Karyn Langhorne’s Street Level is an intriguing and atypical romantic suspense novel with unusual characters and a distinct point of view. While far from perfect, I found it to be a most interesting read.
Thea Morris lives and works with her best friend Chandra in the District of Columbia. The two are raising Chandra’s teenage son Malik, and together they own Gangsta Psychic, a small fortune-telling business. Chandra’s contributions mainly consist of giving out common sense advice, but Thea’s the real deal, with psychic abilities that really can predict the future. When she has a vision about a man being attacked in the middle of the night, she knows she has to do something about it, even if it means putting her life in danger.
According to Thea’s vision, the attack will happen in the territory of the 52nd Street Crew. It’s a dangerous area for most people, but if members of the vicious street gang get their hands on her, she’s as good as dead. Years ago, she testified against the Crew’s leader, her old boyfriend Jango. He’s in prison now, but his reach extends far beyond the jailhouse walls. Thea knows the gang has not forgotten her betrayal. Still she accepts the risk when she goes off in search of the stranger.
She manages to get there in time to save the man’s life, and learns that she’s not the only one with psychic abilities. The man, whose name is later revealed to be Guy, has visions too, and he offers a chilling warning: Jango knows where she is. Soon afterward, she learns that Jango was recently released from prison. Terrified, Thea makes plans to run for her life, but soon finds the only person she can trust is the mysterious stranger about whom she knows nothing.
With a very strong and distinctive voice, this author tells a fast, compelling story. She grabbed me from the very first scene, as Thea makes her late-night journey to save the stranger. Those opening moments were very tense and visceral, and the whole book has that kind of edge. Powerful and deeply felt emotions worked beneath the surface of the narrative, providing a grittier, more realistic story than most romances, or even romantic suspense. The author unflinchingly handles of a side of the world that isn’t pretty, and the gang aspect adds even more urgency to the story’s stakes. There’s a violent scene where Thea dreams of what Jango would do to her if he catches up with her, and it leaves no doubt how much is at risk.
At the same time, the front cover describes the book as “an urban fairytale,” and one of the more interesting things about it is the way the author balances the tough-minded realism with a light fantasy feel. Guy turns out to be an unexpected Prince Charming, and Thea literally finds herself playing the role of princess (although the “ghetto Cinderella” analogy got old fast). Langhorne has plenty of surprises and unexpected twists in store – even if this does result in an ending where the talkative villain has to explain everything so we understand it all. It’s a nicely unpredictable storyline. The book also contains a good message about choices and personal responsibility that’s nicely delivered, giving the story an added dimension that was very effective.
Thea is the kind of heroine who has interested me most in my romance reading lately. She’s a tough, yet emotionally damaged woman who’s more than familiar with how ugly the world can be. She’s more believable than most romance characters I’ve read who are supposedly streetwise and have a rough background. Thea’s past isn’t pretty, including drug addiction and emotional abuse at the hands of Jango. When she learns that Malik was one of the boys involved in the attack on Guy and that he’s slowly being drawn toward gang life, her anger and desperation are believable and all too real. For his part, Malik is just as well-drawn. He’s a smartmouthed teenager who needs to be smacked upside the head more than once, and the author develops the character so that most readers will find themselves wishing someone would do just that.
On the other hand, Guy is as vague as Thea and Malik vivid. His character never really came into focus the way a character, particularly a romance hero, should, and I couldn’t get a clear idea who he was inside. Some of this has to do with the way the author keeps Guy shrouded in mystery to preserve the book’s secrets. But I’ve read plenty of books where characters have big secrets that aren’t revealed for a long time, yet the author still manages to clearly illuminate who they are. That isn’t the case here. It doesn’t help that none of the book is told from Guy’s perspective, so the reader is never allowed inside his head. By the end, all of his secrets are revealed, but the man himself remained too much of an enigma.
The book loses some steam during the middle section. This is partly due to the formerly proactive heroine being pushed into a reactionary position. Guy starts to call all the shots, and for a while it felt too much like the story was happening to Thea instead of her having any say in her own fate, which disappointed me. The story doesn’t always adhere to the clearest logic. Some plot points remain murky, and certain aspects of the storyline seem implausible, straining belief to its breaking point. I should also note that the ending is a little over-the-top, which may not work for all readers. At the same time, it is a fitting ending for a fairy tale, and the book closes on a sweet note.
Even with its flaws, I found Street Level to be an engrossing read. The author has a strong voice and a sharp point of view, and she delivers an involving story.