After The Ashes
by Cheryl Howe, historical (2003)
Leisure, $5.99, ISBN 0-8439-5173-7


After The Ashes is a very strong Western romance debut from Cheryl Howe. If one aspect of the plot doesn't annoy me so much to the point that I want to breathe fire on the book, this book will easily be a keeper. It has everything: a heroine who is (mostly) realistic in her flaws and strengths, a hero whose behavior and motivations that are just as nicely done as the heroine's, adventures and excitement, and of course, hot sex. Don't forget hot sex.

Lorelai Sullivan wants to protect her brother Corey who is wanted for robbery. Our hero Christopher Braddock, who like most heroes of this subgenre, is after Corey because he is a wrongly-accused guy on the run. By finding Corey and getting the whereabouts of the villain leader Mulcahy, he will clear his name. His run-in with Lorelai soon sees them and Corey traveling across the Western plains, the law on their tail, on pursuit of Mulcahy.

Good things first - Lorelai and Braddock's love story is really nicely done. Both characters aren't the instant black-and-white sorts, so there's no easy pigeon-holing of their actions and behaviors. Lorelai, for example, is stupid enough to seduce Braddock to save her brother, but at the same time, when she finally sleeps with Braddock, her motivations have changed and they are now far more selfish. When it comes to sex, give me selfish motives over selfless martyred sex excuses anytime. Braddock isn't a prize, but neither is Lorelai. Their sexual attraction is palpable, and at the same time, Ms Howe allows both characters to display their protective instincts and concern for each other that resonate with romanticism. There's no doubt in my mind when I finally close the book that black or white, come what may, both will walk through fire for the other. I like that, I really do.

The romance aspect is nice, but the adventures are just as nice. The author has written a very nicely paced story that balances the slower moments with the faster moments so much so that I never actually feel any dragging in pace. The penultimate is appropriately dramatic. There are secondary characters that are just as appropriately charming.

Now, the one flaw that makes me grit my teeth in pain at times: Lorelai and Corey. Corey is the scum Braddock says he is, and when Lorelai is still the gullible twit, it makes me see red the extent she is willing to lie down and let Corey walk all over her when it is transparent that Corey is a selfish son of a bitch. This is a woman who lets Corey take her life savings twice in this story (one time takes place before the story starts, but it's mentioned enough during the story to be counted here) and who seems blind to just how much Corey is using her for his own selfish means. Even when she realizes just how much Corey has ill-treated her, she still often puts Corey over her and Braddock in her list of priorities when any sane woman would instantly cut off all contact with this cancerous black sheep family member. When Corey is not involved, Lorelai is a great heroine. When Corey is involved, she's in danger of turning into those shrieking idiot heroines who cling to the hero while the hero is trying to shoot the villain, screaming at the hero not to hurt anybody, until the villain takes the chance and shoots dead the distracted hero. That kind of heroine.

The author's attempt to redeem Corey is not working on me, not when Lorelai is always there admonishing or taking Braddock to task when Braddock attempts to knock some accountability into Corey. Not when Lorelai still insists on not saying the words that matter to Corey even after Corey unleashes one final betrayal that could cost Braddock his life. If Lorelai has just once slapped Corey hard in the face and tells him that she is ashamed to be his sister, or anything that would make Corey realize just how much his actions have hurt her, I would respect her better as a person. Nobody should love someone so much to be treated so badly by the one he or she loves.

Nonetheless, the Corey and Lorelai Doormat Exhibition doesn't annoy me so much that I don't have a rollicking good time reading After The Ashes. It is just unfortunate that the Corey and Lorelai thing is so integral to the plot that I can't just overlook it to concentrate entirely on the good stuff - Lorelai and Braddock. Still, while far from perfect, this book comes this close to being a keeper. I'd be very keen to see what this author has to offer next. The good parts are so good, they make After The Ashes a book to remember.

Rating: 89


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