Although paranormal romance is a subgenre I tend to avoid, the Mongolian setting and review comparisons to films like the Indiana Jones franchise and The Mummy whetted my interest in Warrior, the first installment in a new adventure series called “The Blades Of The Rose” by Zoë Archer. Having read the book, I am in two minds about picking up the next. Ironically, I felt the romance got in the way of the plot, and ardently wished the entertaining elements of magic would inspire more frequent, suspenseful escapades. As it is written, despite a cover and title that seem to reach out beyond the romance reading community, Warrior is too overwhelmingly purple in its pushing of the romantic plot for me to believe in its crossover possibilities. That said, there is much that is excitingly fresh about Archer’s story.
1874. Nursery tales and legends are how most people think of magic, never dreaming it truly exists. The Blades Of The Rose are sworn to protect Sources, the objects that are repositories of this secret and mystical power, and prevent their exploitation by those who employ magic for destructive or selfish ends, such as the Heirs.
After being entrusted with a cryptic message and an unusual compass by a dying stranger, newly resigned Army Captain, Gabriel Huntley, travels to Mongolia to deliver them to another man he has never met. The news he brings causes great perturbation. The recipient is incapacitated by an injury, but his daughter, Thalia Burgess, assumes the responsibility of taking the action required. Although Gabriel insists on accompanying her on the dangerous journey she sets out on, she remains secretive about her mission even after attraction blazes up between them. Only when they are nearly killed by forces of nature about which nothing is natural does Gabriel learn of the unseen truths Thalia has known all her life.
Used to command, Gabriel also has to learn to work together with Thalia, whose ambition is to become a Blade like her father. But are they resourceful enough to defeat the Heirs, who will stop at nothing to wrest a long-lost Source from its hidden location and turn Mongolia into a nation of slaves?
The creatively integrated and studiously-researched setting of Warrior exceeded my hopes. Mongolia is not merely an exotic backdrop for a story that could take place anywhere. Its history and culture actively drive and enrich the plot. While natives play only subservient if prominent roles (is it really so impossible, in genre fiction, to write a native secondary character whose plot function includes being a leader or decision-maker or an otherwise positive, active role model in his or her own right?), this is still one of the best uses of setting I have read in any romance.
From the metallic wasps of the first chapter to the actual Source, the elements of magic Archer weaves in entertained me throughout the book. While some of the phenomena such as the thunderstorm and the raging river drew on overly familiar imagery (the sandstorm in The Mummy (1999) and the water creatures in The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring (2001) and The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008)), as dramatic scenes they nevertheless crackled with energy and revealed the author's strongest talent: fantasy-based adventure writing.
If that vigorous storytelling had been sustained throughout the story, I would have devoured Warrior in one sitting. But this adventure-laced road romance is instead hampered by stop-and-go pacing that leaches the life out of scene after scene. Between brief bursts of action are long, sluggish segments which are so lacking in conflict that any tension evaporates. (The random attempts at humour fell flat for me: Gabriel is no Indiana Jones and Thalia no Evelyn.) These pacing problems are exacerbated by the handling of the romance, which mostly consists of incessant lusting that inserts itself into every situation, constantly interrupting the flow of scenes, including dialogue. I find, for example, that I have little patience with dialogue where a brief utterance is followed by half a page or more of internal monologue before the next sentence of dialogue follows, again to be slowed down by paragraph after paragraph of more internal commentary. This tedious pattern repeats itself throughout the book.
A problem I sometimes encounter in novels where magic plays a central role is the lack of intellectual effort on the part of the protagonists. When magic miraculously saves the protagonists or the antagonists from a tricky situation or the use of a magical device or power solves a puzzle or overcomes an obstacle, the characters sometimes begin to resemble marionettes whose moves are solely dictated by external causes. In Warrior, instead of busying themselves with strategizing or otherwise exploiting their intellectual abilities to further their goals, the hero and heroine spend their “thinking” time (I use the world very loosely) focussing on emotional reactions – either lust for sex or lust for revenge.
Some people are action-oriented rather than thinkers, and that certainly applies to Gabriel and Thalia. Unfortunately, the conspicuous lack of action for long periods at a time meant I was saddled with their one-track mental processes. In consequence, I often grew bored to the point of indifference. What kept me going were the tidbits about Mongolian life and the acknowledgement that, as much as the romantic interaction between Thalia and Gabriel failed to engage me, these are two mutually respectful and unfailingly supportive characters. I may have gritted my teeth as I read about Gabriel’s “golden eyes” for the twentieth time or was jarred by the fond use of “bloke” when all the characters – including Yorkeshireman and collier’s son Gabriel – speak as if born in the modern United States*, but I enjoyed that there were no silly misunderstandings or contrived quarrels between this couple: their romance is so conflict-free there is not even a “black moment”. While their relationship never develops beyond physical attraction and admiration for each other’s unconventionality, their devotion to each other's welfare and happiness is not in question.
The balance between fantasy and history in Warrior is firmly in the former’s favour. Gabriel and Thalia may live in a historical period but their modern sensibilities are not conducive to a particularly nineteenth-century atmosphere. Thalia’s Mongolian surroundings may have freed her from the manners that define – or confine – other British women, but although the story shows she is well versed in Mongolian customs this different cultural influence has apparently had exactly the same effect on her attitudes and outlook as a 21st century western upbringing would. Interestingly, the lead villain, evil-natured though he may be, comes equipped with convincing motivations that are perfectly suited to this empire-building period.
The final chapters of Warrior set up the future installments in the series, introducing, for example, the heroes of Scoundrel (a rake whose portrayal in Warrior makes him indistinguishable from a dozen other rake heroes) and Stranger (an inventor whose character offers potential for interesting complexity). The author devises a clever way of including these elements without diluting the finale, and I am glad to report she also closes the story without resorting to cliffhangers.
As stated earlier, I am not easily drawn to paranormals. Nor am I a fan of series since I tend to want closure, new settings, and unfamiliar characters. Paradoxically, within the romance genre the only series I have invested in actually happens to be paranormal historical: Shana Abé’s "Drakón" series. In other words, I can be won over. In Warrior, I appreciated the strong setting and the thoroughly entertaining combination of magic and adventure. On the downside, I had serious issues with the intrusively lust-focussed romance and found it difficult to remained absorbed in the story when the action slowed. Since the next book features a non-fake rake hero, even the enticing location - the Greek archipelago - is probably not enough inducement to persuade me to give it a chance. I still have my eye on the inventor’s story, though, because I do think Zoë Archer shows a great deal of promise.
*Other language-related irritants, for me, were the notion that Thalia’s English is tinged with a foreign accent (she has spoken it daily with her British father since infancy) and the speed (a couple of weeks) with which Gabriel acquires advanced conversational skills in Mongolian (the scenes with the bandits).
(Zebra Books paperback, 2010, pages 96-7)
"One moment, she had closed her eyes, the next, she was being gently awakened by Gabriel's hand on her arm, dawn light gilding his shoulders. She couldn't think of a better way to greet the morning.
'We should reach Karakorum today,' Thalia said after she had rinsed her mouth with water.
'Thank God,' Gabriel muttered. 'I've nearly pulled out half my teeth chewing on that dried mutton.'
As Thalia swung up in the saddle, she grinned. 'The Mongol horsemen used to soften borts by putting it underneath their saddles as they rode. We could try that to make it more palatable.'
Gabriel made a face. 'Dried mutton and horse sweat? Even enlisted men were fed better. It's grounds for mutiny.'
'I hope not,' Thalia answered. 'Flogging is so time consuming.'
By late afternoon, they had entered a broad valley, through which flowed the Orkhon River. Thalia had been to the Orkhon Valley before, but its beauty always filled her heart with lightness. Small stands of trees clustered on riverbanks bright with sun. Scattered throughout the valley were groups of gers, smoke rising from their chimneys into the sky. A shepherd on horseback tended his cattle, and the echoes of their lowing could be heard across the basin. A few monks from the monastery had left its walls and were taking their leisure by sitting in the sun on the grassy knolls, their robes spots of flaming color against the green.
'A lovely spot,' Gabriel said. 'But where's the city?'
'This is it,' Thalia answered. She gestured to the wide plain. 'Karakorum.'"