by Michele Albert, contemporary (2007)
Pocket, $6.99, ISBN 978-1-4165-3139-4
Huge spoilers are mentioned in this review. Sorry folks, but I have to bring them up in order to explain why I feel the way I do about this book.
Reading Tough Enough is like watching a John Woo movie featuring Chow Yun-Fatt in swirling trenchcoats and two guns ready to fire at will. Or watching those dramatic Korean dramas where it is always about two friends or brothers who become separated in their teens only to be reunited when one of them is a criminal and the other is a cop out to bust his ass. The plot of Tough Enough is nothing like those Blood Brothers type of drama, but it features the same movingly sweeping and dramatic polemics on the concepts of good and evil to the point that the boundaries between those two concepts begin to blur. I have a hard time deciding who the good guys are at the end of the story because I really want the villains in this story to win. Really, this book has one of the most memorable Bonnie-and-Clyde villains I've come across in a long time.
The story starts innocuously enough. Smooth-talking chameleon-like operative Will Tiernay is sent by his employers, a group of mercenaries who are active in the art scene called Avalon, to stop the theft of a priceless collection before it happens. What happens is that a private collector has decided to sell his collection of Bynzantine jewelry, of which the infamous Eudoxia Reliquary is one of the pieces, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. However, this collector wants a perfectly-made replicate of each piece of the collection for display in his home and the Museum naturally has to foot the bill for the work. However, the collector, Mal Toller, contracts a third-party company to reproduce the collection.
The problem is that there are strong rumors in the black market scene that someone is trying to sell off pieces of that collection. This can only mean one thing - someone is trying to create an unauthorized replicate of the original collection on top of the one commissioned by Mal Toller, steal the original collection with no one the wiser, and sell the collection off in the black market. The question now is whether Mal Toller is involved in this scheme or someone in Haddington Reproductions is the enterprising mastermind. Will poses as an art journalist and approaches Haddington Reproductions, only to realize that one of the employees - and therefore, a suspect - is his first girlfriend Mia Dolan.
Mia and Will had a breakup twelve years ago when she left to study abroad and found another guy that she imagined would suit her artistic side better than the steady Will whom everyone expected back then to settle down with a pretty wife and have a normal Everyday Joe life. Mia can never imagine in a hundred years that Will would turn out to be an operative in an agency specializing in solving problems involving expensive artworks, heh. So what will happen now?
Like the previous book, the prologue of sorts to the Avalon series Hide In Plain Sight, this is a Big Secret romance that works very well. Of course Will can't tell Mia who he is even when he's convinced that she's a good guy because he can't jeopardize the mission. It makes perfect sense. Likewise, Mia doesn't overreact when she realizes who Will really is, because she too is a sensible person once she cools down. What I like about Mia is that she doesn't become an anchor around Will's neck that threatens to drag him down with her incompetence or foolishness. It is the lack of information that prevents her from realizing who Will is early on because this heroine is pretty sharp. Will is a solid guy who is determined to do the right thing. He and Mia make a great couple.
The villains are revealed early on, but oh, by the end of the story I feel that they have completely stolen the story from Will and Mia. Vanessa Sharpton, Mia's colleague, seems like a mousy woman beaten into submission by a long line of abusive boyfriends. Her latest squeeze, Kos, seems like another bad boyfriend manipulating her. But it turns out that they are a true Bonnie-and-Clyde couple. Vanessa is way out of her league trying to catch up with her Albanian mob dude boyfriend but she actually blossoms as the story progresses until she gains a measure of ruthlessness to match Kos'. Kos and Vanessa have a relationship that I find most fascinating as well as most romantic. She has had so many bad boyfriends who abused her in one way or another before, but now, here is the ultimate bad boyfriend who finally treats her like gold. It is beautiful poetry of the darkest sort how Kos, by treating Vanessa as a woman to love rather than a charity case, finally wins her devotion while Mia in her careless kind of thoughtfulness ends up pushing Vanessa away because Mia always treats Vanessa like someone who needs her advice or guidance. In other words, Mia inadvertently allows Vanessa to feel like a charity case while Kos makes her feel like a real person who can be loved for who she is. As for Kos, Vanessa's devotion makes him feel like a hero, which he of course isn't. Seriously, these two have a truly beautiful relationship in my opinion.
The fact that Vanessa and Kos have such depths mean that the concept of good and evil becomes blurred significantly as the story progresses. After all, as they tell Will, their crime hurts only a rich man, who only view these expensive items as things to collect, and some museum. The "real" people don't give a damn, surely, since the loss of these artworks doesn't matter in the long run? So what harm is there to what they are doing? As the story progresses, Kos and Will find themselves in the same situation, doing all they can to protect the woman they each love from the other person. Under any other circumstances, I suspect that all four characters would have become good friends because they, especially Will and Kos, have many things in common and they probably understand each better than anyone else could. In a way, this story is a little like those Blood Brothers stories.
And the most heartbreaking yet most elegant turn of the plot takes place towards the end, when Kos' ultimate downfall is due to him trusting Will too much. Will is the one who breaks his word. In the end, the good guys win. That's good, right? I'm honestly not too sure about that. I'm, in fact, heartbroken. It's silly but I am this close to shedding tears because I'm really fond of the dark and nasty twosome of Kos and Vanessa. Ms Albert's greatest success in this story is her ability to make me get all torn up and twisted inside because the good guys and the bad guys aren't so clearly drawn here. Breaking the law is a crime, yes, but in this case, I find myself thinking that Kos and Vanessa make perfect sense. Does it matter that they are stealing some artworks that nobody in the "real" world will care about? Then there is the fact that towards the end the bad guys show more honor than the good guys, although one can argue that Will is justified in his action because he's the good guy here and the bad guys break the law so they do not deserve to be treated with honor. I suppose that is right... but I also want to take a take a baseball bat and beat Will senseless because it is not fair. It's not! It's just not fair!
See? This book has me all worked up. Tough Enough reminds me of those beautifully melodramatic manga-type stories and movies where antiheroes reign supreme and everyone agonizes in a beautiful kind of emo over good and evil. I will really miss Kos and Vanessa, probably more than I will miss Will and Mia (you know me, good guys often pale in comparison to breathtakingly well-drawn bad guys where I am concerned). Then again, if Rainert von Lahr, who makes a few brief appearances here, is as bad, charismatic, and larger than life as he is shaping up to be, I probably will feel so much better when the next book arrives at my doorstep.
Tough Enough is a fine and well-paced action romance featuring two capable, likable, and charismatic lead characters. However, it is also a most engaging story featuring very human villains who make the heroes behave in less than noble manner to the point that I don't know who to root for anymore because everything is so wonderfully ambiguous here. It's a great story that makes me feel, think, and have a good time. Ms Albert is fortunate that I am not some Albanian Godfather-type matriarch, I tell you, because otherwise I will be moved to send her both a thank you note (for the story) and the dismembered head of a horse (for Kos and Vanessa) in a big Fed-ex parcel for giving me Tough Enough.
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