Dear Ms. Summers:
I know you’ve written books for Ellora’s Cave, Kensington and Harlequin, but I was unfamiliar with your work. I was excited to read Red due, in part, to its post apocalyptic setting and I was intrigued by the idea of: "What if Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf turned out to be the same person?" However, as much as I wanted to like this book and its promising female protagonist, I just could not.
Gina Santiago, or "Red"- because of all the blood she spills-is a member of the International Police Tactical Team. IPTT is an elite law enforcement group designed to maintain order within and between the various Republics that make up this futuristic world. While on a patrol mission that goes awry, Gina literally sniffs out the dead body of a severely mauled woman. All signs point to it being a wild animal attack, but Gina has a feeling that there’s something more going on. She requests leave from the team Commander and goes to the nearest town of Nuria to begin her own independent investigation.
Morgan Hunter is the local sheriff of Nuria. He already knows about the deadly mauling of one local woman, and has no intention of revealing that information to anyone. When Gina arrives in town, Morgan tries to keep the town’s secrets while also shutting her out of the investigation.
The details regarding this futuristic world intrigued me. The story is set somewhere around the year 2160, 150 years after the last world war ravaged the earth and countries fell, Republics were formed and many places like Nuria were left with few people and little money.
As for the town of Nuria, it was almost a character of its own. Maybe that was because we get so few substantial characters in the town. There’s the coroner, the woman who rents Red a room, and Morgan’s cousin, and that’s it, besides the killer of course. As soon as Gina arrived there, I began feeling vicariously trapped and uncomfortable. The town seemed oppressive with its isolation and very little incoming or outgoing traffic. Perhaps it’s because:
Red smelled the dying town before she caught sight of any of the buildings. The odor of decay wafted in the air, polluting her nostrils and burning her throat. Located twenty miles north of what used to be Phoenix, Arizona, the municipality of Nuria resembled every other small dusty boundary fence town that was scarce on jobs and brimming with poverty.
Or maybe it was because:
At some point, the town must have had a booming economy, but you couldn’t tell that by looking at it today. The fringe owned it now. It wouldn’t be long before Nuria took its last breath and expired, swallowed by the ever-present boundary area and encroaching desert sands.
Or perhaps it’s because Nuria is a place populated by Others who don’t seem to like letting newcomers go once they’ve sunk their claws and fangs into them. These Others- werewolves and vampires- were created by scientists in the last world war. The idea that technology had evolved to the point where scientists could create super humans in the forms of werewolves and vampires was an interesting choice. Certainly the decision to create a scientific explanation was a conscious effort to break out of the typical paranormal mythology. However, a paranormal origin can be accepted in a way that a scientific origin cannot. And although I liked the idea at first, I found myself questioning the specifics of this scientific achievement. How is it possible that our technology advanced to the point of creating vampires, but didn’t advance the point where we could simply engineer human DNA to enhance our speed and strength? Why did scientists have to create vampires to give them such abilities? Couldn’t those abilities have been engineered without the additional characteristics of drinking blood or growing fur and claws?
Like the town, Gina’s relationship with Morgan felt like just another form of imprisonment. Their attraction also seemed more the result of a lack of available sex partners than anything else. Gina didn’t really have much experience with relationships. She didn’t fit in with the men in her team, and many of them didn’t seem to recognize her as a woman. Morgan, on the other hand, hadn’t exactly lacked for sexual partners, but wondered, "How long had it been since an unattached female entered his town, his territory?"
He became fixated on Gina’s role as an unattached women and later admits that "[s]he was stunning and unclaimed-‘a very rare combination for a woman her age these days. One that made her more valuable than water in his mind."
We see this fixation later in the story as he tries to remember:
When was the last time a single female from the outside wandered into his territory? He considered the question a second before the obvious answer popped into his head.
Of course there was also the "customs of his people, which clearly stated that any unattached female other had to be claimed by someone in the pack or run out of the Republic of Arizona." Between the decaying town and the pack’s tradition of claiming any available female as soon as possible, I had trouble imagining Gina finding any sort of long term happiness with either Nuria or Morgan and just wanted her to leave as fast as possible.
The murder mystery probably won’t keep most readers guessing for long. Due to the fact that so few significant characters populate Nuria, it was pretty easy to guess the killer’s identity. We first see the killer from his POV in the beginning as he stalks and then kills a young woman when his wolfly attentions grow too . . . amorous. The story shifts back to his POV several times, often detailing rather graphic and disturbing scenes. If you’re into forced werewolf/human oral sex gone terribly wrong then this may be the book for you.
Readers may also have a problem with the killer’s over the top psychosis and the lack of explanation thereon. The killer goes from a normal law abiding citizen (from what we hear) to a sociopath with issues of entitlement and we never find out what happened to bring about this transformation. It’s possible that he was like this all along, but why did the bodies just begin showing up? He makes little effort to dispose of them so it appears this is a recent change in his personality, but again, we just don’t get very many answers. You hint that these killing urges are the result of a childhood story, but that too just lent a greater sense of the ridiculousness to this villain.
There are also several TSTL moments brought to you by Gina and Morgan. Both characters have specialized background, training and education in law enforcement. Like all characters with specialized training, I held them to a higher standard of conduct and intelligence. For example, I expect attorneys to know the law- or at least their specialty. I expect doctors to speak and act like doctors. And I expect law enforcement officers to be able to conduct an investigation. It’s that simple. If an eye witness to an attempted murder is almost murdered him or herself, then maybe these law enforcement officers should, well, investigate. What they should not do is abandon said character alone and defenseless at a hospital without any sort of consideration that the murderer has a vested interest in making sure the eye witness disappears forever. Honestly, it gets worse from there, but to discuss it in greater detail would give away too many spoilers. I will say that both Gina and Morgan revealed a very sloppy approach to investigation, seemingly determined to ignore all of the evidence before them.
When I finished the book, I was left with one other question. In the very beginning, Gina awakes in the middle of the night and discovers that she is fully clothed and wearing something of great concern to her. She searches her memory, but cannot recall where she had been or what she had been doing. Throughout the novel, she remains worried about her nocturnal activities. Of course, from the book’s premise we aren’t really surprised to find out what she’s been up to. However, the specifics of those activities were very disturbing and left me questioning the type of werewolves you had created where such an act is insignificant. It also left me questioning Gina’s status as "heroine" because ultimately, I wasn’t entirely sure if I felt comfortable standing in her corner.
In the end, the question on the front cover, "What if Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf turned out to be the same person?" cannot be answered. This isn’t a tale of the Little Red Riding Hood. And this really isn’t the tale of Red as the Big Bad Wolf. Gina Santiago shares little in common with the colorfully clad little girl other than her nickname. And while she may share more in common with the Big Bad Wolf, we don’t see much. Maybe we’ll see more next time. For now, it simply remains a disappointing premise in a book with far too many other problems.