White Heat
Grade : B

I find the mentality behind cults intriguing, so when I heard that White Heat, Brenda Novak's latest series opener, was set against the infiltration of a cult, I knew that I would want to read it. The story has a dark intensity that keeps readers turning pages, and I'll definitely be picking up the rest of the series.

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As the novel opens, Rachel Jessop of Department 6, a private security company, is learning more about the charismatic cult leader whose group she must infiltrate. Ethan Wycliff leads a secretive group called the Church of the Covenant. Young, good-looking, and from a privileged background, Ethan has managed to set up a compound in the Arizona desert. In addition to being very charismatic, Rachel learns that he also once corresponded with Charles Manson. Though little is known about the specifics of Ethan's group, allegations of attempts to stone a woman are enough to raise worries about what may be happening. Though dangerous, Rachel's job sounds like it is about to take a very interesting turn and she anticipates meeting the challenge.

Then Rachel finds out that she will not infiltrate the cult alone. She will need to work with Nate Ferrentino, with whom she recently had a disastrous romantic encounter. The two must pose as a married couple in order to gain the trust of the cult and, given that Rachel still feels deeply awkward around Nate, it's no easy feat. Though things definitely do not start out smoothly between them, it's easy to see that Rachel still has a crush on Nate and he feels attracted to her as well. Rachel tries to fight her attraction at least in part out of embarrassment over their past history, and this leads to some bickering and stilted exchanges between them.

Readers quickly learn that Rachel grew up within a very strict religious group and her upbringing shows in her relationship with Nate. Coming from such a rigidly sheltered background has made it hard for her to recognize some of the subtle cues in communication between the sexes and this has led her to misread Nate on occasion. Learning to understand each other and communicate is a huge challenge for this couple and, while some of their scenes together are awkward and a little too heavy on the mental lusting, their struggles with each other make sense. Rachel's background also makes her understanding of the cult's workings, as well as her ability to slip into the group, believable. The ways in which the author shows Rachel's own spiritual journey are very effective and make her a very well-rounded character. Nate felt a little flatter in comparison, but he is still an appealing, strong hero.

As the story heats up, we alternate between scenes involving the lead characters and their investigation and scenes showing what happens inside the Church of the Covenant. Even though some of the happenings inside the cult are outlandish, readers familiar with real cults that have operated over the years will recognize that the workings of the fictional one here are very twisted, but nowhere near so strange and disturbing as some of the things that have occurred within real-life groups. Brenda Novak has obviously done her homework and it shows in the storytelling.

At first I found the development of the plot involving the cult both intriguing and disturbing, and it kept me turning pages. The cult intially seemed mysterious and strangely powerful, but over the last third of the book, Ethan Wycliff morphed from darkly charistmatic leader to almost a cartoon villain, and this seemed a bit too much. Some readers may find the descriptions of violence and sexual practices within the cult disturbing, but these aspects of the story are well written and, given some of the things that have occurred within real-life cults, they make sense.

The suspense definitely dominates this novel, but the romance works well. Rather than try to strike an artificial 50-50 balance between romance and suspense, the author blends the two aspects of her plot naturally. There are times when Nate and Rachel can speak earnestly or make love, and there are times when it just wouldn't make sense. I appreciated that romantic scenes weren't forced into parts of the story where it wouldn't be believeable, and I also appreciated that readers get a good suspense story here.

While I would have preferred to be shown rather than told a bit more about the characters' initial awkwardness with each other, White Heat is a strong, suspenseful read. If you're in the mood for an intense, gritty story, that is certainly what gets delivered here, and I'll be curious to see what adventures the Department 6 crew encounters next.

Reviewed by Lynn Spencer
Grade : B

Sensuality: Warm

Review Date : August 12, 2010

Publication Date: 2010/08

Recent Comments …

  1. What kept me reading was the sheer unpredictability of the storyline. I knew David’s and Chelsea’s paths would cross again…

Lynn Spencer

I enjoy spending as much time as I can between the covers of a book, traveling through time and around the world. When I'm not having adventures with fictional characters, I'm an attorney in Virginia and I love just hanging out with my husband, little man, and the cat who rules our house.
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