OED defines a hero as “a man who exhibits extraordinary bravery,firmness, fortitude, or greatness of soul, in any course of action, or in connexion with any pursuit, work, or enterprise; a man admired and venerated for his achievements and noble qualities.” Max is looking better all the time.

Then I read Jean Ross Ewing/Julia Ross tribute to Francis Crawford of Lymond, whom she calls the “heart and soul” of Dorothy Dunnet’s six-volumed Lymond Chronicles. She wrote, “Though he may appear to be a rogue, a hero must be a nice guy.” That’s it! The word of authority from a source I trust. They are all nice guys—all my keeper heroes and Max too. Every one is a nice guy, and they all finish first. Ross also said creating one of these nice-guy heroes is a “journey of the soul.” Lovely! My soul is set to journey, and Max is looking very pleased with himself.

So what about you? Do you label the heroes you create or read about? What qualities do you think a hero MUST have? 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Tuesday Review: A Gold Coin

The Gold Coin
By Andrea Kane
Publisher: Open Road
Publication Date: October 2, 2012
(electronic reissue of 1999 release)

Anastasia and Breanna Colby are what my mother would have called double first cousins: their fathers, identical twins, married sisters.  The cousins are so similar in looks that few people can tell them apart. They are also devoted to one another. Their grandfather, who is able to tell the girls apart and who treasures their loyalty to one another, gives a gold coin to Anastasia and a silver coin to Breanna with the instructions that they are never to part with the coins. The girls themselves are parted, however, when Anastasia’s father moves with his family to Philadelphia to oversee the family import-export business there. Ten years later, after the deaths of her parents, Anastasia returns to England.  

Not yet twenty-one, she is under the guardianship of her uncle, now Viscount Medford, a black-hearted villain, who hopes to gain control of her fortune for his own purposes. Fortunately, Anastasia’s father, familiar with his brother’s avarice, has left her fortune under the control of Damen Lockewood, Marquess of Sheldrake, who is not only a peer but also a savvy investment banker. Initially at adds because Sheldrake refuses to support Anastasia’s scheme of establishing a bank in Philadelphia, the two are soon business partners who are also fathoms deep in love with one another.

But Sheldrake is the man Medford has marked for Breanna’s cousin. To avoid his ire, Anastasia and Breanna once again exchange places. Predictably, Sheldrake, like their beloved grandfather, can tell the cousin’s apart. Eventually the cousins and the marquess/banker discover just how evil and desperate Medford is, but Anastasia’s life is endangered in the process.

I knew Andrea Kane only as the author of thrillers, not a genre I read. I missed the historical romances she wrote in the 1990s, except for a novella in the Christmas anthology A Gift of Love (1995), which I bought for Judith McNaught’s “Double Exposure.” So I was interested when I was offered a review copy of this book.

Anastasia is an interesting character. Her time in America and her father’s encouragement of her interests in business combine with her confidence and forthrightness that were present in even in the very young Anastasia to make her an unusual heroine. The love and loyalty that connect the cousins adds to the characters’ appeal. Breanna demonstrates her courage, even if it is less obvious than Anastasia’s.

But the male characters are less interesting because there is no shading to their characters. Sheldrake is perfect--handsome, wealthy, intelligent, intuitive, honorable, brave . . . He possesses the whole catalog of virtues. The only quality that makes him stand out as more than the most stereotypical of heroes is his status as a respected investment banker, the best in a family of astute investors. And I had a difficult time accepting that. This is not a Victorian romance. It opens in 1803, and most of the action takes place in 1818. It just seems improbable that a marquess in that period would be so involved in business, one in which his father before him had also been involved. The difficulty is compounded by the lack of scenes from the hero’s point of view. The connection with commerce is made even more unbelievable because it is true of the Medford family as well. In both cases, the connection comes not as the act of a rebellious son determined to restore the family fortune, but as a family tradition.

In contrast to Sheldrake’s perfection, Medford is a total villain, closer to the mustache-twirling fixture of melodrama than to a nuanced antagonist. Even though the reader is given far more insight into the thoughts of the villain than into the thoughts of the hero, none of what she learns is likely to evoke even reluctant sympathy or understanding.

Anastasia and Sheldrake are a deserving pair, and some readers may be persuaded by their compatibility and the sizzle of the love scenes that they will live in perpetual bliss. I confess I found myself wondering if the lively Anastasia would find herself bored with all that polished perfection before their first anniversary.

Breanna is the heroine of the sequel, The Silver Coin. Readers who like The Golden Coin more than I did will doubtless want to read it as well. I’ll pass on it, especially with the $8-$10 price tag for the electronic version.

Are you bothered by characters who seem to be perfectly good or bad, or do you prefer unshaded heroes and villains?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Lists and Canons and Other Things

It’s not even mid-November and Publishers Weekly has already announced their top five romances of 2012. I have read four of the five and enjoyed them all, but I was surprised to see Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand on the list. Don’t misunderstand. It’s a wonderful book, one that has been on my top 100 romance novels list since I first compiled it a dozen years ago. But it was first published in 1994 and Cedar Fort’s 2012 reissue is not even the first time it has been reissued. I’d vote for Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand as a classic romance, but I would not include it in my Best of 2012 list.

The question of which romance novels merit the label “classic” is another topic that usually evokes lively discussion. A more academic approach is to consider what novels belong in the canon of romance fiction. As romance scholar Jonathan A. Allan noted in a recent Teach Me Tonight post, there is no list of the "central texts of romance fiction that all scholars of popular romance should have read." Even if there were such a list, I wonder if romance readers would agree with scholars’ choice of “central texts.”

Several years ago, in one of those serendipitous moments that make me love research, I came across an article in which librarians knowledgeable about the romance genre generally and also fans of a particular subgenre selected five books that in their opinion “highlighted the features of that subgenre.”  I am an inveterate maker of lists myself, and I am always intrigued by other people’s lists. Librarians listing romances had particular appeal since before I became active in online romance-reading communities I had never encountered a librarian who admitted reading romance. Because these lists serve as recommendations for other librarians interested in building their libraries’ romance collections, these romances might be considered the “classics” in the various subgenres.

Traditional Regency
1.     Hern, Candice. A Garden Folly. New York: Signet, 1997
2.     Kelly, Carla. Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand. New York: New American Library, 2003
3.     Lane, Allison. The Rake's Rainbow. New York: New American Library, 1996
4.     Metzger, Barbara. A Debt to Delia. New American Library, 2002
5.     Richardson, Evelyn. Lady Alex's Gamble. New American Library, 1995

1.     Beverley, Jo. Forbidden Magic. New York: New American Library, 2005
2.     Putney, Mary Jo. The Wild Child. New York: Ballantine Books, 2000
3.     Wiggs, Susan. The Lightkeeper. New York: Mira, 2002
4.     Quinn, Julia. The Duke and I. New York: Avon Books, 2000
5.     Schone, Robin. Scandalous Lovers. New York: Kensington, 2007

1.     Crusie, Jennifer. Bet Me. New York: St. Martin's Pr., 2004
2.     Gibson, Rachel. See Jane Score. New York: Avon, 2003
3.     Greene, Jennifer Blame It on Cupid. New York: HQN Books, 2007
4.     Phillips, Susan Elizabeth. Natural Born Charmer. New York: William Morrow, 2007
5.     Roberts, Nora. Born in Fire. New York: Jove, 1996

Romantic Suspense
1.     Brockmann, Suzanne. Unsung Hero. New York: Ivy Books, 2000
2.     Brown, Sandra. Chill Factor. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006
3.     Garwood, Julie Heartbreaker. New York: Pocket Books, 2001
4.     Lowell, Elizabeth. Always Time to Die. New York: William Morrow, 2005
5.     Stewart, Mary My Brother Michael. New York: Morrow, 2001

1.     Feehan, Christine. Dark Prince. New York: Dorchester Leisure Books, 2005
2.     Krentz, Jayne Ann. White Lies. New York: G. R Putnam's Sons, 2007
3.     Owens, Robin D. HeartMate. New York: Berkley, 2006.
4.     Sinclair, Linnea. Gabriel's Ghost. New York: Bantam, 2005
5.     Stuart, Anne. Cinderman. New York: Harlequin, 1994

I have read eighteen of the twenty-five titles; that’s 72%, not a very impressive score. Certainly if I were making such a list, my choices would be different. I’d add a Mary Balogh title to the trad Regency list for starters. Not only did she write an impressive number but she also introduced a level of sensuality that was rare in the genre at that time. And how can Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels be omitted from the Historicals? The Contemporary list (the only list that I have read in its entirety) seems weighted toward lighter fare. I’d add a Kathleen Gilles Seidel or a Deborah Smith or Robyn Carr title to give it more balance. I’d also balance the 21st-century titles with more 20th-century titles, particularly since the reissue of many books in electronic format means that once OOP books are now available.

So what do you think of this list of classics? How many have you read? What changes would you make to the list? What books published in the last five years have the enduring value that will make them classics? And do you think a book first published in 1994 belongs on a best-of-2012 list?

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on The Romance Vagabonds blog in June 2008.

Citation for the article: Wyatt, Neal, Georgine Olson, Kristin Ramsdell, Joyce Saricks, and Lynne Welch. "Core Collections in Genre Studies: Romance Fiction 101." Reference & User Services Quarterly 47.2 (Winter 2007): 120(7). 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Tuesday Review: Renegade

By Nancy Northcott
Publisher: Grand Central/Forever Yours
Release Date: November 6, 2012

Valeria Banning, reeve, or sheriff, of the Southeastern United States shire of mages, is in a fight for her life, outnumbered five to one by ghouls bent on killing her or raping her and forcing her to breed. Thanks to the ghoul venom in her bloodstream from wounds sustained when she was captured and to an amulet her captors placed around her neck to block her powers, she is in a severely weakened state and running out of time. Desperate, she sends a summons for help.

In his sanctuary near the town of Wayfarer on the outskirts of Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp, fugitive Griffin Dare receives the summons. Once possessor of the title Val now holds, for the past six years, he has been labeled a rogue mage under sentence of death for murdering other mages. Griffin is leery of the summons, knowing it may be a trap, but honor won’t allow him to ignore it on the chance that it is genuine. Only after the five ghouls are dead and the rescue of the endangered mage successful does Griffin realize he has rescued a woman whose duty demands she kill him.

This is the situation with which Renegade, Nancy Northcott’s debut novel and the first book in her fantasy adventure series The Protectors, opens. The pace is fast and the stakes are high, and the pattern is established for this compelling story. Set against the backdrop of the ancient, mysterious swamp, the tale involves large and intricate world building. Mages, who draw their power from natural elements, have a history that goes back to the Medieval Age. That history lives in the Latin words of mage spells, in their runes, and even in the quarterstaff that is Griff’s favorite weapon. Mages are committed to protecting the mundane (humans with no magical powers) from the ghouls, creatures who feed on mages and mundanes alike and who can reproduce only by mating with their prey.

Val and Griff are understandably distrustful of one another, but Griff, whose battle against the traitors within the ranks of the mages has moved more slowly than he hoped, knows Val will be a valuable ally if he can persuade he to listen to the truth of what happened six years ago. Val does listen and soon she and Griff will join in a battle that pits them against dark magic that is more pervasive than they know. They must stay one move ahead of their powerful enemies as they try to uncover the full truth and expose those who have betrayed the code of the mages. Their battle against evil is complicated by the emotional struggles that ensue as these two strong characters fall in love with one another.

I confess that my fantasy reading is mostly limited to children’s books. I make a few exceptions, but I probably would have skipped Renegade had it not been written by Nancy Northcott, whom I’ve known for several years now as one of the Romance Bandits. I was also intrigued by the Okefenokee setting. But I was soon caught up in the power of the story, eager to see Griff vindicated and to see Val and Griff’s love story reach a happy conclusion.

The secondary characters--from Dr. Stefan Harper, the Collegium’s chief physician and Griff’s best friend to Will Davis, Griff’s second-in-command, to Miss Hettie Telfair and her golden retriever Magnus—are interesting characters whom I found engaging. The conflict is a new twist on a battle as old as time between those who value personal integrity and view power as responsibility and those who value only self-gratification and see power as a means of imposing their will on others. 

I may be reading outside my comfort zone, but I am hooked on the characters and the series. I’ll definitely be returning to Wayfarer in May for Guardian, book two in the series. If you enjoy a story that’s high on action and romance and takes place in a magical world that is so richly detailed that it invites belief, I highly recommend that you join me in this reading journey.

What’s the last book you read that was outside your usual genres or subgenres? Were you glad you ventured into different territory?