There is a lot to like about Maddie’s Justice. The characters are all intelligent, rational-acting people who never jump to conclusions and react in admirable ways to the danger they are thrust into. Unfortunately, as rationally as they respond to external events and characters, at times they act surprisingly silly towards each other, and each of them has a history that is just a little too unbelievable given their situation in life. The story in Maddie’s Justice catches you in its grip from the outset, but the middle suffers from slow pacing and improbable events. Although the story picks up again by the end, it is never quite enough to entirely redeem the book.
Maddie Rutledge is in prison serving a 20-year sentence for murder. The man she killed was a snake, and the killing should have been ruled self-defense, but her judge was the victim’s uncle and the trial grossly unfair. Two years later, her testimony is needed to prosecute that same judge for misconduct. Rivlin Kilpatrick is the US Marshal whose job is to escort Maddie from Fort Larned to Leavenworth for the trial. Maddie has had enough experience with her jailers to expect Rivlin to try to rape her as soon as he gets her alone on the road, but Rivlin is of course nothing like those guards. He is a gentleman turned lawman who fought in the late war and has ghosts of his own that haunt him and keep him from getting close to anyone. The two form an uneasy alliance on the road as they quickly realize that someone is out to kill them both.
The section where Maddie and Rivlin are traveling to the trial and trying to avoid being killed is when the book is at its finest. In this road romance, author LaFoy deftly shows how a fragile trust develops between the two of them as they learn more about each other and question their preconceived notions about guards and prisoners. The sexual tension is also fairly strong, but unfortunatly, it is the resolution of this tension which almost got me throwing the book against the wall.
By the time they reach Wichita, it is clear that Rivlin wants Maddie and Maddie wants Rivlin. Rivlin is torn, but since Maddie believes that she’ll be a prisoner for most of the rest of her life, she isn’t interested in saving her virginity for marriage. Okay by me, but I wondered how a woman who has been imprisoned for two years with guards who tried repeatedly to rape her could have survived intact. I also felt indignant that Maddie might risk getting pregnant given her circumstances. (Later it is revealed that she has learned something about birth control, but even so, when she and Rivlin finally make love, we are never witness to any preparations or actions that would hinder conception). But by far the most annoying aspect is that once Maddie and Rivlin have made the decision to go for it, Rivlin chickens out at the last minute. They start kissing, he carries her up to the bedroom, gives her one last chance to change her mind, starts undressing her, and then bolts! What gives? It seems Rivlin didn’t feel the environment was right. Certainly a guy swept away by passion there! The whole episode made no sense, and I just felt like the author was yanking my chain.
A bit later, the environment is finally good enough for Rivlin and they consummate the relationship. Although the love scene goes on for some pages, the actual actions are obscured by overly poetic language, so when the hero apologizes for going too quickly, I was left scratching my head wondering what I had missed. Luckily, there are no more love scenes to endure, and the plot gets a chance to start up again. Rivlin and Maddie have realized who is after them and why, and they change their route to avoid capture and death. Rivlin reunites with his large extended family, and with their help makes careful plans to flush out the evildoers and pave the way towards getting Maddie a retrial. The author’s skill is showcased well in this section; the characters spend time thinking things out and discussing the possible consequences of their actions before they make a move. In short, they act like rational people and not like idiots. The pacing speeds up and the final showdown is quite thrilling and surprising in its resolution. The question of Maddie’s future is even resolved in a most unexpected, but quite clever, way.
Two small issues marred the end for me. First: although something inevitably goes wrong with their well-laid plans, somehow they still manage to catch the villian with very little explaination of how they were able to regroup. That was frustrating. Second: nearly every historical romance with a homosexual character casts that character as the bad guy – not only a villain, but a sexual predator, and this book proves no exception. That’s rather insulting and improbable to boot.
I struggled with the grade for this book. A lot of it was very good and came very close to earning a B-. Yet as much as I liked these characters, I was very disenchanted with the middle of the book and even felt disinclined to finish it at points. I’m very glad I did finish it, but I can’t recommend it without serious reservations, so I am giving it a C+.