The Steel Caress
by Jessica Hall, contemporary (2003)
Signet, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-20852-8


Jessica Hall's The Steel Caress is a good espionage tale with a touch of romance. Its Japanese/Chinese backdrop will definitely appeal to fans of, say, Eric V Lustbader, but unlike Lustbader who often shows no sense of chronology in his prose, all you need to understand the whole story in The Steel Caress is to read the whole thing from the start of this author's The White Tiger Sword trilogy. But even then, there's enough to savor in what is the best book from this author to date.

Raven is a supermodel with secrets. Previously, she's Sarah Jane Ravenowitz, a plain woman whose ordinary features make her a perfect secret agent. Unfortunately, a mission to China went horrifically wrong, resulting in her lover General Kalen Grady leaving her behind for dead. (You'll have to read The Deepest Edge to get the whole picture.) She didn't die, but she was badly scarred. She went AWOL - I'm still not sure how an MIA agent can also be AWOL, but never mind - and reconstructed herself as Raven, the supermodel whose looks are lauded and celebrated as the epitome of beauty everywhere.

She realizes that she may not have escape her past like she thought when her supermodel friend was murdered along with the heir of a prominent Chinese tong (a family that dabbles in organized crime). When Kalen asks her help to infiltrate this tong, she agrees. Sparks between her and Kalen are rekindled, or so the author tells me. But the book is more successful when it's all about Raven the secret agent.

Raven is a great heroine. She's gorgeous and she's also smart. She never lets anybody and anything get to her, and how she takes care of herself is great to read. The entire covert mission plot is also enjoyable to read. It's more reminiscent of fun escapades such as those old Mission Impossible episodes or maybe even Sidney Sheldon's If Tomorrow Comes, where disguises and subterfuge are on the main agenda. Sometimes it feels as if Raven is probably too influential for a mere supermodel, but then again, this story isn't meant to be anything more than an enjoyable escapade starring a statuesque and capable Emma Peel.

The story leaves many sequel possibilities, but unlike some romance authors that introduce sequel baits gratuitously, the characters with sequel potentials here have a role to fulfil in the story. If they are calling for their own story, it's because the author makes them interesting, not because the author is pushing them down my throat. The seeds of the next book, The Kissing Blades are sowed in this book, but again, it doesn't seem like gratuitous. It fits into the story. What is a bit mystifying though is how the author makes everybody know everybody in her cozy little world of homicidal Chinese goons. The tong underdark is a small world, maybe, but not that small, surely.

The sole problem I have with this book is Kalen. He's too cold, and he displays a callous insensitivity to Raven pretty much all the time. If you ask me, Raven is too good for him - Kalen deserves that frigid bitch Brooke. Kalen and Raven (I know, I know) have no chemistry and the only reason why I see them together in the end is because Kalen knocks Raven up. And what's with intelligent women like Raven not insisting on birth control anyway? At least a rubber on Kalen will protect her from internal frostbite, because Kalen isn't alpha, just so cold that I'm not sure that he won't sacrifice Raven if the mission requires it. Kalen will kill Raven's effervescence, I believe, and I really wish the romance doesn't happen. I just don't like Kalen. He makes Raven stupid.

Still, this book is a near-perfect fun read. The romance may not be that strong, but it has espionage by the good guys, it is fun popcorn-and-caramel escapism, and it's probably the best reason to date why one should read a Jessica Hall book.

Rating: 85


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