Having just read about a teenaged superhero, I picked up Aphrodite’s Flame ready to see some superhero adults kick a little villainous butt. Well, they do, but they also prove that having superpowers doesn’t make a person secure and confident. This book is part of Julie Kenner’s Aphrodite series, where the ancient Greek gods weren’t exactly gods, but rather a super-powered race of Protectors dedicated to the protection of mortals. Those who reject this mission are Outcasts, and although they are prevented from using their powers, they’re still a threat to mortals everywhere.
Isole Frost is a Halfling, daughter of a mortal father and a Protector mother. Isole, or Izzy, embraces her Protector side, even though her powers aren’t quite as strong as a typical Protector’s, and everyone thinks she got into the Venerate Council of Protectors because her uncle is the High Elder. She’s just been promoted to a Level V counselor for Re-Assimilation, which means she will evaluate the very worst Outcasts who have seen the error of their ways and want to return to Protector status. She’s a bit touchy about it, since many Protectors see Halflings as, well, only half a Protector, and because her uncle is the one who promoted her. No matter how often she tells herself that she deserves this job, she imagines everyone at work is whispering ‘nepotism’ behind her back.
Mordichai Black is also a Halfling. He’s been an Outcast nearly his whole life, led astray by a desperate desire to please his Hitler-esque father. Now he’s been Re-assimilated, and works for the Council catching traitors. His inside knowledge of his father’s organization makes him very good at his new job, but he’s still suspect in the eyes of most Protectors, not to mention hated by the Outcasts.
Izzy’s first case is the biggest and baddest Outcast of them all, Hieronymous Black, who’s been trying to eliminate mortals and rule the world for some time. She really wants to do well in this first assignment, and aside from his personal history of evil, Black is from an old and respected Protector family. There’s a major treaty being negotiated with the mortals, and getting the most notorious Outcast back in the fold would remove a serious threat to the treaty’s passage. One of Izzy’s powers is the ability to read minds, and when she looks into Black’s mind, she sees sincerity. Her assistant on the case is Mordichai, who looks into Black’s eyes and sees treachery – Hieronymous Black is his father, and Mordi doesn’t for one second believe he’s reformed.
What follows is a clash of wills as they work through Hieronymous’s evaluation. As Mordi gets to know Izzy, he comes to understand what her job means to her, and he doesn’t want her to be wrong and risk failure. But if he’s right about his father, it could be the end of the mortal race. Izzy trusts what her powers tell her about Hieronymous; she has to, because if she can’t, she really isn’t qualified for her job. But she’s also aware of how successful Mordi has been at catching previously unsuspected spies and traitors, using experience and knowledge she doesn’t have, and he’s positive Hieronymous is lying. There’s quite a conflict here, as each wants to be right, yet doesn’t want the other to be wrong.
There are two big things that bothered me about this book. First, the real villain is revealed pretty early, and the reader is in on it as the Evil Plot unfolds. Since the reader knows who is right about Hieronymous, Izzy’s and Mordi’s struggle loses a great deal of tension and suspense. Worse, as the story goes on, their relationship causes the one who’s right to doubt, and even withhold judgment when pressed by superiors. Had the uncertainty been strung out even just to this point, the truth would have made a bigger impact.
Second, the Venerate Council has rules, just like any mortal organization, and Izzy deliberately breaks one her first day on the new job: she doesn’t report a major conflict of interest. For someone so concerned about doing everything right, and so aware that others are watching her for any signs of incompetence, it seems like a serious lapse in judgment. The longer she keeps her secret, the deeper she slips into denial about its importance, and I really wanted to shake her after a while.
The story starts a little slowly but picks up speed as it goes, and the ending just flies, with a number of unexpected twists. Kenner knows how to write an adventure. As a romance, though, it’s not so hot – literally. Izzy and Mordi spend so much of their time running from bad guys, arguing about Hieronymous, and trying to prove themselves worthy, that the romance depends a great deal on lustful thoughts (and Izzy can read Mordi’s, so she doesn’t even have to wonder if he fancies her as much as she fancies him). Had the adventure plot really rocked, I mightn’t have noticed as much, but it didn’t, and I did.
If the heroine were a little less self-absorbed, and the villain’s plot (which was really quite elaborate) more mysterious, this would be a really taut adventure romance. As is, it’s a decent but not enthralling read.