Dangerous Illusions has just about everything a good romantic suspense novel should: complex characters, plenty of passion, a lot of emotion, taut action sequences, manipulation, betrayals, sustained tension and a strong heroine. Unfortunately, the execution often gets in the way of the story. It’s a compelling enough read that I do recommend, although that recommendation does come with some strong caveats.
Beth Silver is a potter in a small New Zealand village. She’s also a woman who doesn’t exist. Years ago she was Delia de Souza, a supermodel and daughter of the Brazilian ambassador to the United States. But when an international criminal became obsessed with her, she allowed the world to believe she was dead and escaped to the South Pacific to raise her son under an assumed name. Unfortunately her pursuer never stopped looking for her. Neither did the intelligence community, believing she possessed evidence that the man ordered the death of a U.S. senator.
She thought she was safe, until Brendan McCall walked into her pottery shop. Ten years ago, the former U.S. Navy SEAL (of course) was Delia de Souza’s lover. She never forgot him. She also knows she can’t trust him. He claims to be an agent with a top-secret organization. She begins to make plans to escape, all while trying to maintain her cover as Beth Silver with the skeptical McCall. It won’t be easy. His eyes tell her he knows she’s lying, and he’s not about to let her get away from him again.
I tried Melissa James’s previous book and couldn’t make it past the first few chapters. This time, though, I was sucked in from the beginning. The story is tense and involving. For instance, I didn’t even realize until a hundred pages in that nothing had really happened yet. Looking back, all that really occurred up to that point was that Brendan came to Delia’s shop, they exchanged dialogue dripping with deeper meaning, then he left. Then they did that several more times. He came back and left, then came back, then left, over and over again. Yet it didn’t seem as repetitive or boring as it might sound, mostly because of the tension the author maintains. The cat-and-mouse exchanges between Beth and Brendan crackle with electricity. There’s a lot of emotion bubbling beneath the surface, as the feelings they once shared return for both of them. It may not be heavy in action, but the intriguing byplay and character drama was still gripping.
After those first hundred pages, the story does kick into high gear. The action becomes heavier, until an all-out battle at the book’s climax. The middle section of the book brings out the best in the heroine, who proves she’s not all talk. I did love her scathing comments toward those she felt were manipulating her, but she’s also physically tough and a fighter, with some tricks up her sleeve. It’s easy to understand why Brendan’s colleagues begin to suspect she’s an agent too. This is the kind of meaty series book that feels like a much longer book. By the end it did feel as if the author had covered much more ground in the plot and romance because of the way she really digs into each. The spy elements are edgy and believable and the action sequences are effective.
However, her handling of other elements is much less successful. It sometimes feels as though the author doesn’t have enough faith in her story and the emotions that emerge naturally from it. Instead, she pushes the emotional elements and the big scenes too hard, embellishing them with flowery passages that diminish rather than enhance their effectiveness. At times she tries to express her characters’ feelings in extended metaphors that were just bewildering. For instance, Chapter Four opens with an interminable passage that goes on and on. A sample:
Even when he’d had the tourist’s mask in place, all she saw was the dark-haired barbarian, the savage heathen pulling her out of her ordered, controlled, hemmed-in life. She heard it, heard all he wanted to say to her in just the air he breathed. The wild singing, like pagan night revels, bursting to life from deep within the tight-leashed male strength of McCall, commanded the long-dormant woman in her soul. Come to hell. Drawing her there irresistibly. A mirror image to the mystery inside herself. McCall had scorch marks on his soul, a deep core of loneliness waiting to be unleashed, and a young boy’s dreams lying in scattered shards at his feet.
It sounds like something out of one of those 80s historical potboilers, not a contemporary romantic suspense. And a page later:
Frozen. She’d been frozen since Papa told her that the man she adored was a traitor to his country. Her emotions encased in a delicate layer of ice, afraid to trust her own judgment. Now the ice was melting. With one look from his forest eyes, fire slammed into ice and kept on burning, hard and bright and remorseless as the sun. Within a day he’d brought her back to life. The ice that had been her protection for a decade was a warm, slushy puddle at her feet.
A bit much, no? If the author would just tone it down and stop trying so hard to push the Big! Emotions! her characters’ feelings would be more moving instead of over-the-top. All of the book’s most effective moments come from dialogue and the characters’ reactions to each other at key times, not from the flowery passages. During the action moments her writing is leaner and more engaging than in the introspection. Likewise, she isn’t content to let her characters be tortured. In the author’s hands, a simple tragic past is blown up to epic proportions. Brendan has more than enough reason to be tormented, but it’s not enough for the author. A late scene where he shares an even more depressing story about himself than everything else we already know is just overkill.
The overwrought portions were like potholes the story kept hitting, and there were plenty of them along the way. For me they were an annoyance that I had to wade through in order to savor the more enjoyable parts of the story. Other readers may not be able to, and if you couldn’t get through the examples above without either snickering or scratching your head, this isn’t the book for you. Melissa James does have the goods to write compelling espionage romances, full of passion and action. If only she realized that when it comes to expressing emotion, a little goes a long way.