Occasionally you pick up a book and you know you’re in the presence of genius.
It’s like stepping onto a train and being instantly, soundlessly whisked away from the platform. Within seconds, the landscape changes outside the train’s windows and before you take your next breath you’re in a new world, filled with fascinating people. That train just keeps speeding along, and it seems like you never want the ride to end. But, inevitably, you reach your destination, the doors open and you step back onto the platform in your own world again. Wide awake now. Smarter, or better or at least happier.
I could have predicted that kind of reading experience from romantic suspense writer Suzanne Brockmann. The prolific author of over 50 books, including the popular Tall, Dark and Dangerous series (originally for Harlequin Silhouette, now out in HQN) and the Troubleshooters series, both featuring U.S. Navy SEALs as heroes, has a huge, devoted following. She’s a regular on both the USA TODAY and NEW YORK TIMES bestseller lists. She’s won two RITA awards and RWA’s “favorite book of the year” three years running. Paranormal superstar J.R.Ward considers her a mentor, as do the many writers who have benefited from her workshops and classes. What’s not to like?
Well, um, Navy SEALs? I’m not a huge fan of military anything—science fiction, thrillers, or suspense. (And before you start—Classic TREK was not military SF, despite the ranks and discipline of Starfleet.) I like to see things blow up as much as the next geek, though, so I will make exceptions. Military guys are just not my preferred romantic heroes—too many strong, silent, military types in my own family—so for a long time I thought Suzanne Brockmann might not be my cup of tea.
Still, when I heard that she had started a new series set in the future, that she’d started what was, in essence, a science fiction romance series, I just had to read it. The book is Born to Darkness, the first in her Fighting Destiny series, about an organization of people with enhanced psy skills fighting a war against kidnapping and drugs in a world on the edge of full economic collapse. And Oh. My. God.
Okay, the science is not overwhelming. Our heroes’ psy skills are enhanced because they are already capable of using a greater proportion of their brain power than the rest of us. Computers have identified them among the population and brought them into the organization for systematic training. (The drug they are fighting does the same thing chemically, but has the nasty side effect of making people psychotic.) Nothing really new here. Just a few twists.
But the writing skills! Within seconds of meeting any character on the page, we know the essentials about him or her. We know that Michelle “Mac” MacKenzie is smart, but insecure, tough, but vulnerable, not because of any info-dumping, but because of some subtle magic of integrative story-telling. We know that ex-SEAL Shane Laughlin may feel guilty over what happened on his last mission, but he’s the last guy to ever have done anything wrong, not because Suzanne tells us the whole story, but because somehow she shows us who Shane is by how he acts.
Such a contrast to some of the more recent SFR reads I’ve experienced, in which the story drags on and on while I wait for some clue as to who the main character is—what made her like this? What is his problem? Why are they acting the way they are?
Everything works together seamlessly in this book to reinforce the characters’ goals, motivation and conflict. For example, Suzanne could have given Mac any kind of psy skills—telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance, the ability to read objects—but she gave her heightened empathy (the ability to read emotions, even past emotions) and the ability to change her appearance. Part of the consequence of the combination of these skills is that Mac can make herself super-attractive to others on demand. So when she and Shane hook up for a mind-blowing one-night stand, Mac refuses to trust Shane’s attraction to her. She thinks he’s responding to her unconscious manipulation of him, which just feeds her self-loathing.
And his reaction? He’s a SEAL (forget the ex-, that doesn’t even count). What do you think? Yep. Just makes him that more determined.
More complications ensue when he’s recruited as a trainee for the same organization she not only works for, but is second-in-command for. Her vow to never see him again gets shot to hell when it’s discovered he’s nothing special in the psy department, but he has the ability to boost her powers just by being in the same room. Add sex and the numbers go through the roof. Awkward!
All this plays out against a suspense plot of the first caliber, set in a near-future world that is chillingly believable. The secondary characters, including gay lovers Elliot and Stephen, all have stories of their own and are as lovingly drawn as Mac and Shane, promising a rich and diverse series ahead.
As yet another major author enters the SFR field (and Sherrilyn Kenyon hits the bestseller list with Born of Silence, the latest in her League series), we can only hope this augurs a trend. Are you listening, New York?