So awhile back I mentioned that I thought Anne Stuart changed publishers. She got new covers for some of her re-published works and some of her back list was being digitized. That doesn't necessarily mean she got a new publisher but I was struggling to find her in my local indies for awhile.
This series of books are all romances with a reoccurring plot line where the super secret organization known as "The Committee" is involved. Normally I'm not overly into governmental spy/military agencies with no oversight from Congress (::coughblackwatercough::) because that's how you get into multiple decades of a war in which many people die and no one goes in for war crimes that probably should.
I got off track. These books are not blackwater-ey. Which is good. Nor are they full of alpha-military-assholes (although they are a band of mercenaries). Also good. The main leads tend to be Anne Stuart's norm of "bad boys" and her norm of slightly frigid career women. Granted, I just read a long form associated with Ronan Farrow's book about NBC and their cover-up of Weinstein and Laurer so I think frigid career women tend to be more of a defense because of men like that. It works in my head right now.
Title: Black Ice
Author: Anne Stuart
Page Number: 377 pages (paperback)
Genre: Romance, Contemporary, Suspense, (slightly mystery as well)
Publisher: MIRA books, an imprint of Harlequin , part of Harper Collins
Living paycheck to paycheck in Paris, American book translator Chloe Underwood would give anything for some excitement and passion--even a little danger. So when she's offered a lucrative weekend gig translating at a business conference in a remote chateau, she jumps at the chance to shake things up.
Then by chance Chloe discovers her employers are anything but the entrepreneurs they appear, and suddenly she knows far too much. Her clients are illegal arms dealers, and one of them is ordered to kill her. But instead, Bastien Toussaint drags Chloe away, and the next thing she knows she's on the run with the most terrifying and seductive man she's ever met. What were his motives--and would she live long enough to find out?
I sometimes don't think the back blurbs of Stuart's book do her justice -- but this one is okay. I've already spoiled that there's a super secret organization involved somehow, but I'll try not to ruin too much more.
The two main characters are (American) Chloe Underwood and (French) Bastien Toussaint. Chloe and her chic British roommate live in Paris; they both work for a French publisher. Chloe tends to translate children's books and nothing else, limiting her income, even though she's a bit of a polyglot and could get higher paying jobs elsewhere. She's romantic but safe in all her choices. Her roommate (Sylvia) is less responsible, prone to romantic entanglements with richer, older men and often associates with dangerous people without thought. One winter's day, while Chloe is alone in the publishing office, Sylvia comes barging through the door in a panic. She's double-booked herself (with a man and a high paying translating job) and she needs Chloe to take the job. While initially reluctant, Chloe eventually goes on the translating job because she could use the money. This all happens in the first chapter. When Chloe arrives at the semi-refurbished french chateau, she meets a variety of characters posing as European grocery importers, including Bastien Toussaint.
Bastien is bad. I've seen reviews mention him as a "Gamma Hero" which seems to be a good fit (in the sense that these are romance publishing terms and not real life). Bastien doesn't trust Chloe, seeing her as either an inept spy sent to infiltrate their group or an innocent bystander. This annoys him because he's infiltrating the group for The Committee and doesn't want Chloe to mess things up. Bastien is tall, dark and brooding, extremely dangerous, jaded of his rogue life and is somewhat attracted to the innocence Chloe emits. Unlike the misunderstood 'dark' heroes that have a core of gold, Bastien is ruthlessly bad. I mean, he's a legit bad, bad, bad boy. I think, if you read enough, you'll have seen the accidental hypocritical "'rakes' and 'bad boys' that just needed a woman's love and then they turn into puddles of emotion" plot lines. A lot. That's not going to happen with Anne Stuart books. I secretly (although not secretly now) enjoy that.
The other importers are strangely important to the story, there's Hakim (the defacto Host), Madame Lambert, Monica and the Barron, Christos (the missing Greek importer), and at least two more. We know that The Committee has placed at least one other operative somewhere in the group but we don't know who until the end.
The meetings between the importers (and with Chloe present) have an undercurrent of tension (they're waiting for Christos and one of their other members was murdered). Chloe understands things aren't quite right but doesn't know why. She keeps encountering Bastien out of the meetings (they go into town together for instance) which grows the tension between them (Chloe is attracted to him and Bastien is attracted yet suspicious of her). Eventually Chloe escapes to back to Paris--away from the importers--but at that point her life is danger as she knows too much. Bastien follows her to Paris (and eventually America) either to protect or kill her (I mean, it's a romance with a happy ending so...it's not that much of a mystery). The ending is a bit abrupt with everything cleared out (Committee business completed) and the 'Happily Ever After.' There is a change of pace from earlier romance books (including some of Stuarts) in which all romance books needed to have the 'HEA' with marriage and immediate babies in the last chapter. Those are always annoying endings. Here, Bastien and Chloe start a normal relationship...albeit...abruptly.
Plot wise, I suppose you have to suspend disbelief that you can just sub out for translating jobs randomly (any girl will do!) and that arms dealers are going to need a random, un-vetted translator. Stranger things have happened I suppose. Sometimes the plot is erratic, other times it's quick and dangerous. There's subterfuge within a subterfuge, and the reader gets introduced to two more characters that star in two other books in the series (numbers two and four). Bastien is a dark, tortured hero...but he doesn't want to lock Chloe in a dungeon with poorly thought out BDSM fantasies, nor is he a vampire with a pedophilia predilection, nor a alpha military dude who has to be on top all the time. He is a killer, he does bad things but he likes Chloe and is going to finish his mission and save her at the same time.
I read it like a HBO action movie and didn't delve too deeply into 'what-ifs' or 'how-coulds' for the plot. Sure, it's perfectly normal in the book for Chloe and Bastien to drive right up to the airstrip but could they in real life? Who knows. I don't recall the French Air people being lenient on little things like rules and laws.
The newer cover is below. The background image looks about the same but the font and color has changed for the title and author. Saturation of the colors has really brought the image out as well. The icicle motif in the font is gone (which I did like, but I like the new one below as well).
Chloe does some dumb things (super dumb) like look up all the importers on the house computer, not covering her tracks, after suspiciously announcing that she needs to "check her emails" to all the importers at dinner. Stealth is not in her vocabulary. She does pretend to not speak multiple languages (just French and English) allowing her to eavesdrop on the other members. I think this was Anne Stuart's way of showing Chloe freaking out when she realizes she's in a room with very, very dangerous people and not creating a character that's too stupid to live. I might be giving undue credit but I think this was on purpose. She's unlike other of Anne Stuart heroines because she's not totally frigid (she has a type) and she does have a friend that appears in the beginning and end of the book (Sylvia). She's smart, she has a career and she's a little neurotic (like her other heroines). In her own way, Chloe is a perfect foil for Bastien.
The setting is in North Carolina, Paris and the French countryside. All locations I'm very familiar with and my mind instantly conjured up a scene. I'm not sure Stuart actively describes Paris other than describing the atmosphere of winter in the city. I don't think you have to visit any of these places to grasp locations but if you live for vivid, overly descriptive locales...this will be a bummer. My mind went to the Rue de Montmorency for Chloe's apartment, Chateau De Bouceel for the French Chateau Chloe and Bastien first meet in (although I suppose you can go even more Louis XIV if you want), and the Blue Ridge Mountains for Chloe's home in America. The nice things about books is that sometimes you can supply your own images for things.
Things to note: There is violence and not quite consensual sex as well as non-consensual touching. Normally, I'm not keen on ruining the plot lines or anything extra with books but I think it can be quite horrifying for someone to find themselves reading a book that upsets them. That might sound "safe space-ey" but there's nothing wrong with people avoiding triggering material. Also, every person I've seen complain about stuff like that tends to be a certain, un-empathetic type of individual who can go and spin somewhere else. So I'm going to break down what happens. The scene where there non-consensual touching happens after Chloe is drugged into sleep (yup, that happens too) and Bastien comes into her rooms to search for clues as to her possible super secret spy identity. He also checks her body--in which he realizes that she is wearing the wrong size clothing (they are Sylvia's but he thinks it's an oddity). The not quite consensual sex is when Bastien and Chloe do have sex for the first time. He's analytical in trying to get a response from her at the height of her emotional state and she's carried away with passion. The next time they have sex with one another, it's on a more even playing ground with Chloe taking the lead. The violence is specifically after Hakim takes Chloe into the unfinished part of the Chateau. Also...throughout the rest of the book. It's not overly graphic but it is dark. That didn't bother me, but I read dark books quite a bit.
I think Anne Stuart has a great writing style. I get sucked into her stories. I think her action scenes are fantastic as she really is able to set the scene. That being said, the bad guys here are bad but almost inept (who hires a random translator for a arms dealers meeting?!) I won't even get into the public place the next meeting occurs at. The committee is shrouded in mystery (although more detailed as the series goes on, you might have to suspend disbelief as a reader at times). Stuart writes a gamma hero-character quite well. It works in the book but I'd run screaming in real life. Chloe sometimes borders on the "too stupid to live" (TSTL) trope but manages to evade it with her just being so normal. It's actually quite a feat because I despise the TSTL characters.
Another tidbit I loved was that Anne Stuart quoted Alfred Noyes' poem, "The Highwayman", which I've loved since high school.
Also, the re-read of this book put me at my reading goal of the year (200 books). I think the rest of the year is going to be spent trying to knock out at least one of my bigger books and read some more "just for fun" books. I'm in a huge reading slump. Usually Anne Stuart books propel me forward, but I seem to only have the urge to re-read the ICE/FIRE series again.
Anne Stuart blog