…At least it does in both of these novels
A couple years ago I read a book written by two authors. I thought having a male/female writing team would be a good combination, giving more realistic reactions for both genders. Instead, the book was awful. No, I take that back, it was worse than awful. It was abysmal. In fact, I dislike this book so much I refuse to even mention the title or author names in case someone can actually think of some kind of defense for that craptastic book.
That experience made me seriously skeptical of writing teams. I realize that this was not particularly fair, but I did have a couple good reasons for my thinking. First, that book (that shall not be named) was incredibly bad. Second, writing styles can be like fingerprints, unique to the individual, therefore, combining writing styles can be challenging. Third, logistically, it is challenging to combine information without a bunch of mistakes—brings up bad memories of group projects in grad school. Fourth, people tend to like to be stars more than team players, no matter what bunk they say might say during job interviews.
And yet, despite these deeply held beliefs that team-writing is a challenge few conquer, I took a chance on not one, but two books written by male/female writing teams. Yes, I contradict myself.
The interesting premises of these books persuaded me to put doubts aside and take another chance on writing teams and it is a good thing I did. Both books were excellent. Widely different in premise, setting, and style, but both were solidly good reads that left me wanting more.
Back when The Davinci Code by Dan Brown came out, it seemed like everyone was reading his stuff and I followed suit. But, while Brown had a great knack for suspense, the female characters in his book were such stupid nymphos it was laughable. I’d be reading along thinking to myself, “I don’t know any woman who would think that” or “that doesn’t seem realistic.”
A fiction writer knows right off that the readers are fully aware that the story before them isn’t true. Therefore the writer has to create a mood in the novel with enough realism so that readers can suspend disbelief and just allow themselves to be swept along with the story. When I’m thinking, “no woman would do that” I’m not being swept along. Not only am I not suspending my disbelief and letting the story whisk me away, I’m also kind of pissed off.
One day, while checking out the new mystery section at my favorite Barnes and Noble, I found a book by C.S. Harris, a mystery series set in Regency era England. In reading about the author, I discovered that she (real name Candice Proctor) also wrote another series with her husband, Steven Harris, under the pseudonym C.S. Graham. This series, set in present-day New Orleans, also sounded fascinating.
Even though I didn’t know a thing about remote viewing, I wanted to take a chance on the October “Tobie” Guinness/Jax Alexander series. I just had a strong gut instinct that a woman who wrote her own series of mysteries would be able to exert enough influence on her husband to write a female character who was believable. Turns out, my gut was actually right.
October “Tobie” Guinness is attempting to restart her life in New Orleans after she was discharged from the Navy. A connection through the VA hospital leads to her research and development as a “remote viewer” with Tulane professor Henry Youngblood. Using Tobie’s cognitive abilities Professor Youngblood unwittingly uncovers a domestic terror plot with international implications—information that people are willing to kill to keep secret. As the one who remotely viewed this explosive information, Tobie’s life expectancy is suddenly nil. Her only chance of survival is black-sheep CIA agent Jax Alexander, a guy the current director of the CIA is actively working to destroy, and unraveling the mystery of the information she uncovered.
This book takes place over the course of about three days, three very breathless days of Tobie running for her life. The Archangel Project moves between Tobie, Jax, and the bad guys who are relentlessly chasing them through steamy, post-Katrina New Orleans. The descriptions of the crippled, but recovering, city were so vivid that I swear I could almost smell salt water and feel the sticky air. Better yet, despite being together for a solid two days of adrenaline-charged near-death, Tobie and Jax managed to avoid sliding into one of the ridiculous sexual encounters that so often plague other books like this. I made the mistake of starting to read this book at night, it is damn hard to put down. Can’t wait to get my hands on the second book in the series, The Deadlight Connection*.
Prior to reading this book, I didn’t know much of anything about steampunk. I knew about gamers, and Goths, and gloom cookies, but not steampunk. Turns out, steampunk is sort of like a lovechild between Victorian era steam-powered technology and science fiction fueled alternate history. The culture, manners, and social mores of the late 19th century gets creatively mashed together with steam-powered innovation, science fiction, and a liberal sprinkling of whimsy in this series debut Phoenix Rising.
Miss Eliza Braun, a proud daughter of New Zealand, is an agent for the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. She is fearless, progressive, has a deep affection for dynamite and firearms, and is currently being punished. Instead of working in the field chasing down threats to the Crown, she’s stuck in a damp basement learning from archivist (do not call him a librarian) Wellington Books, a man she recently rescued. Eliza is bored to tears cataloging evidence other agents bring back from field assignments, but then chance offers her a rare opportunity to investigate the unsolved case that destroyed her former partner. With Wellington Books, reluctantly, at her side, Eliza investigates a conspiracy that will take them from London dives to opulent country estates, requiring both of their skill sets to keep them alive.
Ballantine and Morris have created an appealing steampunk Odd Couple in Eliza and Wellington and I’m really annoyed that I discovered this series so early on. Ideally, I like to stumble across established series so I don’t have to impatiently wait for the next book in the series to come out. But the premise and characters in this series were so fun I didn’t want to wait. I’m glad I didn’t, even though now I’m stuck waiting for the next installation to hit bookshelves.
Part of what I liked so much about this book is that it did just about everything right. The historical touches of gritty Victorian England were vivid, the action sequences were well-paced and made sense, and the banter between Eliza and Wellington was funny. This bit, where Eliza comes dragging into the office late and dead tired after a long night of running down a lead in the case, was one of my favorite examples of the desert-dry humor used in Phoenix Rising’s dialogue.
“You’re late,” he reminded her, punching into the engine his tea sequence.
Eliza’s hand dropped to her lap as she let her head fall back. “Yes, Books, I know. I’m such a bad, bad agent. I should be put across your knee and spanked.”
“Your fantasies are not my concern,” he observed dryly.
In contrast to The Archangel Project, there is a lot more titillation and sexual tension in Phoenix Rising. The events in Phoenix Rising take place over the course of a couple weeks and the action ebbs and flows so I don’t mind the addition of sexual tension and a possible eventual relationship between Eliza and Wellington–to me, that makes sense. What doesn’t make sense to me is when the main characters are concussed, dealing with gunshot wounds, and still somehow feel like getting their freak on, ala Dan Brown.
Even though I’m reviewing these two books together, they are very different. For those of you who like a good historical mystery with a sci-fi twist, Ballentine and Morris’s Phoenix Rising might just be the ticket for a nice, late summer read. And, for those who are into government conspiracies, CIA operatives, and racing the clock to save the world in a present-day setting, you might want to check out The Archangel Project. Both books are good reads that lead off what promises to be two very good series.
*I looked for The Deadlight Connection and couldn’t find it. Turns out, somewhere between putting the first chapter of book two at the back of The Archangel Project and it actually coming out in print, there was a title change. So, book two in the Tobie Guinness/Jax Alexander series is The Solomon Effect and not The Deadlight Connection.