In Sheep's Clothing
I chose to review In Sheep’s Clothing because the setting and premise sounded very interesting. The book is about an American missionary who gets into trouble in contemporary Russia and must flee for her life. Since Susan May Warren is actually a former missionary who served in Russia, I figured this book might have the advantage of seeming authentic, bypassing all the usual whoopsy mistakes most authors make when writing about Russia. And it does – seem authentic, that is. Unfortunately, an interesting premise and an authentically rendered setting do not count for everything in fiction.
Gracie Benson has served for two years as a missionary in the Siberian town of Khabarovsk. She has made no converts to Christianity and feels like a failure. She doesn’t want to leave Russia, but her visa is up, so she has no choice. On a routine trip to check her email, she discovers that her friend Evelyn Young, also a missionary, has been murdered and Evelyn’s husband is dead as well. Soon the FSB, the contemporary version of the KGB, is involved in the case. A number of corpses pile up, and it looks very much like Gracie might be next. Gracie finds herself unwillingly in the custody of Vicktor Shubnikov, FSB agent and the man who says he can keep her safe. But can she trust him with her security or with her heart?
Vicktor is a man obsessed. When his veterinarian friend, Evgeny, is found murdered in the signature fashion of Russian serial killer “The Wolf,” he is determined to solve the crime. Some time ago the Wolf cost Vicktor’s father his mobility and his job in the militia, and Vicktor feels personally responsible. Now with several new victims before him Viktor, has been given more evidence to try and track down the Wolf. What Vicktor doesn’t foresee is being attracted to the woman who seems to be in the thick of this murder spree. It should be easy enough for him to ignore Gracie. After all, she’s a missionary, and he doesn’t believe in God. But somewhere in trying to save her life, he realizes that he is the one who needs saving, both emotionally and spiritually. Unless he can discover the identity of the Wolf, however, Gracie is going to be only another victim…
In Sheep’s Clothing is an inspirational romance which means that it has to be a romantic story and it has to touch the reader in some way as to her own spirituality. In both of these respects the book failed for me.
The book takes place over only a very few days, during which Gracie does nothing but run and hide. It’s hard for an author to pull off a love-at-first-sight premise with me, and Warren doesn’t come close. Gracie and Vicktor have a few deep conversations about their various degrees of personal pain in between dodging bullets, but, really, they know nothing about each other, except that they are mutually attracted and that each of them suffers from spiritual angst. Gracie waffles between trusting that Vicktor wants to help her and fearing him because of his FSB background. When she isn’t trusting him, she’s running away, and he’s tracking her down again. Frankly, it’s hard to understand why she would trust him, especially on such short acquaintance. The Russian militia does have its share of untrustworthy individuals in it, and federal officials anywhere can be scary. Said officials can be especially scary in a place where you have no rights and aren’t completely familiar with the rules. And then there’s the fact that Vicktor is the KGB equivalent of Barney Fife. He bungles protecting Gracie over and over, hiding her in a series of places where any rookie psychopath would guess she might be. His investigative skills are also unimpressive, and he repeatedly asks dumb questions of his superiors in regards to these crimes. Gracie really would have been better off if he’d let her run to the American Embassy in Vladivostok as she attempts to do before he takes her into custody. Except that then there would be no love story.
Still, there isn’t much of a love story, anyway. There’s a fair amount of self-loathing inner monologue on both characters’ parts, interspersed with G-rated lust think. Both Gracie and Vicktor spend a goodly amount of time thinking about how attractive the other person is. If I were being stalked by a serial killer who liked to slit his victim’s throats in such a grisly fashion, my mind would be on my ass, and no one else’s. But that’s just me.
As an inspirational, this story was equally unsatisfying. Gracie has very low self-confidence, which might be understandable, but she spends a great deal of emotional energy bemoaning her failure to make any converts in Russia. Someone in her church’s home office should explain to her that missionaries don’t and shouldn’t work on a quota system. Given that each person living has his own Free Will, a basic Christian doctrine, Gracie can’t make anyone convert. She can only present her beliefs and pray for wisdom in dealing with people. And conversion shouldn’t be her only task as a missionary. It’s the focus, yes, but if during those two years in Khabarovsk she showed people comfort or offered them help in their hours of need, she did her job.
Theologically, Gracie seems either completely simplistic or utterly untrained. In response to Vicktor’s question, “And how do you know the Bible is true?” Gracie replies, “…if the Bible isn’t true, or only parts of it are, how are we to know which parts are accurate and which aren’t? You either believe it in one gulp, or dismiss it outright. It can’t be pieced out.” Her Protestant predecessors of the 16th century would disagree. Throughout history various Christian sects held councils to decide which parts of scripture could be considered authentic and divinely inspired and which did not make the canonical cut. It’s for this reason that the Catholic Bible and the various Protestant Bibles differ from each other. Because theologians believe that it can indeed be pieced out. Giving this kind of blasé answer to a serious question is rather insulting to Vicktor’s intelligence.
Finally there is Gracie’s Russian proficiency. Or complete lack of it. In the two years she served in Khabarovsk, she learned inadequate Russian to communicate even at a basic level, instead preferring to rely on the linguistic skills of her driver/translator. How could she hope to make a real connection to anyone in Russia without respecting them enough to learn their language, let alone convert anyone to Christianity? Any business would require language proficiency of anyone it sent over on a two-year assignment. A church should expect the same.
Conversely, Vicktor’s English is surprisingly good. So good that he doesn’t even blink when in response to the question of whether he should date Gracie, his American Christian friend says, “Unequally yoked, friend. She’s a princess of the King of the Universe.”
I finished this book and let it digest for a few days before writing the review. Initially I graded it higher because the story’s action did pick up significantly in the final third of the book as the author worked out her titular metaphor of betrayal. Unfortunately this series of events eventually results in the kind of HEA that is generally comes after years of exhaustive therapy – for Gracie at least – which is a bit disconcerting for the reader. I wish I could recommend In Sheep’s Clothing as there are so few decent romances set in Russia, and requests for these regular appear on our Reader to Reader message board. But the book had so many problems that I just can’t.