Eden’s Shadow was one of the most anticipated books of the year for me. The latest in Harlequin Intrigue’s Gothic romance promotion, it’s also Jenna Ryan’s first book in five years. Her previous titles are some of the creepiest series books ever, and I’ve really missed her dark style as the series landscape has grown blander and blander over the years. The nicely mysterious title grabbed my attention when it was announced, and as soon as I saw the beautifully atmospheric cover (one of my favorites of the year), I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. I really wish I could recommend it. Sadly, it’s one of the most disappointing reads I’ve had this year.
Eden Bennett is the oldest of three New Orleans sisters who were given up for adoption as children. Reunited as adults, they reconnected with their mother and grandmother, who revealed a sinister family legacy. Generations ago, a vengeful woman placed a voodoo curse on their family, promising a dire fate to one member in each generation of their family. According to the curse, Eden will be the next victim to face death – or worse.
That’s not the only dark secret lurking in their family tree. The sisters were told their birth father was dead. But when the middle sister, Lisa, learns that he’s actually still alive, she goes to meet him. It turns out there was good reason his existence was kept a secret: the man was a cruel sleaze and all-around rotten excuse for a human being. When he turns up dead shortly after their meeting, a witness comes forward claiming that Lisa killed him.
Eden is determined to prove her sister’s innocence. Her involvement in the case brings her into contact with the mysterious Armand LaMorte. The secretive detective has a habit of lurking in the shadows and appearing when Eden least expects it. When a series of strange accidents befall her, he’s there to save her. Her grandmother claims the incidents are the result of the curse, but Eden thinks something more earthbound is responsible. Whatever the cause, she needs Armand’s protection. She doesn’t know that he has his own agenda he’s keeping secret from her.
On one level, there are many things to admire about the book. It’s a very intricately conceived and complex storyline. That alone puts it above the shallow and simplistic suspense plots increasingly common in today’s series books. It’s no cookie-cutter plot, but very much an original creation. It gets off to a promising start, with an opening chapter that pulled me straight into the author’s dark and distinctive storytelling style. It’s definitely moodier than the usual series book. One interesting touch is that Eden is a dentist, not exactly a common occupation among romance heroines, and it’s not just a wallpaper profession. We actually do see her doing her job.
But on the whole, the book is only somewhat intriguing and not very satisfying. Ryan’s books tend to be very mystery-driven, with the romance and character development running a distant second (or third or fourth, really) in importance to the suspense plot. I’m used to it and don’t expect to be caught up in a compelling love story. But even for this author, Eden and Armand are incredibly boring characters. The romance is beyond slight. They express the occasional admiration for each other’s physical attributes, but you have to squint and look really hard to catch the attraction between them. Ryan’s books usually include a diverse cast of interesting personalities among the supporting cast. The secondary characters here are somewhat varied, but not all that interesting. Other than Eden’s mother, whose disreputable past and business are hinted at, and a voodoo queen Eden and Armand run into, the characters don’t make much of an impression.
Ryan’s lack of romance rarely bothers me because of hat she delivers instead: fiendishly clever mysteries, unforgettable twists, and so much atmosphere that it practically seeps from the pages into the reader’s fingers. None of those elements are particularly notable here. Though stylishly told, the story moves slowly. Things are happening, but it often feels like the story’s not going anywhere. Eden is attacked, and attacked, and attacked, but they’re not making any progress toward figuring out who the killer is. The plot is often muddled and confusing. More than once I found myself having to go back and reread passages to make sure I understood what was happening. The mystery is acceptable, but while the killer’s identity isn’t exactly predictable, it’s not all that surprising either. Ryan does serve up some of her usual creepy atmosphere and one of her patented epilogues, though neither compares those with the author’s better books. I think this story was simply too ambitious. There’s a lot going on here for a 248-page book, and as a result, much of it isn’t executed that well. The story could have used the extra breathing room of a single-title release.
This really isn’t the review I wanted to write when I sat down to read Eden’s Shadow. I’ve reread several of the author’s books – Belladonna and When Night Falls and The Woman in Black – over the last five years. It felt like it took me that long to get through this one. The best I can say about it is that it’s certainly more original and distinctive than much of what’s on the marketplace, but it’s still not a particularly satisfying read. I still think Ryan has a great deal of talent. It just isn’t served very well in this book. Hopefully her next one will be better, and we won’t have to wait five years to see it.