The Domino Effect
The Domino Effect is the second of Harlequin’s Extreme Blazes, books that are purportedly more daring than the usual Blaze. Julie Elizabeth Leto’s entry certainly lives up to its billing, pushing the envelope with subject matter that may make some readers uncomfortable. Those edgier elements were exactly what I liked about the book, and while I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, more adventurous readers may enjoy it as I did.
Domino Black is an assassin for a governmental black ops unit. In the fifteen years since she was recruited, she has taken out numerous targets in the name of national security. Her new assignment is slightly different: rather than a simple assassination, she must go undercover first to determine who her target should be. After their identities were exposed to terrorists, several government agents were recently killed. Sources say the top-secret information originated from a Chicago nightclub called Club Cicero, and more agents are in danger of exposure. Domino’s job is to seduce club owner Luke Brasco to learn whether he’s the one selling the information to terrorists, and if so, to eliminate him.
Now, if you’re the kind of reader who thinks a true heroine’s response to such an order should be to slap her boss, slam her thighs together, and say, “To heck with the agents at risk! I would NEVER do such a thing. I am a LADY!” this is probably not the book for you. (Personally I’d like to think secret agents – both male and female – would do whatever is necessary to get the job done with lives on the line.) Then again, such readers probably think ladies shouldn’t be going around assassinating people either. On the other hand, readers weary of so many wishy washy Blaze heroines of the “Somebody teach me how to have sex! I don’t know nothin’ ’bout no intercourse!” variety should find Domino a welcome alternative. She’s a bold, take-charge woman, confident in her physical skills and comfortable in her sexuality. She approaches her mission without hesitation, going right after Luke and getting him into bed in no time flat. Naturally, she begins to develop unexpected feelings for him, which threatens to derail her assignment. Thankfully, this does not weaken her, turning her into a woman whose head is muddled by her heart or some such nonsense. She still approaches her job as a competent professional.
This is a slick, very sexy read with a refreshingly mainstream feel. Too many Blazes retain the musty style, tone, and attitudes of more old-fashioned series romances, coming across as so bland and watered down that any steam they might generate is doused from the start. That’s not the case here. Leto brings the same contemporary style and sensibility that she delivered in her very enjoyable single-title Dirty Little Secrets last year. From the very first chapter, as Luke is captivated by the image of the sexy siren tearing up the dance floor on his security monitor, it packs a nicely sensual charge. There are no sexual hang-ups in evidence, no forced devices used to contrive a sexual situation so both characters still come across as “good” and not dirty for wanting sex. These are just two adults who share a powerful attraction and red-hot chemistry that more than comes across on the page.
Luke is a likable, relatable character, a good guy who’s done his best to escape his family’s history of criminal activity, but it’s Domino who makes this book. She’s a truly kickass heroine in the best sense of the word. Unlike the heroines of to many authors, Leto doesn’t try to soften her by giving her a boatload of angst to justify her strength and her behavior, recognizing that neither needs to be justified. There is some sadness in her childhood, but it isn’t lingered over and is kept to a minimum. In some ways this feels like a Bombshell novel, or rather, what a Bombshell should be, since Domino is stronger than some of the weepy poseurs cluttering that line. This is a short book, which doesn’t allow for the deepest or most nuanced character development, but she’s still a strong, compelling heroine.
Even readers who don’t have a problem with Domino may be less comfortable with the book’s subplot. Luke’s head bouncer is married with a very pregnant, very unhappy wife. A waitress at the club makes it clear she doesn’t care that he’s married and will do anything to have him. I was very ambivalent (to put it mildly) about this storyline at first, then gradually began to appreciate it. What I liked about it was how realistic it seemed, which helped add to the book’s mainstream feel. It’s much darker and more challenging material than what is usually found in a series romance, portraying flawed people who are capable of making very stupid choices. Leto doesn’t try to justify the behavior. The seductress is unsympathetic and immature (and a late moment where Domino tells her off is one of the book’s most enjoyable). The whole storyline filled me with a kind of queasy apprehension, as I waited to see if he would cheat and hoped it wouldn’t happen, even as I began to suspect the characters were on a collision course that couldn’t be stopped. In any case, it was fascinating stuff.
The mystery element is probably the least interesting in the book, being somewhat predictable and underdeveloped, but the story moves at a fast pace with good momentum throughout. To put it simply, The Domino Effect is not only the most enjoyable Blaze, but also the most enjoyable book, I’ve read in quite some time. A sexy, exciting and very cool tale, it may not be for everyone, but daring readers with open minds may find it an entertaining read.