My fellow reviewer, Kristen, has raved about Cecilia London’s Bellator Saga – and given that I like a nice, juicy political thriller, I decided pretty much at the beginning of the year that Dissident, the first book in the series would be my recommended read this year.
I’ll start out by saying that the saga is a serial in which one storyline runs through all six books in the series; rather like a TV mini-series, all the books need to be read in order for the reader to experience the entirety of the story, so if you’re planning on having a look at this one, be prepared to be in it for the long haul. I think each book ends on a cliffhanger (which is clearly stated at Amazon); this one definitely does and I’m sufficiently invested in the story and characters (especially the two principals) to want to read more.
The story opens in the present as we follow a couple – a husband and wife we learn are named Jack and Caroline – as they run through the woods in the attempt to evade the soldiers who are pursuing them. Both are injured, but Caroline is clearly in a very bad way, and she urges Jack to continue without her, telling him that the information they have risked so much to gather is more important than either of them. It’s clear that these two are devoted to one another and that it costs Caroline a lot to make the suggestion and even more for Jack to hear it. Even though we’re just a few pages into the book at this point, it’s quite devastating when Jack wrenches himself away and prepares to do as Caroline asks, saying:
“I will come back for you, Caroline. Understand? I promise I will come back. I’m not giving up. I will find someone I can trust and I will come back.”
As it’s the first in a series, Dissident is mostly set-up, focusing on the two central characters, the recently widowed Democratic Congresswoman Caroline Gerard and Jack McIntyre, a multi-millionaire Republican with a reputation for being an arsehole. Having read Kristen’s reviews of two of the later books in the series, it’s clear that the author is going to take us to some dark and uncomfortable places, so it’s important that we get to know and understand these individuals given that they are our windows into the story, and that the relationship that evolves between them is its bedrock.
Over five years earlier, Jack and Caroline got off to a rocky start when she bad-mouthed him to the media, calling him a “millionaire playboy trying to buy his way into Congress.”. Her only defence is that at that time, she was in a very bad place; she had recently lost her husband and had thrown herself into work to compensate, making a number of bad decisions of which spouting off about would-be Congressman McIntyre was one. Months later, she hopes to apologise to him in person, but he doesn’t want to hear it and brushes her off abruptly, which Caroline thinks she probably deserves. But later that same night, Jack relents and the two of them strike up a conversation which leads to the development of a very close friendship which is terribly important to them both.
Ms. London writes this growing relationship incredibly well; Jack and Caroline are mature characters (he’s forty-seven, she’s thirty-six) and their life experience shows, lending a real sense of authenticity to their interactions, which are deep, playful, witty and insightful by turns. Their gradual falling-in-love is superbly and subtly depicted; it’s obvious that Jack is head-over-heels fairly early on but recognises that he shouldn’t rush things, while Caroline is a little more hesitant to become romantically involved. She’s warm, funny and utterly devoted to her young daughters as well as being the sort of person who fights for the underdog and wants to make a difference. Jack comes across as an arrogant arse when we – along with Caroline – first meet him, but it’s soon clear that isn’t really who he is, and I loved the way that as their friendship progresses, Caroline comes to see him for the good man he is beneath the highly polished exterior. Their romance is beautifully done and nicely steamy (Jack is one hot silver fox!) and the emotional connection they share is very deeply rooted and one which, I suspect, is going to prove a lifeline for both of them as the story progresses.
While something like seventy-five percent of the book takes place five years in the past and concentrates on the growing romance between Jack and Caroline, there are a few present day chapters scattered strategically throughout Dissident showing us what happens after Jack leaves Caroline in the woods. (The fact that he leaves her is one of the reasons this character-building story is essential; we need to know the strength of Jack’s feelings for Caroline in order to realise just how important the information he is carrying must be if he is prepared to leave her to an unknown fate to keep it safe.) It’s clear that all is not well in America; the information I’ve gleaned has come mostly from reading reviews, so I won’t spoil it here, save to say that mentions of secession and martial law and the accusations of treason levelled at Caroline definitely tell us we’re not in Kansas anymore.
There are a few writing hiccups and the odd place where the pace flags a bit, but for the most part, this is a strongly-written and well-conceived tale of political intrigue that sucked me in from the start and kept me eagerly turning the pages. Jack and Caroline are engaging characters, their romance is believable and passionate, and the author has started the ball rolling on what promises to be an epic story.
I’m definitely in it for the long haul.
Buy it at Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes and Noble/Kobo