by Maya Banks, contemporary (2010)
Berkley, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22794-7
Maya Banks is pretty well-known and even infamous for her erotic romances that often genuinely push the envelope, but she also writes romances featuring covert operatives and action men for Samhain Publishing. Therefore, it is only a matter of time before she gets to show this other aspect of her writing to the dead tree book audience, and The Darkest Hour, naturally the first book in a series, is that book that will try to appeal to the tastes of readers of books by Cindy Gerard, Shannon McKenna, and the like. This also means that this book lacks the non-stop boinking found in her erotic romances, so adjust your expectations accordingly.
Ethan Kelly is one of the Kelly guys who own and run the Kelly Group International or KGI. Please do not confuse them with the headhunter agency - these guys will beat you silly if you do. They are "super-elite" action men who own equipment that will make the Batcave look like a nursery playroom when they aren't oozing testosterone like Johnny Bravo. They get paid to do things no mere mortals can do, and they flex their preternaturally shiny biceps and hefty crotch bulges while they're at it. However, when the story opens, Ethan has quit the macho man business.
You see, his wife Rachel died in South America when her plane or helicopter (I don't remember the story ever making it clear which one it is, hmm) crashed. Ethan spent the following year drinking and generally being a miserable sloth. Don't worry, those abs remain as hard as rock, because romance heroes are incapable of becoming fat despite drinking like a fish. When the story opens, it is the anniversary of Rachel getting barbecued to crisp and lo, a parcel shows up on Ethan's doorstep with evidence that Rachel may not be dead after all. While Ethan is drinking and generally making her death all about him, she could very well be enjoying the hospitality of the finest terrorists of South America. Ethan rushes to his Band of Brothers for help, they all get into their Voltron lion robots, and roger the terrorists with their fifty-inch Blazing Voltron Sword as they rescue Rachel from those foul villains.
When rescued, Rachel turns out to be suffering from memory loss. She is also addicted to drugs thanks to the terrorists hooking her up with Columbia's finest during her captivity. If that isn't enough, someone is not happy to see Rachel alive. Meanwhile, Ethan knows that he had treated the wife horribly in the two years prior to her "death", and now he has no idea what he will do should she remembers all those horrible things he said and did to her.
The Darkest Hour is actually not very action-packed despite what the cover art may lead you to believe. Rachel is rescued pretty quickly and the rest of the story takes place on a more sedate pace in their home as they try to deal with the issues between them.
While the story is a readable one, it is also a rather underdeveloped one. Perhaps a hundred more pages would have solved many of the problems present in this book, as Ms Banks stretches herself too thin here. Rachel's addiction starts out being a pivotal issue but it soon becomes relegated to something that the therapist will one day fix on the road to the happily ever. Ms Banks tries to also tackle Rachel's amnesia, the issues in the relationship between Rachel and Ethan, and the suspense subplot amidst sowing the seeds for sequels by parading the rest of Ethan's brothers in front of me as if I'm a picky person picking out choice strippers for my birthday party. As a result, every aspect of the story is either rushed to an unrealistically neat conclusion or brushed under the carpet by the last page.
In addition, The Darkest Hour is a very good example of a romance novel that focuses so heavily on the male characters that the female characters are just there. Rachel has no personality and no defining individual traits. Her entire existence in this novel is to prop Ethan up. Ethan put her through a verbal and emotional grinder during their marriage, but her chief reaction upon remembering all that drama is to get even more dramatic over the fact that Ethan hates her and they may not have a happily ever after anymore. Rachel's love for Ethan remains constant and true despite the stuff he had put her through - this is pretty much her entire defining personality trait. She's not Rachel Kelly as much as she is Ethan Kelly's Wife. What does she want for herself? What does she do when Ethan is not around to hold her up? I don't know. She exists just to love Ethan unconditionally.
This is most likely by design, though, as eventually Ethan actually tells Rachel that the way he dominated their marriage and made all the decisions for the two of them led to the near-destruction of it, and he asks her to make decisions for herself more often. It is good that he has a sense of self-awareness now of what nearly tore her and him apart the last time, but given that he's still doing the same job that led to the distancing between the two of them the last time around, I can only wonder how long this second honeymoon will last.
Rachel being a doormat by design that doesn't explain why the other two female characters also suffer from the same superficial love interest syndrome: they are the Mother of the Hot Kelly Men and the Future Girlfriend of One of the Hot Kelly Men. These women lack defining personality traits that are not linked to the men around them. I know that in the romance genre, characters with penises are more valuable as sequel baits compared to female characters, but still, it is disappointing to realize that the women in this book are written mostly as props for the men.
As I've mentioned earlier, The Darkest Hour could use a hundred or so pages more, so that the author could have more room to develop the various aspects of her story. As it is, this one suffers from the "all over the place" syndrome, underdeveloped subplots, and, for any character who isn't a Kelly man waiting to get his own book, utterly flat personalities.
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