Imagine for a moment that your beloved brother has been killed overseas, in a country you do not know, and that country is in the hands of people you do not trust. What would you do? Probably you would act as you would if he had been killed in America. You ask for his things, try to talk to the people who were with him when he died, contact the police and ask for a report. This is reasonable and yet, in many parts of the world such actions would be impossible and even dangerous. If there is a theme to Lioness and also to Nell Brien’s earlier Desert Isle Keeper, A Veiled Journey, it is that much of the world is a dangerous place, far more dangerous and complicated than Americans realize. Clearly Nell Brien knows this from experience and the very best of Lioness is rooted in the author’s knowledge of Africa. Unfortunately Lioness is being marketed as romantic suspense and that is where the book’s problems lie.
The story of Lioness is the story of Cat Stanton’s journey retracing the steps of her brother Joel’s journey through Africa, one that resulted in his mysterious death. In the course of this trip, Cat learns about poaching wars, corruption, greed, and the fight for the animals of Africa. Initially she is met by nothing but resistance and mysterious looks when she contacts some of Joel’s acquaintances in Kenya. Dan Campbell, a gruff safari outfitter, the same outfitter who took Joel on his ill-fated journey, is the unlikely hero who initially greets Cat with hostility and evasiveness and refuses to take her on safari. But when he capitulates, Cat gets a first-hand look at the terrible war for and on the animals of Kenya. In one horrific scene the group comes upon a group of dying elephants who have been mutilated for their tusks. Brien paints the scene with horrifying clarity and you see the elephants suffering and their babies crying helplessly. This is not a book for the faint of heart.
Cat doesn’t trust Dan Campbell, and she has every reason not to. Clearly he knows more about Joel’s death than he is giving away. But she is unwillingly attracted to him. This, I think is the first sign that the book is in some trouble. When she describes Africa, poaching and Joel’s disappearance, author Nell Brien is clear and precise. But when Cat and Dan get together very little about their relationship makes sense. This is one of those books where two people who have been spitting at each other all this time suddenly have sex. Then after the sex, they do not talk, then they have sex again, then they do not – well, you get the idea.
Lioness, despite the fact that it is being marketed as a romantic suspense novel, really isn’t one. It’s a suspense book set in Africa with a romance applied. It feels as though the author simply put the romance in to get the book published. Neither Cat nor Dan seem preoccupied by their relationship. The first love scene, when it comes, seems out of place in a book so focused on the very realistic horror of the slaughter of elephants in Kenya. Through a large part of the book, Cat is thinking constantly of her brother (not Dan) and a terrible tragedy that bound the two of them together. This deep secret also mars the book, for it is extreme and, to this reviewer, borders on the unbelievable.
Dan really is not a romance hero. He is a gruff man who has lived a dangerous life in an unpredictable country. He seems physically attracted to Cat, but in love? There is nothing in her he seems to love and he spends too much of his time lying to her (about her brother’s death) to develop a relationship. When we are allowed into Dan’s mind, his thoughts are more likely to be on how to lie to Cat than they are on how to get to know her – or about what he admires about her.
Cat, though a more fully developed character than Dan, also lacks the qualities of a heroine. She’s an interesting woman, an architect, bright and independent. But Dan hardly occupies her thoughts. Romance is supposed to describe the most important, most passionate relationship in the lives of two people. If this relationship is the best that these two can do I feel sorry for both of them.
I found the first half of Lioness riveting, so interesting that I was sure it was headed for Desert Isle Keeper status. But as the book progressed I found myself losing interest until in the end, it was a chore to finish. It was not just the romance that was failing. Cat’s memories of Joel and their growing up together become horrifying and in a way that suggests that the author went too far with her “big secret.” Cat is also a very slow learner when it comes to the danger of questioning things in Africa. I was willing to believe in her naiveté in the beginning of the story. By the end it wears thin.
In spite of this I will be reading more of Nell Brien’s books. She has a unique ability to set a scene and to tell us about the cultures of unknown places. Readers who are curious about Kenya and who don’t mind a rather unromantic romance, might well enjoy this book.