The Protector is Gennita Low’s third book, and the first I’ve read. My colleagues didn’t respond too well to her previous releases, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. As it turned out, this was a decent read, but it’s one that didn’t entirely work for me.
After a weeklong mission in a Southeast Asian jungle, Jazz Zeringue and his fellow Navy SEALs take some time to kick back in a rundown bar. But when Jazz spots a terrified young girl being sold into service to some soldiers, he can’t help but intervene. Driving the men away, he pays the girl’s pimp and tries to get her safely out of the bar. Instead, he finds himself caught in a sting operation. Interpol officials were staking out the bar, poised to arrest any military personnel spotted committing sex crimes against children. Suddenly Jazz is in big trouble, held in custody by Interpol.
Then the mysterious Vivienne Verreau comes to his rescue. Vivi is a liaison between Interpol and the UN team monitoring sex crime activity in the region. She’s also a secret agent for GEM, an agency primary made up of women. She receives an order to arrange for Jazz’s release, in exchange for him and his fellow SEALs helping her on a mission of her own. Young girls are being sold into sexual slavery, and Vivi and the SEALs are to work together to stop a shipment from crossing the border. It’s a dangerous mission, as the people trafficking in these girls obviously place no value on human life. As they work together to coordinate the mission, Jazz and Vivi are drawn to each other. Jazz likens her to a woman out of film noir, a shadowy figure full of secrets he is determined to uncover. Meanwhile, Vivi has an aversion to soldiers, but can’t deny Jazz’s appeal.
I really liked a number of things about this book, starting with the heroine. Vivi is a tough, yet emotionally conflicted, woman. She’s strong, a master of disguise, and a kick-ass fighter. She has a poignant backstory that’s unique among romance heroines, addressing cultural issues in a way that’s very relevant to this story and setting. The story doesn’t shy away from the ugly side of humanity, shining a light on a very real problem. It was interesting to see the politics of the situation portrayed in the UN handling of the issue. The book’s most compelling subplot involves a childhood friend Vivi lost years ago, and her desperate search to learn what happened to her.
The author gives the story a nice, rough-edged feel that’s a little more gritty and mainstream. She has the “guy speak” down, so her SEALs come across more like real men than some authors pull off. They’re big, alpha, and often crude, and that much more likable for it. Jazz is a fairly typical hero, but still a good one. There are some nice twists and surprises, most of which I guessed ahead of time, but they still were effective. Admittedly, the book may be too rough for some readers. For instance, it includes several explicit scenes of rough sex between two villainous characters. The skanky sex didn’t bother me, but others may wish to be warned of it in advance.
The plotting and the romance were more problematic for me. At one point Jazz thinks how waiting is the hardest part of any mission. It was certainly the hardest part of my mission to review this book, as I spent much of the first half waiting for something to happen. It’s a lot heavier on character interaction and lower on actual action than I would have expected for romantic suspense. After the mission is established, nothing seems to happen for the longest time. Jazz and his friend Hawk bicker over Vivi. Vivi meets with her GEM commander. Jazz and Vivi flirt. Vivi searches for clues to her friend’s fate. Jazz and Hawk bicker. Vivi meets with her commander. And so on. After a while I started to wonder if the mission was ever going to get underway. I wanted them to stop yapping and get to it already. The action, when it does arrive, is very well-done. I wish there had been more of it.
The book’s pacing just felt off somehow, as I kept waiting for the story to kick into a higher gear it never really did. Mostly I thought the plot could have been tightened quite a bit. Often the story just felt like it was spinning its wheels, with repetitive and unnecessary scenes. Some of them are also slow and drag on too long. When Vivi finally faces off with a nemesis, the two exchange these long speeches for several pages. I couldn’t help thinking how nice it was that they were each willing to stand there and let the other pontificate for so long before taking their respective turns. The story is occasionally muddled or confusing in spots, with events not as clear as they might have been.
As a love story, it was fine, but nothing special. There’s a moment when Vivi believes something bad has happened to Jazz and the author writes that Vivi “was dying inside.” I simply didn’t buy it, and that’s the exact moment I realized there was something lacking in the romance. The author convinced me that they were attracted to each other and had chemistry, and they do share some nice moments. But when she tries to push their relationship to the next level and portray it as something deeper and more meaningful, it just felt perfunctory, like what they were supposed to be feeling at that point in the story instead of what they actually were. Vivi’s search for the childhood friend she fears met a dire fate is riveting and emotional. The romance is nowhere near as affecting.
While there is much to admire about The Protector, my ultimate reaction was too ambivalent to recommend it. It was a decent enough read that was entertaining in spots. The characters and the premise are strong, there are several great moments, and I liked the author’s style. But the slow pace and a merely acceptable romance prevented it from being anything more than a moderately interesting read. It took me more than a week to finish this book, mostly because I kept putting it down. Still, readers who enjoy strong heroines, alpha heroes and gritty realism may find it worth a look.