Sometimes, if I’m familiar with an author, I can overlook flaws in a story – especially if/when the author is trying something new; I’ll round up and qualify the recommendation to AAR readers with the reasons why. But that familiarity can be a problem when I can’t quite decide if the problems I have with a book are down to me or the story (or both!), and that’s what happened with Arctic Sun. Ultimately, I’ve decided it’s both – the pacing is off (the story drags), the story is dark (alcoholism and an eating disorder figure prominently), and I never connected with its principal characters. The principals are polar opposites I had a hard time believing could or would fall for each other, let alone form a lasting partnership; I just didn’t feel the chemistry between them. It’s challenging to launch a new series, especially when fans are so invested in the previous one, but unfortunately, Arctic Sun tries to do and be too much, and it’s more exhausting than entertaining.
Griffin Barrett, a recovering alcoholic who’s struggled hard for his sobriety, likes solitude and routine. After leaving the military, he’s hidden himself away at his family’s compound in Alaska, limiting himself to relationships with his tight-knit family, and the small group of employees who work for the family travel tourism business. He’s a hermit and sometimes lonely, but his reclusive lifestyle suits the person he wants to be and prevents him from falling back into the destructive habits – drinking to oblivion and hooking up with a series of forgettable men – that nearly destroyed his life. When his mom presses him to lead a photography tour into the Alaskan wilderness, Griffin’s knee-jerk response is to refuse. But with his injured uncle unable to lead the group, Griffin is best qualified to go – he’s a skilled photographer and he’s familiar with the itinerary and logistics of leading a group into the Alaskan wilderness – and he reluctantly agrees to go in his uncle’s stead.
River Vale is a world-famous supermodel fresh off the success of his first published book – a photography memoir chronicling his nomadic lifestyle. River has demons he’s trying to outrun, and unable to stay in the same place for too long, he chases adventure. No stranger to hard work or to roughing it, he’s hoping this latest undertaking – photographing the remote Alaskan wilderness – will jumpstart his stalled second book. His publisher isn’t pressuring him… yet – but River is anxious anyway. Arriving in Anchorage straight from a visit with his jet-setter friends during Italy’s fashion week, River is looking forward to a week to unwind and refocus. He isn’t expecting Garrett, his gruff and handsome mountain guide. Despite Garrett’s obvious ‘keep away’ body language, he’s just the sort of challenge River loves, and although he rebuffs all River’s attempts to charm and flirt with him, it only makes River try harder.
When the trip gets underway, Garrett is frustrated by his inconvenient and inappropriate attraction to the handsome River – and although determined to steer clear of him, traveling in close proximity makes it nearly impossible. River flirts with him whenever he can, and when River’s with the group, he fluidly transitions into buddy mode – friendly with everyone he meets. He’s a talented photographer and low maintenance client and not all what Garrett had expected. When one of the lodges mixes up their reservations and Garrett is forced to share a small cabin with River, Garrett knows he’s in trouble.
River doesn’t waste any time exploiting time alone with Garrett in close quarters. He tempts and flirts, cajoles and teases… until Garrett finally gives in. Usually I’m 100% on board with Ms. Albert’s opposites-attract pairings, but Arctic Sun is the exception. Garrett is working hard to keep away from River from almost the moment they meet. Maintaining his sobriety is a tricky and painful business, and River – despite the clear warning signs – won’t take no for an answer. Yes, they’re sexually attracted to one another, but Garrett makes it clear he thinks hooking up with River is a bad idea. He does it anyway, and from that point forward, I struggled with the story. Physical attraction almost immediately segues into a deep, meaningful emotional connection – and it’s a big leap.
Over the course of a weeklong trip – most of which Garrett spends trying to keep River at a distance – these two wildly different men with disparate lifestyles and personal demons they’re reluctant to share with each other somehow form a soul deep connection. In romance novels, an author like Ms. Albert can and does make this work. In real life, it usually doesn’t. And in Arctic Sun, when the author throws in doubtful family and friends, and a big Misunderstanding, it’s simply too much folks.
If the first half of Arctic Sun is devoted to the surprise love connection Garrett and River forge in Alaska, the second half is a painful reminder of all challenges they still need to face in order to be together. Misunderstandings, doubts and destructive behavior follow hard on the heels of the trip, and despite the tension and anxiety that Ms. Albert expertly ratchets up, I wasn’t invested in this couple, and the story drags. It’s depressing and sad, too – and friends, that combination led me to put this book down time and time again. Garrett and River are likeable – loveable – guys, but this story feels oddly hollow and I simply wasn’t rooting for them by the end of it. By contrast, a secondary romance that takes place largely off the page proved infinitely more joyful and entertaining!
As I mentioned at the beginning, I’m a big fan of Ms. Albert’s. Although this romantic pairing didn’t work for me, the framework for what’s to come in the series – more stories set in picturesque Alaska, quirky characters related to the Barrett family business, and more opposites-attract pairings – leaves me hopeful better is yet to come. Based on my history with Ms. Albert (the first books in the #gaymers and Out of Uniform series were also my least favorite), I have no plans to give up on her Frozen Hearts. I recommend Arctic Sun, with reservations.