On the surface Safe Passage has a familiar premise: the undercover agent hero investigating the secretive heroine. The difference is in the details. The story takes place in British Columbia. The hero is a Canadian secret agent. The heroine is a motorcycle-riding entomologist with a dark past. Throw in a good amount of emotion and plenty of action, you end up with a most enjoyable read.
Agent Scott Armstrong barely survived his last mission investigating the Anubis terrorist network and its mysterious leader, known only as La Sombra. As he recovers from his wounds, Scott is assigned to keep tabs on one Dr. Skye Van Rijn, a scientist who recently visited several locations in the American Southwest. Shortly after Skye’s visit, outbreaks of a rare illness began to occur in those places. As far as Scott is concerned, the connection is weak and this is just a pointless mission to keep him occupied while he recovers.
Then he meets Skye. The insect expert isn’t what he was expecting. She’s beautiful, rides a motorcycle, and she’s engaged, something mentioned nowhere in the information he was given. Skye isn’t in love with her fiance, but she longs for the normal life she was deprived of in her secret past about which nobody knows. When her fiance fails to show up at the altar, she goes to his apartment and discovers he completely cleared out before skipping town, leaving her only a typewritten note offering no explanation for his departure.
After Skye bursts out of the church in her wedding gown and takes off on a motorcycle, Scott goes after her, offering her comfort at this low time in her life. But in a tender moment, he sees that she has a tattoo of the Egyptian god Anubis on her body. This seems to be a clear indication she’s involved with the terrorist network, even as part of him wants to believe she’s innocent. When Skye spots two men in a car watching her house, she becomes convinced her past has caught up with her and turns to Scott for help. The two of them take off for a remote fishing village, with Skye trying to keep her past hidden from him, Scott determined to uncover the truth, and both the RCMP and the villains in hot pursuit.
The book gets off to a somewhat rough start. The author jumps into the story in a way that’s jarring and doesn’t ease the reader into it all that well. The organization Scott works for is a little too poorly defined and not explained very well. The wedding angle comes across like precisely what it is: an element shoehorned in because it’s one of the publisher’s favorite gimmicks. (Someone at Silhouette showed a remarkable amount of restraint not calling this one “Suspect: Bride!” or having the heroine pictured in her wedding gown on the cover). The groom is too obviously up to no good, practically twirling a moustache while shifting his beady eyes. The lack of insight into why the heroine isn’t more suspicious of him and why she’s going to marry someone who’s acting so oddly makes it difficult to understand her. Some of his actions are so blatantly suspicious (i.e. he gives her a necklace and makes her promise never to take it off) anyone will be able to guess what he’s up to.
And yet, in spite of all of that, I was intrigued by this story. The author has a strong voice that helped pull me in where her plotting initially did not. What really carried me past the initial rough spots, though, were the characters themselves. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with an entomologist heroine before, and the contradictions in Skye’s character – both driven scientist and tough biker chick – caught my interest. Scott is a rough-edged character with a haunted past of his own, and he and Skye have strong chemistry together.
The book really improves after the aborted wedding, as the focus moves to more interaction between Skye and Scott. The action is fast and constant, with the characters on the run and everyone else in pursuit. Skye really does have an interesting backstory, and the slow revelation of her past eventually pays off. Although one instance of symbolism is a little over the top, the author handles the characters’ emotions well, making for some affecting storytelling.
The suspense plot is well-done. The terrorists’ plot is a little different than anything I’ve seen before, truly ingenious in an evil way, and the plot comes together in a good climactic scene. The distinct setting also really enhances the story. In spite of the familiar setup and typical elements, the author is able to distinguish her story and make it seem like something special. The whole story has a convincing international flair that really works to its advantage. I liked that the characters’ nationalities are different than those most commonly seen in this line. It certainly helped them stand out from the usual heroes and heroines.
I read Loreth Anne White’s first book, Melting the Ice, last year, and it didn’t do much for me. Until the characters and storyline from that book were mentioned in this one, I had forgotten I even read it. Safe Passage is more memorable, a stronger entry from an author who hopefully is only getting better. It may stumble somewhat out of the gate, but the story ultimately pays off in a way that makes for a satisfying read.