Wild and Free
Some books bring to mind movies or TV shows while you’re reading them. You even cast the characters with your favorite actors and actresses. Reading Wild and Free invoked a similar experience in me. It reminded me of a daytime soap. A dismally bad daytime soap.
Matt Lanier, a loud, angry – but hunky – man, is hunting for Jake Walden, the outlaw responsible for killing his brother Danny and stealing his cattle. During his pursuit of Walden, however, Matt is ambushed by a group of people who, strangely enough, are in possession of his cattle, but aren’t Walden and his gang. Even stranger, one of the ambushers is female. She’s Sunny, a beautiful, spunky woman who was captured and brought up by a Comanche tribe. She, too, is looking for Walden. Her two half-siblings, Gentle Wind and Running Bear, are being held by an Indian Agent who will set them free only if Sunny brings in two renegade braves from Walden’s gang. The two children are the only family Sunny has left after an army raid destroyed her tribe and left her seriously injured, so she is anxious to free them. She also has a secret reason for seeking out Walden, which really isn’t all that mysterious despite the huge production made of it.
Matt wants Sunny to relinquish the herd to him immediately, but she can’t. Danny was driving the cattle north to Wyoming so the brothers could start a ranch when he got caught in the crossfire of Walden’s raid on an army payroll shipment. Sunny has decided to use the cattle as cover while she makes her way to Outlaw Canyon, Walden’s hideout. Matt harbors a hatred for Indians since his parents were killed in a Kiowa raid, so Sunny’s Indian upbringing doesn’t exactly endear her to him either. But the two of them find each other irresistible, of course, and promptly begin an “I hate you, but I want to boink you” relationship. And since no bad soap worth its salt is complete without a Big Misunderstanding, one is provided very handily right at the end of the book, just when I was expecting relief from all the shouting.
Sunny and Matt are an extremely irritating couple. They continually become angry with each other for no good reason. Even after they decide they like each other (in a swift about-face, I might add), they still yell and pout at the drop of a hat. The two of them seem to have two predominant emotions: blazing anger, or sickening sappiness. Those two dizzying and often abrupt swings were almost enough to make me seasick. And have I mentioned that Sunny is Too Stupid To Live? At one point in the book, she decides to pursue Walden alone, a man who is a vicious psychopath surrounded by a whole group of vicious psychopaths. Matt himself is another variety of TSTL – Too Stupid to Love, that is. He gets flamingly angry at Sunny for no good reason at the end and refuses to talk to her. The situation would have gone unresolved if one of the oldest soap opera tricks hadn’t been utilized: the Convenient Eavesdrop.
The other characters are equally dismal, but another TSTL individual in particular deserves special mention: the villain. Jake Walden amasses so many hostages and prisoners, I’m surprised he doesn’t run out of rope. We never find out why he doesn’t simply kill some of the superfluous prisoners, and one particular hostage he keeps with him at the end of the book had me scratching my head. He’s a villain straight from Central Casting, complete with eyepatch, uncouth speech patterns, and lack of convincing motivation.
But the cardboard characterizations pale in comparison to the awful writing. Italics, ellipses, and exclamation points are given a thorough workout, imparting a histrionic air worthy of the worst soaps. Many words are also used in odd contexts, giving the impression that the computer thesaurus was often yet sloppily used. In a strange counterpoint to this, several words are repeated ad nauseam: eyes are either “fiery” or “shimmering,” Sunny is a “spitfire,” and every emotion from shock to love washes over people in waves. Some of the most tired clichés in romance are also trotted out, and though the prose isn’t really purple, many purple terms rear their glorious heads.
The only thing that saves this romance from complete F status is the action. Stephens has a knack for writing action scenes, and certain parts like the cattle stampede swept me away and gave me hope. Unfortunately, these parts are too few and far between to save the book. Before you know it, the cattle have calmed down and Sunny and Matt are back to scowling at each other. Wild and Free is probably the first book I’ve read that would have been vastly improved by more stampedes and high-speed chases. If you’re looking for an engaging, convincing romance – look elsewhere, ’cause you ain’t gonna find it here.