Shana Abé tends to write a kind of romance that I generally avoid like the plague, what I like to call the “Adversarial Romance.” When she writes them, I don’t seem to be bothered by the “I hate you but want to bonk you” interactions, big misunderstandings, and revenge and/or established enmity that typifies her books. There’s something about her writing that, instead of having me toss her books against the nearest wall, has my imagination engaged instead. While Intimate Enemies is not her strongest work, it’s miles better than your run-of-the-mill Adversarial Romance.
The MacRaes and du Morgans are two antagonistic clans – the first Scottish, the second English – inhabiting the Isle of Shot, a fictional island off the coast of Great Britain. The Vikings are trying to take over the island. The book begins when Arion du Morgan, the new earl, is fighting the northern invaders and about to be killed. The MacRaes come to the rescue. Arion’s rescuer is none other than Lauren MacRae, the daughter of the now-dead chieftain. She is the de facto leader of the clan since her cousin, the heir, is in a coma, the result of the same Viking attack that killed her father. She mightily resents having to save Arion, but Arion did help Lauren escape when she was kidnapped and held for ransom as a child by his uncle Ryder, the former Earl of Morgan.
Arion immediately falls for the adult Lauren, and this attraction partly spurs him to propose an alliance between the two clans in order to defeat their common enemy. Lauren herself feels horrified at her attraction to Arion and initially resists the offer. The MacRaes have requested the help of Payton Murdoch, the leader of a powerful clan on the mainland and Lauren’ s betrothed. However, the Murdochs aren’t exactly rushing to their aid, and Lauren knows the isle would be much better off united. Now all she has to do is convince a rather hostile council who is beginning to resent her participation in the running of the clan.
Abé’s books often feel more like dreamy, violent adult fairy tales than actual medievals, so the love story seems to take place as much in the metaphysical plane as it does in the physical. The chemistry between Arion and Lauren is instantaneous and almost mystical; crackling, tangible; it’s this interaction that saves the book from mediocrity. These two may be enemies (and they are antagonistic towards each other in the beginning of the book), but generally they treat one another with a respect and tenderness that’s refreshing in a romance of this kind. When I closed the book, I had no doubt that they were soulmates.
Arion is my favorite type of hero: a fierce alpha warrior outside, but a really, really, really nice (if conflicted) guy inside. He is both chivalrous and moral in the sweetest way possible, and he acknowledges that his life with his twisted uncle has created a darkness in him that he will have to struggle with for the rest of his life. His complete devotion to Lauren is also very sweet. He’s sometimes a little bit too good to be true, but overall, one word best describes Arion: hubba.
Lauren is more of a mixed bag. She’s a strong woman living in a time and culture that doesn’t necessarily appreciate strong women. But she still gets away with a lot – in fact, I’m surprised at the freedoms and privileges she is granted, like riding with the patrol and scouting parties. She is also very foolhardy, sometimes rushing headlong into dangerous situations. This spunkiness contrasts oddly with her subdued behavior when her fiancé Payton Murdoch finally shows up and begins abusing her. But like Arion, Lauren is essentially an honorable person, and her prickliness stems in large part from her reluctance to do anything to hurt her family or her clan. It is a tribute to this author’s writing ability that Lauren remains a sympathetic character in the face of her occasionally asinine behavior.
My biggest problem with the book is the frequency with which the protagonists are hurt. Arion and Lauren are shot at, stabbed, slashed, beaten up, stabbed again. This is on top of almost drowning, not to mention the dangers of infection. Their recovery time, in an age without antibiotics and hygiene standards, is nothing short of phenomenal. The two of them are up and getting into more trouble in a matter of days. Not even paper cuts heal that fast. On the other hand, these shenanigans result in some excellent action sequences. A few rather predictable events result from these battles, though – it’s a miracle Lauren doesn’t get mauled more often by Vikings than she does – and, of course, it’s Arion to the rescue (hubba!). Lauren nonetheless manages to save herself more often than not, which stretches credulity somewhat, but it’s so satisfying to see a female character kicking butt.
Intimate Enemies is a flawed book, but the sheer force of the romance propels it along despite the occasional bump. Those of you who, like me, can’t stand Adversarial Romances: don’t let the word “enemies” fool you. This book is all about love.