Wendy: Single title romances that bloom into multi-book connected series carry a terrible burden. They must simultaneously stand alone, so that new-to-the-series readers can start at any point without feeling uninvited to the party, and they must effectively bridge the older books with the new, all the while setting up the books to come. Failing at the first leaves readers in the dark at best, or wondering if the plot and conflict were setup and resolved in another book—or books—at worst. Failing at the second makes writing a series pointless. With Sleeping With The Agent, Gennita Low steps into this quagmire with somewhat successful results. While the forward motion of the plot effectively and compellingly stands alone, characters and back stories established in prior books pique interest of the “Must all the books be read to understand the story?” variety.
Sleeping With The Agent is a quickly paced romantic suspense that follows closely on the heels of previous books in the Sharpshooter series (The Protector and The Hunter). Reed Vincenzio is a Navy SEAL working on a joint mission with GEM (an independent contract agency, one presumably explained elsewhere) to bring in or destroy target Llallana “Lily” Noretski. Lily, a recently activated sleeper cell agent, has stolen a weapon too dangerous and too deadly to be allowed in the wrong hands. Even while wrestling with what part of her mind is hers, and what part has been programmed, Lily’s main concern is the group of teenage girls and young women she rescued from Eastern European brothels. Once the girls are out of harm’s way and safely onto new lives, Lily can face the people she’s betrayed and figure out if she has a life left. Reed’s mission is deceptively simple: get close to Lily, recover the weapon, learn if her handlers are still using her, then eliminate her if necessary. But, once he makes contact with Lily, Reed discovers he’s not the only one with his sites set on her and that he wants to keep her safe, more for himself, than to accomplish his mission.
Lily and Reed’s romance is completely contained in Sleeping With The Agent, but Lily’s story begins in a prior book. Liberated from a brothel by the CIA, Lily’s hatred and anger toward her abusers was used to program her to do the CIA’s bidding. Once activated by a trigger delivered via telephone, Lily turned on the man she was involved with, Brad, and her closest friend, Amber, before stealing the detonator of a dangerous weapon and nearly using herself as a human bomb at a world leaders’ summit. Lily’s back story is vitally important to the forward motion of Sleeping With The Agent and though the information is revealed and the important connections are made, the story never feels self contained. As such, as the plot unfolds it’s unclear what would be further illuminated by reading prior books.
While the dissemination of Lily’s back story is a stumbling block, and the sleeper cell agent construct is becoming a too familiar device, Lily herself is a unique and rare heroine. Lily’s past is grittier than usually seen in romance novels; in addition to the CIA hypnotic programming, Lily suffered through sexual abuse and enslavement. Living through the worst life has to offer does not make one character more real than another, but the fact that Lily has actually lived prior to the start of her story, had experiences—not all of which are good or nice, or even simply ok—that are outside the typically sheltered world of the romance heroine is a daring and interesting change of pace.
Low’s strength, and what makes Sleeping With The Agent rise above the series related issues, is placing her hero and heroine in tried and true romance situations—Reed disrobes and bathes a semi-unconscious Lily, they hold up in a hotel suite with nothing to wear—without ever feeling as though it’s a cliché or done before. Low imbues familiar scenarios with a freshness that feels like airing out a stale room and strikes a delicate balance between formula and originality.
In the end, Sleeping With The Agent succeeds—despite the fact that it does not truly stand alone—because the characters are engaging and sexy, yet never forced, and the plot doesn’t focus on action or intrigue at the expense of the romance. Reading the previous books for elucidation might not be necessary, but reading them to gloam on Low’s style might be.
HelenKay: If you’re looking for a book about a virginal heroine, a cowboy or a secret baby, this isn’t it. Rather than hunt down a tepid remake of a comfortable romance you’ve read before, consider a change in subject matter. Sleeping With The Agent, a romantic adventure/suspense of the exhausted-just-reading-this variety, deals with tough topics such as espionage, human trafficking, sleeper cells and covert government operations. Heavy in substance but never too heavy in tone, the book soars from page one by expertly weaving romance and suspense.
Lily (Llallana) Noretski, as part of her search for her sister, spent years rescuing girls who had been sold to brothels across Europe. Or, that is the history as she believed it. In reality, Lily doesn’t have a sister. She is the one the CIA rescued from sexual servitude. While rehabilitating Lily, the CIA turned her into a sleeper cell. Brainwashed, she led her normal life with her fake reality and continue to help other girls until a phrase over a telephone triggered her latent programming. Once triggered, she betrayed her closest friend Amber and nearly blew up an international summit.
On the run and aware of who she really is, Lily continues to rescue vulnerable girls. She stays away from phones and anything that could trigger the killer inside her again while she searches for the passports the girls need to find freedom. The girls are not the only precious commodity in her possession. She also holds a detonator for an explosive device. A device the government wants back.
Navy SEAL Reed Vincenzio, a quiet sharpshooter, is assigned the task of finding Lily and getting the detonator. If needed, his job is to eliminate Lily. He poses as an arms dealer in order to get close to her. The plan is to keep his emotional distance, but Reed is a rescuer by nature and shutting out Lily proves impossible – especially after the bullets start flying.
The action here can only be described as alive in terms of both romance and suspense. There is an overarching save-the-world feeling, but the it blends in with a much more personal need to save Lily from self-destruction. Under threat of violence and on the run from double agents and mental demons, a believable romance unfolds. Some of the scenes will be familiar to regular readers of the genre – for example, the stuck in a hotel room together drama – but they feel fresh in Low’s hands.
The suspense is somewhat technical and dependent on secondary characters who change from agents to double agents while you read. Despite this, the plot is easy to follow and never dull. The only slower step in an otherwise racing story comes from a backstory that appears to replay parts of previous novels in the series. There is a sense of listening in on a private conversation while trying to follow the first 50 pages and Lily’s history. The book does stand alone, but readers would benefit from reading the series in order and knowing Lily before her introduction here.
One of the many strengths of this book is Lily. She is not one-dimensional, self-important or whiny. A horrifying past and blinding guilt shape who she is and how she trusts. Within that framework she grows and changes, but never morphs from who she is into a fairytale heroine. As her match, Reed is solid and handsome and strong and all those other things we expect from fictional military heroes. As a character, he is not as developed as Lily, but the growing bond between them works. Lily is wounded in so many ways, it is easy to cheer for her to find someone dependable and decent. Reed fills that role.
The secondary characters are rich as well. Having set out a smart romantic suspense, Low does not shortchange her readers with a too-happy ending. Lily’s life doesn’t turn to perfection on the last page. The characters, including the secondary characters, stay true to the people Low has developed.
Wendy’s Question: Lily’s background ventures into what has long been forbidden territory for romance heroines. Lily was the victim of rape, sexual abuse and she worked in a brothel. What do you think of that? Were you still able to relate to Lily despite Low daring to allow truly bad things to happen to her heroine?
HelenKay’s Response: And Lily is stronger, more interesting and more likable because of those bad things. The plot demands a strong heroine. Lily fills the role by being vulnerable, sympathetic and smart. She not only has a dark distant past, but she also appears to have been one of the "bad guys" in a previous book in this series. Rehabilitation on that scale, with that background, is no easy task. Instead of selling Lily short and breezing over this past, Low highlights it and, in turn, highlights Lily’s weaknesses and strengths. The result is a rounded and real woman. The circumstances under which Lily has lived – brothels and covert ops – are not something to which most readers can relate. But, overcoming adversity and living with mistakes are universal themes and they work here to enhance the human aspect of a technical plot.
Wendy’s Final Thoughts: Sleeping With The Agent is both fresh and familiar and the sort of entertainment that asks only that the reader go along for the ride.
HelenKay’s Final Thoughts: Impressive romantic suspense – rich in characters and plot.