Can an African Dictator Make A Good Romance Hero? You bet!

I was going to bypass the supermarket used book bin, I swear, but I glanced at it, saw this cover, and was intrigued:

What was this? A non-Kimani category with a black hero? With dreadlocks? I read the blurb:

To the world, Jean-Charles Laroque was a tyrannical ruler—a powerful mercenary driven by greed. But was he threatening enough to assassinate? Making that assessment was profiler Emily Carlin, a woman whose professionalism masked her phobia of being dominated by an alpha male. A male like Laroque. Working undercover to infiltrate his psyche, Emily discovered a noble man—and an undeniable attraction. Amid the hot nights, Emily found herself falling for the magnetic Laroque. And if he discovered her true identity, she might lose not only her chance at love, but also her life. (Excerpt here.)

An African setting? I fished out fifty cents, threw it in my shopping cart, and am happy to report that Seducing the Mercenary is one of the most unusual and entertaining categories I’ve yet read. Published in 2007, it’s the fourth of five Shadow Soldiers books.

If you are feeling tl/dr today, here’s the skinny:

Strengths of this book:

  • Unusual, terrifically rendered setting. Author avoids both “See! Africans are JUST LIKE US!”, and “See! Africans are different, exotic, and primal, but THEY ARE REALLY GREAT!”
  • Alpha hero with a beta heart, totally believable as an African (black African “Ubasi” mother, Afrikaaner [white, of Dutch decent] father), raised in France
  • Interesting, semi-complex, and logical international political plot
  • Real suspense
  • Totally hot. Instant, all consuming attraction between the leads. Also, tent sex.

Weaknesses:

  • Typical over-reliance on family of origin issues to feed internal conflict
  • Occasional problematic language for hero: “primal”, “predatory”, that kind of thing.
  • Occasional breathy phrasing: one sentence paragraphs, one word sentences. Sentences broken up. Like this. So that there is more emphasis. But it is. Truly. Annoying.
  • Length of book necessitates tidy resolution to complex problems

Cover note: I actually think this is a great cover, perfect for the characters and the setting. Interestingly, the model portraying the heroine appears Asian to me (this is clear when viewing the back cover, below. Click to enlarge.), yet the ethnicity of the heroine is never mentioned, nor are there cues in her physical description.

Emily and Jean-Charles take one look at each other and they are gone. Theirs is an unusual first meeting. He is in a Jeep and military vehicle convoy, the kind you see on the news with young men holding rifles in the air. And she is in the middle of an adoring crowd on a dusty hot street, having been separated from her research group (which was a cover anyway) at customs. He’s wearing the camos, the beret, and the dark sunglasses.

Emily ends up at his palace, and in order to stay there, she tells him she wants to write a book about him. Jean agrees to grant her an interview, in order to find out what she’s hiding and who she is working for. The physical danger is so high — the ruthless leader whom Jean ousted is plotting a violent return, possibly with the help of the US — that he has to take Emily with him wherever he goes. By spending all this time together, Emily comes discover that Jean is neither a greedy mercenary nor a tyrant. Unfortunately, her team will assassinate him in 7 days if she doesn’t report to them. Alas, Jean has confiscated her laptop and cell phone.

I enjoyed reading a category romance in which the alpha male’s suspicion of the heroine was justified. I loved the descriptions of Ubasi, from the Ubasi airport, to Jean-Charles’s palace, to a small village, to an outpost in the Purple Mountains. Maybe I was just in the right mood, but I loved the over the top romance against a backdrop of intrigue and war. I’m glad I read this unusual and compelling romance.

Word on the Web:

Enduring Romance, Robyn, very positive

20 responses

    • No, she is not described as Asian American, and I don’t think she was. Her name is Emily Carlin. She has long black hair, described as a waist length “dark tangle”, pale skin and freckles.

      This makes the choice of model for the cover kind of interesting to me. I will try to find and post a picture of it.

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  1. How interesting. I asked because your comment reminded me of Marjorie Liu’s book The Last Twilight where the cover model made me think the heroine was Asian, although it’s possible she’s mixed or even Caucasian. Then her name, Rikki Kinn, though not an Asian ethnicity that I could pin, had elements that could be construed as Asian-esque. I imagined her as having Asian features while I was reading, but that was probably just me seizing the opportunity. :)

    I’ve been in a discussion on one of my loops about the popularity/familiary of Asian/Black pairings.

    But all that aside, your review has definitely piqued my interest. I love over the top settings and many of the elements you described: the dictator with a heart, the exotic setting, assassination threat–made me think of some of the tension I enjoyed in a Silhouette Nocturne I read recently.

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  2. @Jeannie Lin:

    I imagined her as having Asian features while I was reading, but that was probably just me seizing the opportunity.

    I just posted the back cover photo. Please correct me if you think I am reading too much into her features.

    The cover made me think: why assume a heroine is white Anglo when her minimal description doesn’t preclude Latina, Asian, or many other combinations?

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  3. Hey, you’re right! The girl on the back cover totally looks Asian. More so than Rikki Kinn.

    I never minded it when authors left the descriptions of characters a little more open. I think it’s nice. Gives us non-white girls a chance to Mary-Sue once in a while. :)

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  4. You had me at…

    tyrannical ruler—a powerful mercenary driven by greed

    Nom nom nom.

    Thus:

    Occasional problematic language for hero: “primal”, “predatory”, that kind of thing.

    Why is this problematic? Because he’s black? These are words used in romance CONSTANTLY (they might as well be their own trope) in reference to alpha males across the genre. What makes it problematic for a black hero versus a white one?

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  5. @Moriah Jovan:

    Why is this problematic? Because he’s black? These are words used in romance CONSTANTLY (they might as well be their own trope) in reference to alpha males across the genre. What makes it problematic for a black hero versus a white one?

    Good questions. I agree they are used constantly. Even statements like “he moved with panther grace”. I guess is it b/c Jean is a black African that I cringed a little. Greek billionaire tycoons aren’t regularly compared to savages and beasts IRL, but some other kinds of men historically have been, and those comparisons have been a part of their oppression.

    I hasten to add that she did a great job with this character overall. He had a master’s from the Sorbonne, spoke with a French accent, and felt himself to have a mixed Western and African heritage.

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  6. I might actually look forward to grocery shopping if I could find things like this at the Safeway.
    Plus, I’d love to hear what your husband had to say about this one, even though it’s largely outside his area of expertise.

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  7. Wouldn’t her view on the dictator good/bad be regarded as compromised by her employers and team because of their emerging relationship? Given the major plot point of who the USA is going to support, was this addressed? Actually does this tie in with our discussion about Andrew and Mathew’s relationship?

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  8. Wouldn’t her view on the dictator good/bad be regarded as compromised by her employers and team because of their emerging relationship?

    I would think there would also be huge ethical questions raised by a character who’s prepared to make a decision like this:

    Jean-Charles Laroque was a tyrannical ruler—a powerful mercenary driven by greed. But was he threatening enough to assassinate? Making that assessment was profiler Emily Carlin

    And wouldn’t assassination be illegal under both domestic and international law?

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  9. I have been thinking a lot lately about the intrusion of any given reader’s demands for realism/verisimilitude in any given romance. What makes one reader accept the premise of, say, a heroine who can trigger (you should excuse the expression) an assassination, while for a second reader, this premise triggers an addition to her DNF pile?

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  10. @Merrian:

    Actually does this tie in with our discussion about Andrew and Mathew’s relationship?

    Yes, absolutely. I really liked both books, but the unethical behavior in this one didn’t bug me, because it is so far removed from my job. I read this as pure fantasy in a way I COULD NOT read a book set in a workplace like mine, dealing with patients like mine, and doctors very like those I work with daily.

    @Laura Vivanco: Oh, yeah, so much was wrong. Sunita and I exchanged a series of hilarious tweets (actually, she was hilarious, I was hysterically laughing) about how wrong so much of the setting and plot is in this book. As Sunita pointed out, even the location of the fictional nation of Ubasi is geographically impossible. And the heroine has a PhD in “tyrannical pathology”. And on and on.

    But so much went into my ability to suspend disbelief:

    (a) I picked the book up from a used bin in the market, making my expectations low. I am more likely to have higher expectations for a shiny expensive hardcover I chose deliberately and purchased at a retail outlet. not rational, but true of me.

    (b) It is a category romance, so again, my expectations for realism, and in other ways, are different than for single titles.

    (c) I know nothing about international espionage, mercenaries, and the like, and have nothing at stake in their being presented accurately. All I ask is that I not be thrown out of the story. And actually, even then, if I am enjoying the story in other ways, I don’t mind.

    (d) I read romance novels sometimes not because I think I will enjoy them, but because they intrigue me in some way. In this case, the hero and setting seemed quite unusual (perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps there are a lot of category romances with black African heroes, set in Africa?). So, no matter HOW it was executed, the premise went a long way to hold my interest.

    @Pam Regis:

    What makes one reader accept the premise of, say, a heroine who can trigger (you should excuse the expression) an assassination, while for a second reader, this premise triggers an addition to her DNF pile?

    Great question. I hope you will provide us an answer in your next book!

    Actually, I think the question is even harder, because as my own differing reactions to unethical hero behavior in two recent reads shows, even within one reader there is variation and inconsistency on this issue.

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  11. @Jessica:

    (b) It is a category romance, so again, my expectations for realism, and in other ways, are different than for single titles.

    This may be part of the explanation for why we had such divergent reactions. I have different expectations for plot development, complexity of plot, and the like, but that’s because of the length restrictions. I expect authors of both categories and single titles to provide a reasonably plausible context. The mistakes in the contexts here are no different for me than a single-title I read earlier this year in which a year known in British history as “the year without a summer” was given a major heat wave, presumably for plot reasons. Since I read two books back to back (both major publisher releases) that were set in this year, and one got it right, I found the error especially glaring.

    Unless we hold contemporary author to the same standards as single title authors, categories will never be treated with as much respect. And the good category writers deserve that respect.

    @Pam Regis: For me, the context is almost as important as the relationship, in both historicals and contemporaries, and the worldbuilding is similarly important in paranormals. If the romantic relationship is really well portrayed, I can live with errors in context. But in this case the errors began before any relationship was established, and they came in fairly rapid succession. I also found the backstories of the hero and heroine implausible, so their relationship really couldn’t work for me. The author went totally over the top with the hero and heroine’s stories, which really wasn’t necessary to the plot, and their respective father complexes made them seem downright unstable (never a plus when you’re building a relationship).

    On the other hand, I read and enjoyed a Liz Fielding sheikh book in which the heroine was a taxi driver. Hardly a likely scenario, but she made it work for me because the characters made sense. Same with some of Marion Lennox’s fake European country prince books.

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  12. I don’t mean or want to excuse book characters and especially h/h from all the human frailties because they are what can make a story believeable and real and the ending hard won and a more significant win. However, sometimes I think these issues arise as a form of poor world building and lately I have begun to think I like urban fantasy over contemporary romance novels because contemporary novels scant on the world building. World building isn’t just what form of magic works or demons versus shifters; it is about how the world works and how the h/h journey takes this into account. In this book there is a reality that is ignored because it isn’t convenient to the plot or the author. On the other hand, for me – Andrew’s and Mathew’s story addressed the teacher/student issues as the relationship unfolded so while it was a relationship that raised ethical issues within the realities of the world they live in it was made sense of. I should probably add a caveat that I don’t read many category novels because the length means I find them frustrating when it comes to the world building/what does this mean stuff.

    Happy Christmas! Now that I have read my blogs and eaten cherries and mince pies for breakfast I am off too do lunch.

    Like

  13. @Sunita:

    Unless we hold contemporary author to the same standards as single title authors, categories will never be treated with as much respect. And the good category writers deserve that respect.

    I agree with you. Some books are just crazy fantasies, whether category or single title, and I don’t hold them to standards of realism. These books are like the Dynasty of the genre. I read this one that way.

    But I also think with categories, there is a morse code effect due to length which requires me to have different standards. They often feel like very potent, condensed genre examples. More than single titles, when I read categories, I feel like I am bringing in all my genre knowledge, and reading it as one strand in a tightly woven genre blanket. (and with that metaphor, I confirm my inability to write, LOL.)

    @Merrian: I agree that contemps often lack worldbuilding. Perhaps it’s just more of a reliance on what readers bring to the book, but I often find it frustrating because I do not experience the setting as a contemporary one, or any recognizable one, at all. And yes, I had higher expectations for the novel in which the world was more carefully crafted.

    @Keishon: Uh oh. You might hate it. I already owe Sunita four bucks. I am going to go broke over this review! ;)

    Like

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