Julie Garwood is a member of my personal romance pantheon. While she’s written some clunkers, she’s also given me many hours of reading pleasure (oh my, do I just adore the heck out of Castles). That makes this a difficult review to write. Because Shadow Dance isn’t a bad book…it’s just not the book it could (or should!) be.
Since making her move to romantic suspense (I know, HK, I know), Garwood has also been name-checking two previous series – the “Roses” series and, for lack of a better name, the “Medieval” series. To achieve this feat, she has brought together a descendants of the Claybornes from the Roses series, and the Buchanans (see Ransom. among the other Medievals) and the MacKennas (who apparently didn’t appear in any of Garwood’s previous books — fact-checkers will be working overtime to verify this — but they’ve been feuding for centuries with the Buchanans). This will all come together, I swear.
Throughout Garwood’s current contemporary series, the various law enforcement-minded Buchanan brothers have found the loves of their lives, usually as said loves are the targets of deranged killers. You got a better way to meet chicks? I thought not. Showing up in the periphery of the stories has been Nick’s partner in the FBI agent biz, Noah Clayborne. Also showing up is Nick’s brainy, computer geek sister, Jordan. In the previous novel, Slow Burn, brother Dylan Buchanan hooked up with Jordan’s best friend, Kate MacKenna, setting off the chain of events that make this book possible. See, I told you it would all come together.
Okay, so at Kate and Dylan’s wedding, Jordan meets a not-so-very charming eccentric MacKenna relative who tantalizes her with stories of the ancient Buchanan/MacKenna feud (this wedding comes complete with seriously bad historical mojo) and lost treasure. Right after that, Noah tells Jordan that she’s, basically, boring. Stuck in a rut. So naturally, she follows the mysterious MacKenna to Serenity, Texas to find out the story of this feud and maybe solve a mystery or two.
Before you can say “hey”, the dead bodies start piling up. Jordan, by virtue of having one them stowed in her trunk, finds herself on the wrong side of a jail cell. Luckily, she’s already called the FBI – the cavalry is coming, though I suppose since Nick and Noah fly to Texas, they can’t really be called cavalry. Nick soon leaves the scene, but Noah sticks around to protect Jordan and, well, you know. Fall in love with her.
Mid-review confession time: I have a weakness for Garwood’s ditzy heroines. Sure, sometimes she takes it a little too far, but when she’s on, she’s great at the funny, loopy, goofy characterization that make her heroines memorable. Jordan started out with all kinds of promise, but, alas, promise went unfulfilled. Garwood seemed confused about how she wanted to play this story – either harkening back to her historical style or latching on to her grittier, suspense style – and Jordan suffered for the lack of a plan. I couldn’t get a grip on her.
This uneven characterization made it hard to relate to Jordan. Is she a klutz? Is she really taking the fact that a dead dude is in her trunk in stride? Is she hot for Noah? And is she a computer geek who is never more than three feet away from her laptop? Though we see her solving petty little computer problems, we don’t see her engaging in her life’s work. And at the end, she boldly announces to Noah that she’s not giving up computers. Whoa there, missy. Like, was that even a possibility? Was that even discussed? Was that even – really – the reason for Noah’s challenge?
Ostensibly, Jordan’s goal is to move out of her comfort zone – and she certainly does that – but I wasn’t sure why that mattered. Despite Noah’s challenge, I never got the sense that Jordan was unhappy with her life. Even with the advantage of several books of back story, I still didn’t fully comprehend why she got on a plane and headed for Texas. With all due respect to Texas, this course of action rarely makes sense to me anyway.
Noah, unfortunately, suffered from his advance press. He’s been identified as a womanizer, serial playboy, you-name-it (Jordan calls other women “Noah Clayborne Groupies” and decides she won’t be one). Of course, most of this takes place in other books or the night before this book begins. Even this mostly hearsay and rumor. Garwood has been building toward romance of Noah Clayborne since book one of this series (Heartbreaker) by trying to make Noah mysterious and sexy and worth the wait. I always found this to be a little forced on the part of the author, and didn’t believe that Noah lived up to the (supposed) hype. The lack of “getting to know Noah” in this book didn’t help matters much.
This is the same fate suffered by Noah’s ancestor, Cole Clayborne. He came off mysterious and sexy in For The Roses, but when Come The Spring was published, readers felt let down. It was as if Garwood couldn’t find a romance (or heroine) to match the man she sees in her mind.
As with Jordan, Garwood seemed confused about the “type” she wanted for her hero. His antecedents were alpha males with buttery soft spots for the heroines. And huge protective streaks. Man, a good Garwood hero makes sure his little woman is safe and sound. This is often the source of conflict between her heroes and heroines. An overly protective alpha male coupled with a headstrong, smart female leads to fun battles of the sexes. And works better, I think, in a historical romance.
Noah is certainly alpha, but how? He carries a gun, he’s big and strong, he commandeers Jordan’s bed. But I’m not sure what makes him a hero (I know what I am told about Noah, yes, but show me, show me, show me). I think the scene where they’re heading back to Austin after the third body is found sums it up. Long car ride, lots of time to talk, and most of the discussion is summed up in a single paragraph. Rather than telling me that Jordan is telling a funny story, tell the funny story, you know?
What I’m saying is, give these characters something to do with each other now that you’ve given them a whole book. Noah and Jordan aren’t really working together to solve this mystery. In fact, there’s a whole ‘nother team working the case. They spend a lot of time traipsing from crime scene to crime scene and sitting on Jordan’s hotel room bed, but when push comes to shove, the build-up of the relationship is largely off the page. And then it’s presented as fait accompli — the whole Buchanan family is clear on the situation, while the reader is still scratching her head.
And that, my dear friends, is because Garwood couldn’t decide if she was going romantic suspense or straight romance in the mold of the historical novels that sowed the seeds for this one. She slides mini-chapters into the text to allow us to get into the minds of her criminals, thereby aiming for the suspense camp. But she offsets this by having Jordan pore over the MacKenna relative’s historical research; Jordan ends up reading bedtime stories – of ancient, bloody Scottish battles – to Cole. Presumably, these tales will have something to do with a future novel (the treasure is still missing, you see) because they didn’t add a thing to this one.
One big problem I have, generally and specifically, is that neither Jordan or Noah had a personal connection to the murder mystery. Jordan knew the first dead guy, the second guy fixed her car, and was, well, punched by the third. Those are not personal connections; Jordan and Noah simply don’t have a stake in the chaos surrounding them. They’re disconnected from the action. The fact that they’re not engaged in the story means the reader isn’t, either.
The core mystery is interesting. Garwood gives us a character who disappeared from his old life and is fighting to keep his past a secret. She does a good, if not-wholly believable job, of adding a second layer of villainry: the local blackmailer (who has a lot of equipment that, well, he couldn’t afford and didn’t seem bright enough to operate). The seamy underbelly of seemingly-tranquil small towns always makes for fascinating reading, though this feels forced into the story. There’s a missing treasure somewhere in Scotland that takes up a lot of energy, only to go unresolved (why is there bad blood between the Buchanans and MacKennas? Who knows?). Oh, and Jordan’s father, a Federal judge, is presiding over a racketeering case and is under constant guard.
The big question of this novel is why did it need to be written? Why did Jordan and Noah have to be featured in a full-length (hardcover) book? What is it about their love story that is so unusual, so compelling, so ultimately emotionally fulfilling that an entire series has built up to this moment?
I don’t have answers to those questions. I’m still puzzling over the first sex scene. I mean, one second, it’s just good friends hanging out in bed together, in a non-sexual sort of way. The next, Cole’s jumping Jordan’s bones. Where in the world did that come from? I honestly think something was cut from the manuscript – something that would tie this whole thing together.
If you’re going to read this series, I think you need to read it all, pretty much in order. That way, all the characters and their relationships make sense. The Buchanans and spouses comprise a big, rambling mess of a family – and I mean that as a compliment because the interactions between brothers and sisters feels natural and are, if you want my opinion, the best moments of the book.
Otherwise, you can find Julie Garwood here. You can buy Shadow Dance here or here.