The Angels' Share
For years I’ve read and enjoyed J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series. All of the books seem to focus on the Brotherhood at large, setting up future books, but I’ve never minded that since a lot of the focus was still on the main couple; Ward always seemed to strike a nice balance between focusing on the romance and moving the secondary storylines forward. Unfortunately, that balance seems to have been lost in her new Bourbon Kings series.
Anyone considering reading the first book in the series, The Bourbon Kings, should stop here. The entirety of The Angels’ Share (and this review) deals with the aftermath of the previous book’s cliffhanger ending and therefore contains spoilers.
The Bourbon Kings ended with the discovery that William Bradford Baldwine, head of the family and the owner of the Bradford Bourbon Company, stole millions of dollars from the company and then jumped to his death in the Ohio River. The remainder of the Bradford family has just woken up to find their business run into the ground. Once the most powerful family in Charlemont, KY their status is now crumbling.
Lane, the youngest Bradford son who returned in the last book to take charge of the company, is front and center of this crisis. While in that story we saw him reconnect with his old sweetheart, Lizzie, in this tale they are rarely together—most of the time we’re watching Lane struggle all alone with the burden of being the new head of the household and business. This struggle, unfortunately, takes him down an awful path where he begins coercing people into doing things for him rather than risk them defying him if he offers a choice.
In other words, Lane is turning into his father. I’m all for character development, even when it means a good person is slowly being twisted into a dark one. Great writers can and do build entire stories around twisted characters. The difference here is that I never felt like Lane was someone who could or would manipulate others in such a manner. Seeing this threw me off and made me dislike one of the only characters I walked into the story rooting for. Moreover, I never felt like this change in him was fully addressed as a positive or negative—his friend Jeff certainly didn’t like being coerced, and I was put off by it, but Lane and many others seem to just view it as a part of the Bradford lifestyle, and nothing to worry about.
I was really disappointed that the author took Lane down this path rather than having him and Lizzie confront this new trouble together.
Lane’s sister Gin has the opposite character arc; she is someone I started out hating and ended up respecting. She’s a single mother who’s never shown a bit of interest in her daughter and she’s set to marry an awful man she detests in order to keep up the lifestyle she’s known all her life. All this while, her old flame Samuel T. Lodge looks on in despair. Gin never told Samuel he was the father of her child, and for years has pretended a hate toward him she doesn’t feel. Her life is a mess and worthy of portrayal in a TV drama, but toward the end of the book she begins to own up to her mistakes, finally acting like an adult rather than a petulant child. This was the saving grace of The Angels’ Share for me, the only storyline that held my interest all the way through the book.
Naturally, there is even more going on here than I’ve mentioned yet. Edward Bradford, oldest son and once the heir apparent to the company is working to get his life in order. His father had had him kidnapped and tortured while on a business trip in South America years ago, and in this book we get to see more of Edward as he deals with the aftermath of those events. We also get glimpses of his love interest, Sutton Smythe, and some of the Bradford Bourbon Company’s only remaining employees as they invent a new strain of bourbon. And of course, there’s an investigation into William’s death threading through it all.
For me, likeable books begin with interesting, likeable characters. The Angels’ Share has a large cast, but by the end there were only a few people I found likeable and interesting—namely Gin, her daughter, and Samuel. Most of the other characters who could have fit this bill either didn’t get enough screen time for me to find them interesting, or began showing a darker side of themselves by the end of the book, as Lane did. When I looked back and realized I didn’t connect well with the majority of the characters in The Angels’ Share, I realized I’d be handing out a lower grade than I would typically give one of Ms. Ward’s books. Objectively, this plotline could be interesting. But it was easy to lose interest and close the book since I didn’t like (or care about) most of the people in it.
This isn’t to say I will never pick up a Bourbon Kings book again. I may get the next one from the library, just to see what happens to everyone. I definitely won’t be buying it though. Just as I don’t commit to watching an entire TV series until I’m sure I’ll like most of the cast, I think I’m not ready to commit to the Bourbon Kings until I know I’ll like all of the players.