The Dark Horse
The Dark Horse is the second book in Patricia Simpson’s series The Forbidden Tarot, about an ancient set of tarot cards that bring trouble to those who find them. Despite a fascinating premise, it turns out to be a decidedly average read.
Doctoral student Claire Coulter is a gifted cryptologist, a skill she employs in her job as a translator at a Silicon Valley company called CommOptima. She’s currently working to decipher the Nimian Stone, a tablet inscribed with ancient history that no one has yet been able to read. One day she is summoned by the head of the company, young computer tycoon Tobias Benton. Impressed by her work, he wants her to accompany him to an archeological site in the Sierra Nevadas. A mysterious associate of his recently discovered a door deep in a cave in the mountains inscribed with symbols similar to those on the Nimian Stone. He believes a fountain of youth exists behind the door and needs her help to open it. In exchange, Benton offers to help Claire’s brother Emilio, who’s dying of a kidney ailment, receive the surgery he desperately needs to survive. To save her brother, Claire agrees.
Before she leaves on the trip, Claire receives a visit from her best friend Maria, a maid having an affair with her boss. Maria is furious that her lover bought his wife a set of ancient tarot cards and expects her to wrap the gift for him. Opening the deck, they discover it is like none either has ever seen, with strange symbols different than usual tarot cards. When Maria leaves, she forgets the cards, so Claire tucks them into her purse and takes them with her, not wanting to leave such a valuable item unattended. Then she receives the news that Maria was found dead with her head cut off after leaving Claire’s apartment. Claire has to wonder if the cards currently in possession are somehow dangerous.
Tobias made arrangements for rugged horseman Jack Hughes of The Dark Horse Ranch to lead them to the secret site deep in the desert. Upon their arrival, he informs everyone that Claire is his fiancee and makes it clear to her he wants her in his bed. Claire finds herself fighting off his advances at every turn as they make their way into the desert, accompanied by Jack’s estranged parents, his grandmother, and a strange college professor who says he’s studying snakes. Throughout the trip, Claire is drawn to the gruff, aloof Jack, even as she becomes more aware of the danger surrounding the traveling party as they make their way to the fabled fountain of youth.
This was an interesting story that I got through easily enough. The ideas behind it were fascinating enough to hold my attention, and Simpson is a decent writer. The concept of the fountain of youth was a juicy one for a paranormal tale, and the author delivers a good payoff to it. Overall, there’s nothing majorly wrong with the book, just a lot of little things that, put together, prevent it from being more than a passable read.
The main characters are rather wooden, but for the most part they’re tolerable and the romance is developed reasonably enough. It didn’t exactly set my world on fire, but it’s not bad. However, every once in a while the characters would each do something that would make me sigh and shake my head. Claire has a couple of TSTL moments where she makes some dumb choices. Meanwhile, at one point, Jack makes an incredibly sexist comment out of nowhere about how she doesn’t know her “place” and males are the ones who call the shots in the wild. These moments seemed like isolated incidents, rather than true indications of their overall character, which made them that much more puzzling and irritating.
There are also too many annoying characters hanging around. Tobias is bad enough, with his blatant and constant sexual harassment of Claire, which couldn’t be more aggravating. He’s also a petulant child who throws a hissy fit when he learns Jack didn’t bring any Coke along on the trip (and I found myself honestly wondering, “Am I really reading an interminable argument about Coca-Cola? Wow. Exciting.”). But Tobias is an obvious villain and an integral part of the plot. The same can’t be said about Jack’s parents, who serve no purpose but to be clueless and annoying and easily could have been omitted entirely. They’re dead weight.
Mostly, it often felt like the book should have been shorter. The trip to the cave takes up most of the book, and it’s often slow going. There are random bits that could have been cut, like that lame Coke argument (I already knew he was a creep and a brat. Knowing that he’s a spaz who’ll throw a fit when denied a soft drink didn’t alter my impression). Some parts just seem needlessly repetitive, like all the scenes focusing on Tobias’s harassment, a single note the author keeps hitting too many times. The misunderstanding about Claire being his fiancee also goes on too long. Simpson is a competent enough writer to keep it from becoming dull, but, dragged down by too much detritus, the story never manages to take off either.
Individually, all these points are relatively minor, and if there’d only been one or two of them, it might have been possible to get past them. But overall, they weigh down The Dark Horse, keeping what could have been a very good paranormal romance a mediocre one.