Linda Howard makes a welcome return to series romance, a subgenre that desperately needs her, with Raintree: Inferno. The first in a new trilogy co-written with Linda Winstead Jones and Beverly Barton, it doesn’t rank among Howard’s best (series or otherwise), but it’s still a good read.
For centuries, the Raintree and Ansara clans, two families with extraordinary abilities, have been locked in a fierce feud. Two hundred years ago the Raintrees managed to defeat the Ansaras so thoroughly they were forced to retreat. An uneasy peace has existed ever since, but the Raintrees know they must be ever vigilant against threats from their enemy.
Dante Raintree isn’t merely the wealthy and powerful owner of the Reno casino Inferno. He’s also the king, or Dranir, of the entire Raintree clan, as well as a man capable of manipulating fire with his mind. When he catches Lorna Clay cheating at his casino, he isn’t sure how she’s doing it. He only knows no one is as lucky as consistently as she appears to be. He has her brought to his office, where he immediately recognizes that she has supernatural powers of her own. His first suspicion is that she’s a member of the Ansara clan, and as such, not to be trusted. When fire breaks out in the casino shortly afterward, his suspicions are only heightened, and he decides he has to keep her close by through whatever means necessary until he learns the truth about her.
I started out absolutely loving this book in a way I haven’t loved any romance novel in a long time. The casino fire doesn’t break out until the end of Chapter Three, and everything before that is simply exposition and character interaction between Dante and Lorna. In the hands of a lesser writer, it could easily be boring, but here it’s anything but dull. Dante is instantly fascinating, and from the moment Lorna walks into his office, the sexual tension between them practically rises from the pages. Howard wastes no time making Lorna both sympathetic and interesting in her own right. I basically read the opening scene with a barely-contained sense of giddiness. A compelling hero, a tough heroine, and fascinating, red-hot chemistry – does it get any better than that?
Perhaps not, but it can get weaker, and the story does weaken somewhat after that strong opening. Dante is the usual dominating Linda Howard hero, but with an additional, uncomfortable dimension here, since he can control Lorna with his mind. Watching him manipulate her while she’s struggling yet helpless to resist isn’t always pleasant, but that’s nothing compared to one scene where he literally rips the clothes off her body while she’s sobbing in terror. It’s uncomfortable, to say the least.
After a while, I realized I didn’t particularly like Dante all that much, although it’s not that I disliked him either. Despite the aforementioned actions, he doesn’t come across as a terrible guy overall, and Howard does her best to justify his actions without excusing them and then redeems him to some degree. However, on a basic level, he’s not very well-developed, not only in comparison to Howard’s best heroes, but in general. There’s enough about him that the reader is able to get a sense of who he is as a person, but much of his character is limited to the exposition regarding his family, not Dante personally. In the end, it just felt as though he could have been explored further and he wasn’t as vivid a character as he could have been.
On the other hand, I loved Lorna. It didn’t hurt that the reader’s sympathies are more likely to be with her in the aforementioned scenes. But she’s simply more complex in a way Dante isn’t. She’s tough, yet vulnerable, capable of projecting a hardened exterior but nursing deep wounds and some ingrained fears. A loner who had a terrible childhood, she moves from place to place without staying anywhere too long and keeps to herself. Dante may push right past her defenses and take over her life, but she’s no pushover. One moment on page 135 in particular where she throws his actions back in his face was nearly enough to make me break out into applause.
As would be expected for Howard, the book is compulsively readable, despite some slightly slow parts. What the reader knows but the main characters don’t, is that the Ansara are a very real threat, not just for this book but the future ones, as we see them plotting throughout. While the story does offer a resolution to the romantic relationship between Dante and Lorna, the book itself ends on a cliffhanger regarding the fate of the Raintree clan. I expected it and didn’t have a problem with it, but readers who dislike that kind of thing should consider themselves warned. (To be honest, I closed the book with the impression that anyone who doesn’t want to read the next two books can just assume everything turns out fine and not bother. Does anyone really think the last book will end with the Raintrees losing to the bad guys?)
One final criticism: I did feel as though the love story could have been developed more as well. There are times it feels lost in the middle of all the series setup and the suspense plot, only to then get shoved in and happen in a hurry at the end. That said, there are still some very nice moments, particularly one that was so effective because of how invested I was in Lorna. Raintree: Inferno isn’t perfect, but it’s still one of the better books I’ve read so far this year. It’s more consistently involving and engaging than any series romance I’ve read in some time, and frankly I enjoyed it more than several of Howard’s recent hardcovers. Howard is the kind of author who’s pretty much imperious to reviews, but this is one book I can recommend just the same.