Into the Fire
Anne Stuart is one of my three all-time favorite romance writers, having written at least a dozen books that are keepers for me, including Banish Misfortune. Even when her stories are weak, as was the case with her two most recent MIRA releases, The Widow and Still Lake, I was content to bask in the atmosphere of her settings, the menacing sexuality, and her smooth storytelling. Unfortunately, Into the Fire doesn’t even provide those saving graces. It’s not only the most disappointing book I’ve read this year, but one of the worst books she’s ever written.
Three months after the death of her cousin, Nate, Jamie Kincaid travels to the small Wisconsin town where he’d been living when he died. She goes to reclaim his possessions for her mother, who raised Nate as a son after the death of his parents, and also to uncover the truth about how he died. Nate was found beaten to death in a garage owned by his friend, Dillon Gaynor, who became a suspect in the murder, but wasn’t charged.
Jamie has her own reasons to be wary of Dillon. Twelve years ago he played a crucial role in the event that ended her childhood. He was always a bad boy, a troublemaker who corrupted Nate and fascinated Jamie. He stole cars, dealt drugs, and later spent time in prison for beating a man almost to death. Jamie knows he’s dangerous, but when her car breaks down, she finds herself trapped in his garage with him, unable to leave.
Jamie knows Dillon doesn’t want her there. He seems to take particular pleasure in taunting her and knows full well he scares her to death. But even as she struggles to resist him when it isn’t clear whether he’s willing to take no for an answer, a greater threat looms. Neither of them knows that Nate hasn’t gone too far. His ghost lingers, watching them, waiting to exact vengeance on the man he blames for his death – and anyone else in his way.
Nobody can tell a story about a vulnerable heroine falling for a very bad hero the way Stuart can. Sadly, Jamie and Dillon are a pale imitation of these types. They’re so undeveloped I can’t even call them characters. Stick figures have more depth than anyone in this book.
Jamie isn’t merely fragile, she’s brain dead. This became more than clear when Stuart reveals that Jamie has no idea about a crucial element of that night twelve years ago, something any reader will immediately pick up on. When she wasn’t crying she was cowering, and when she wasn’t cowering she was making one dumb choice after another. There’s simply nothing to her other than stupidity and tears; she’s utterly hapless and a victim to the core. Watching her interact with Dillon is like watching a puppy being kicked repeatedly.
Stuart’s best heroes are the ones who are so compelling in their badness that it’s easy to see why their heroines are fascinated – because the reader is too. Dillon is not a compellingly dark hero. He’s just a jerk. There’s nothing fascinating about him to explain why Jamie, or the reader, would be interested in him. The only slight bit of motivation the author gives for why Dillon is so bad is a brief mention that Mommy didn’t love him and he’s horny for Jamie. Why? Who knows. She’s so pathetically weak it’s impossible to understand why anyone would be this obsessed with her. Otherwise, there’s nothing to him. He’s just bad – a standard issue wrong-side-of-the-tracks bad boy. If he were a villain, I’d call him cartoonish. As a hero, he’s much worse.
Dillon’s sullen and rude, and at first, outright laughable. When he starts blowing cigarette smoke in Jamie’s face and sneering about the stick up her butt over breakfast her first morning there, I could only snort in disbelief. He tries so hard to be bad it’s like watching a little kid playacting at what his idea of a bad guy might be, spouting lines that are supposed to seem dark and dangerous and come off as silly. It doesn’t help that it’s nearly a hundred pages before we see some justification for those corny “sinister” lines he’s spouting. Not surprisingly, Dillon’s one of those guys who keeps telling himself he doesn’t want her while stealing her purse and doing everything he can to manipulate her into staying. (See how “tortured” he is? He can’t admit what he wants!) His way of showing his love for her is by being as mean as possible, and the story settles into a mindnumbing rhythm where Jamie comes out of her room, he offers a barrage of insults and mean, leering, suggestive comments, and the terrified little twit runs back to her room to hide from him. Then she comes out of her room, he says more mean things to her, and she runs back to her room to hide from him. Then she comes out of her room….. She manages to uncover some small gestures that indicate deeper feelings, which he naturally never intended to share with her. On the next to last page he’s still treating her like crap. Jamie thinks, “Another slap, but she’d become a glutton for punishment.” Ah, that’s romance! Eventually he decides she owes him sex. Several more taunting scenes ensue, culminating in rough sex that walks the very thin line between rape and consent, one of those scenes whose only concession toward consent is that we’re supposed to believe deep down she secretly wants it and she does have an orgasm. If you’ve read Ritual Sins you’ll know what to expect; everyone else may want to proceed with caution.
The weak characters, dubious romance and nonexistent suspense are bad enough, but the book is also boring, s-l-o-w, lacks atmosphere, and, shockingly enough, not well written, with perhaps enough story for a decent novella but nowhere near enough for a full-length novel. It’s full of endless paragraphs of introspection and backstory delivered with all the grace of falling hippos. A hundred pages in when Jamie noted that she’s been at Dillon’s garage for less than 24 hours, it already felt like I’d been reading the book for weeks. Stuart finally kickstarts the plot in the final hundred pages – which are better – when the suspense plot takes a dive straight into cliché territory with a hackneyed revelation. That’s when I gave up on the book altogether.
Reviews like this are the worst to write, because it’s never fun to pan a book by a favorite writer. I actually offered to review it because I knew I was going to be buying it anyway, only to receive a free ARC instead. I’ve never been so happy to save six dollars. It’s hard to believe this is the same author who wrote To Love a Dark Lord, Night Fall, Lord of Danger, Special Gifts, Shadows at Sunset, Blue Sage and so many others. Those books will remain keepers for me. This one’s not going anywhere near them.