Darkness At Dawn
by Elizabeth Jennings, contemporary (2011)
Berkley, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-24212-4


Maybe it's the full moon, the heat, or the fact that Darkness At Dawn is such an unapologetic piece of magnificent shlock that I find myself having an intense blast reading this book. Before you guys rush out to buy this book, please be aware that I am not giving this review an ugly pink-tinted background because it is a fabulous romance. It's not. It's an intensely melodramatic and bombastic work of camp that has more in common with a gloriously cheesy B-grade action movie than a typical romance novel. If Suzanne Brockmann ingests some acid - accidentally, of course - while writing a book, the end result may be something like this.

Captain Mike Shafer, soon to be formerly of the 10th Mountain Division of the US Army, is a manly man, so manly that women may accidentally grow a beard if they get too strong of a whiff of his testosterone-drenched scent. When he is called back for one last mission, he is surprised when he is paired with a gorgeous woman Lucy Merritt. Amusingly, when he protests that surely she isn't suited for the mission, he is told by the Deputy Director of Operations of the CIA that it is her mission - Mike is only the muscle. Mike has his reservations because, you see, a very deadly biological weapon capable of killing an entire city with terrifying efficiency, has been created and now, unless they travel to the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal Nhala and recover the flash drive of a now dead CIA operative that contains crucial information, very bad things will happen and yes, the terrorists would have won. Lucy is picked for this mission due to her past - let's just say that she grew up there and became close with the little girl who is now the sister to the dying king of Nhala. The General is poised to take control, and of course, we all know that every military leader of a third world country is a bloodthirsty amoral fiend who wants to destroy and conquer. Can Mike and Lucy succeed in racing against time to save the world from being - literally, in this case - dusted?

There is a delightful subversion of roles here. Mike may be the manliest man ever, but he is also the one with close ties to his family. Lucy is the lone wolf here, having been alone after losing her parents at a young age and experiencing some of the most traumatic events that can befall a young girl. Indeed, she is actually the stronger person of the two, as she has to remain strong, calm, and collected even as her old wounds are reopened anew by her return to Nhala. Mike actually loves and appreciates her for her strength as well as her beauty, making him a nice change from those overprotective alpha males out there. He's an action man who is all about doing the right thing, but when it comes to the heroine, there is no mountain he won't tear down with his bare hands for. The romance in this story is not strong, with more mental lusting (especially on Mike's part) than any long-drawn scenes of affection, but that makes sense in this context because our hero and heroine are racing against time to save the world while having to work under the eyes of a power-hungry tyrant. This isn't exactly a conducive atmosphere for wine, candlelight, and caveman boinking. Besides, both the melodramatic extent of Mike's feelings for Lucy and the melting of the defenses around her heart more than make up for any lack of romantic moments. When these two are so obviously crazy about each other, how can I not root for them? It's like the movie Speed - the characters of Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock may not coo and look into each other's eyes, but I know they like each other. They just don't have the time to make out for hours, and that's fine with me. There are lives to be saved, after all.

The plot... well, it's not the most well-crafted one around, with some head-scratching moments here and there, but this story is so overblown and cheesy that it's hard to take it seriously in the first place. Mike and Lucy are both larger than life awesome characters that exude cool and sophistication even as they kick rear ends, outwit terrorists, and strike a pose in the process in ways that we mere mortals can only dream of, so it makes sense that they get a plot that is as over the top as their personalities. Be careful, by the way - there are many things here that can be considered politically incorrect. Not that I am bothered by them; I am actually greatly amused at the author poking fun at the CIA's record of getting things wrong, portraying the main villain as something uncomfortably close to being a radical tree-hugging eco-terrorist, and having some other third world terrorists behaving like modern-day Captain Nemo types. Not that the Americans are spared - it's rather quaint, if somewhat disquieting, how the terrorists can sometimes come off as well-meaning extremists who just want to change the world to their definition of "better".

Yes, it's not going to be mistaken for a romantic masterpiece, but Darkness At Dawn is such a spectacularly high-octane slice of cheese, I can't help but to have a terrific time while turning the pages. It's so much fun to just immerse and revel in the audacious over the top moments. Should I give this book a keeper status? What the heck, I can't think of any reason why I shouldn't.

Rating: 90


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