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REVIEW: Ice Storm by Anne Stuart

Dear Ms. Stuart,

The latest book in your Ice series, Ice Storm, opens with a bang. Literally. In a prologue set sometime in the past, we are introduced to nineteen-year-old the heroine this way:

Mary Isobel Curwen had never shot a man before. She stood there, numb, unmoving. She’d never fired a gun before, and the feel of it in her grasp was disturbing.

A paragraph down is there is some more terrific writing:

Had she blown a hole through his head? His chest? Was he dead or just wounded? She knew she ought to check… She’d had every reason to shoot him but you couldn’t very well let a man bleed to death, could you? she thought dazedly. Even if he’d been trying to kill you?

Ice Storm Anne StuartOr maybe you could. Maybe you could drop the gun, turn and run, as fast as possible, before he suddenly stood up and came after you, before one of his buddies came running to see where the noise had come from. Maybe you could take the gun with you, just in case.

I love the creative use of second person here, the way you put me in Mary Isobel’s head. So I was very excited to sink into this book and find out more about what made Mary Isobel, or the mysterious Madam Isobel Lambert of your Ice series, tick.

As chapter one opens, the mysterious board that oversees the secret operation known as the Committee gives Isobel, who now heads the agency, the task of extracting a former terrorist who has also served as second-in-command to ruthless dictators out of Morocco. Serafin the Butcher, as he is known, is ready to trade all the intelligence he holds in his memory in return for safe passage to England.

Though she appears to be “of a certain age” Isobel is in fact only thirty-seven or so. She is more vulnerable than most people imagine, and it is her task to get Serafin out of Morocco and to debrief him. Just before she leaves, she gets a photo of Serafin and is shocked to recognize Killian, the man she shot and left for dead all those years ago, the man she had believed she killed.

Alternating with the present day chapters are flashbacks to Isobel and Killian’s past, which reveal that Isobel was once a normal American girl, planning to enroll in the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris and to hike around France before that. In Marseilles she wandered into a bad neighborhood and was attacked by a gang, but a mysterious young man saved her.

The man was Killian. Though Mary Isobel didn’t know it, Killian was in France to join a group of terrorists planning to assassinate the leader of an African country. To provide himself with a cover, he invited Mary Isobel to hike with him, planning to seduce her to keep her blind to his plans, and then leave her when he reached his destination. Of course, the plan went awry, Killian wound up shot and left for dead, and the experience was the catalyst that led Mary Isobel to change her name and join the Committee.

On arriving at their meeting place in Morocco eighteen years later, Isobel is greeted by a twelve year old boy soldier with an AK-47. The boy, Mahmoud, leads her to the man who is now known as Serafin the Butcher. But he is so changed that Isobel is not certain if he and Killian are one and the same. Gone is the good looking young man who seduced her so expertly, and in his place is a paunchy, black-toothed, washed out but ruthless man. Soon, he and Isobel are on the go and in danger. And Isobel discovers that the attraction between Killian and herself did not die, anymore than he did.

Interspersed between Killian and Isobel’s story are subplots about other characters from previous Ice books. Harry Thomason, the previous head of the Committee, thinks the organization has gone to pot under Isobel’s leadership; Peter and Genevieve are dealing with infertility. Taka sends his cousin Reno to England for training to become a Committee recruit, and eventually, much to my delight, Bastien and Chloe from Black Ice appear in the book as well.

Ice Storm is action-filled, entertaining, and moves along at a good clip. As in some of your other books, the dialogue is often ironic or confrontational, and frequently terrific. Here’s an example, from one of the flashback scenes, when Killian is just getting to know Isobel, and she is still clueless about his identity.

“I’ve got a thermos of coffee,” he’d said by way of greeting. “Black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love.”

She just looked at him. “I don’t like sugar.”

He shrugged. “Well, if we’re going to be traveling together we’ll have to compromise. There isn’t really that much sugar in it.”

“I thought you said ‘sweet as love.’”

“I find love bittersweet, don’t you?”

She opened the thermos and poured some into the cap, taking a tentative sip. “I’m not sure I find love at all,” she replied.

While I enjoyed this and other aspects of the book, I also had some problems with it. To begin with, I was disappointed with the portrayal of Isobel. I had hoped for a heroine as ruthless and competent as the male agents in the Committee.

Isobel is likeable enough, and I don’t mind your showing her past as a vulnerable teenager who fell in love with the wrong man. I also had no objection to your portraying Isobel as a woman who has become weary of her job, or to the way meeting Killian again brought back some of her youthful vulnerability, as it was bound to do.

What bothered me was the way the book glossed over some of the most interesting pieces of Isobel’s past, her induction to the Committee and her work in the field. Not only that, there was little evidence of her training in the Isobel of the present, so that I became conscious of a double standard in your portrayal of Isobel when compared to that of the Committee’s male agents.

Bastien in Black Ice was bone-tired as well, but that didn’t stop him from being a killing machine for much of that book. Isobel, though she could take a life, was always left shaken afterwards.

Peter of Cold as Ice was willing to sleep with men to get the job done. And Taka, Bastien and Peter all understood that sex can equal power when used expertly enough. Not so Isobel.

In addition, there are so many hints that not everything about Killian is as it seems at first, and hints about other things as well, that I wondered how it was possible that I could easily pick up on them, while Isobel, who had supposedly spent years as an ice cold undercover operative, never had a clue.

No amount of emotional vulnerability or fraying would have made Bastien, Peter or Taka so blind, so I was left conclude that Isobel had never shared their cold competence, and to wonder how on earth she had ever been accepted into the Committee in the days when Harry Thomason ran it.

Much of the story is told from Isobel’s POV, with briefer sections in Killian’s. I can understand why you made that choice, because the story requires that Killian be shrouded in mystery. But the end result is that while I liked Killian, I was not convinced that he was “the most dangerous man in the world.” I never really felt I got much insight into his character, even at the end of the book, and he remains somewhat sketchy to me.

I was also, once again, and more than ever before, disappointed in the portrayal of the Committee. Gone is the ruthless, amoral, brutal and relentless organization that made Black Ice such a riveting book. When, in one scene Harry Thomason waxes nostalgic about “the good old days, where enemies were straightforward, where you trusted no one, and any inconveniences and anomalies were wiped out,” I found myself nodding in agreement.

I wondered if Thomason was right about the effects of Isobel’s leadership, since the Committee under her had evidently dwindled to a few people, most of whom had forgotten how to do their jobs. Their sudden incompetence felt like a contrivance to allow Killian to have the upper hand over Isobel for much of the book.

Still, the book was thoroughly involving, the sex scenes hot enough to make me fan myself, and I very much enjoyed the dialogue, the international settings, the lean and taut writing, the subplots about Peter and Reno, and the revelations about Mahmoud. Bastien’s appearance in the story made my heart skip a beat, and the final scene of the book was truly superb, just perfect.

For all these reasons I think that despite the problems I had, I would probably buy the book again, given the chance.

Ice Storm was deeply entertaining, but it could have been so much more. Black Ice was an A read for me, Cold as Ice a B+ , Ice Blue a B, and so, it’s with a mixture of gratitude for the enjoyment I’ve gotten from those books, sadness and the over this series’ diminishing returns for me, and the hope for more from Fire and Ice that I give Ice Storm a B-.

Sincerely,

Janine

This book can be purchased in mass market or ebook format.

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character-driven books. Examples include novels by Shana Abe, Loretta Chase, Patricia Gaffney, Cecilia Grant, Judith Ivory, Carolyn Jewel, Laura Kinsale, Julie Anne Long, Alison Richardson, Nalini Singh and Pam Rosenthal. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, "Kiss of Life", appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com. or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

23 Comments

  1. jmc
    Oct 30, 2007 @ 15:11:28

    a paunchy, black-toothed, washed out but ruthless man

    I can imagine a paunchy hero (Carla Kelly does them well), but have a hard time picturing a hero as paunchy in conjunction with black teeth and being washed out. How does Stuart handle this?

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  2. Janine
    Oct 30, 2007 @ 15:20:42

    I’ll answer your question with a spoiler warning, JMC.

    SPOILER
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    .
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    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
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    .

    It turns out to be a disguise.

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  3. vanessa jaye
    Oct 30, 2007 @ 15:54:00

    Re the spoiler. *phew* I remember once AS wrote a hero (in a historical) that had a bald spot. The heroine saw it from looking down on him from a castle window. I could *not* get that bald spot out of head for the entire story, even though it was only mentioned the one time. :-P

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  4. vanessa jaye
    Oct 30, 2007 @ 15:55:46

    *sigh* that should be “I could *not* get that bald spot out of my head”

    You guys used to have a edit function, why’d you get rid of it?

    ReplyReply

  5. Jayne
    Oct 30, 2007 @ 16:16:08

    Re: the edit function. Jane got rid of some features that we thought were making the site load slowly.

    ReplyReply

  6. Jane
    Oct 30, 2007 @ 16:21:28

    Yeah – I got some complaints on how slow the website loaded and removing the editing feature seemed to speed things up. Same with the gravatars. Sorry guys.

    ReplyReply

  7. Ann Bruce
    Oct 30, 2007 @ 19:07:37

    It turns out to be a disguise.

    Kinda figured that ’cause it’s romance, after all. And the weaker heroine is also expected ’cause it’s Anne Stuart. I’ve yet to recall a really strong heroine from Stuart…except for maybe in A Rose at Midnight.

    Still very much looking forward to this book, though.

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  8. SonicLe
    Oct 30, 2007 @ 20:01:39

    Ann Bruce,
    I totally agree with you about Anne Stuart’s heroines – they make decisions that baffle me and they never seem to be on par with the heroes, intellectually, emotionally, or physically. It makes for a very disappointing situation because her stories and her dialogues are often great, but her characters leave much to be desired.

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  9. Janine
    Oct 30, 2007 @ 20:41:49

    Ann — I like a great variety of heroes and heroines, and I don’t require every heroine to be super-strong. My biggest issue with this book was that Isobel was supposed to have been an agent of a very dark and ruthless organization for a number of years, and I had trouble picturing her as one. Had Isobel been a regular woman, I would have been more accepting of her blind spots and miscalculations. But if you’re going to tell me it’s a live duck, then it better quack and have feathers…

    I still enjoyed the book though, so I completely understand why you are looking forward to it. Stuart does so many things well.

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  10. Janine
    Oct 30, 2007 @ 20:47:41

    I thought it might be interesting if Jayne and I talked about the differences and similarities in our two reviews. We both had the same problems with Isobel’s portrayal, and with the other Committee agents’ bumbling in this book. I think that was disappointing and seemed contrived to both of us.

    I also had a problem that I think Jayne didn’t have (correct me if I’m wrong, Jayne) — I thought that Killian’s character was underdeveloped and sketchy, and I felt I didn’t have a good sense of who he was even at the end of the book.

    Despite that though, I ended up giving the book a higher grade than Jayne did, and that was because I so enjoyed the dialogue, Stuart’s lean writing style, the side characters, and the way she kept me entertained and turning the pages. As I said to Jayne in an email, there are a lot of books that lose me around the 20 page point, so any book that keeps me reading quickly and easily gets a lot of points.

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  11. Selene
    Oct 31, 2007 @ 02:44:04

    It’s always interesting to see different reviews of the same book!

    Tell me, is there a way to get a RSS feed for the comments of a specific post around here? It would make it ever so much more convenient to just follow things through the usual reader.

    Selene

    ReplyReply

  12. Jane
    Oct 31, 2007 @ 10:16:26

    Selene – there is and I will definitely add that as a feature at the end of every post when I have a minute. I never actually thought about it but it’s a great idea.

    The comments feed for any particular post is this the link and then “?feed=comments-rss2″

    Here is the link:

    ReplyReply

  13. Selene
    Oct 31, 2007 @ 10:44:41

    Thanks Jane! Works like a charm.

    Selene

    ReplyReply

  14. Elle
    Nov 01, 2007 @ 08:36:40

    Well, I finished this book and actually the ending redeemed it a bit for me. I would rate it higher than Ice Blue, although it was not nearly as good a book as Black Ice, IMO.

    I found Isabel’s character to be somewhat disappointing. She was pretty weepy for an “Ice Queen” and never seemed to me to be the icily efficient female counterpart of Bastien or Peter. She did not seem to be that clever or resourceful an agent or administrator, and missed several really obvious, important intelligence issues about the motivations of the people she was working with and (supposedly) protecting, a fact that resulted in the deaths of many people who were working for her. It would have been nice to see her get the upper hand on Killian a bit more, but he kept taking her weapons from her like candy from a baby and doing exactly what he wanted.

    I was initially rolling my eyes at the reappearances of Bastien, Chloe, Peter and Genevieve (they keep turning up like bad pennies or Bedwyns), but in the final analysis, I love pretty much any scene with Bastien in it.

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  15. Janine
    Nov 01, 2007 @ 11:36:44

    Well, I finished this book and actually the ending redeemed it a bit for me. I would rate it higher than Ice Blue, although it was not nearly as good a book as Black Ice, IMO.

    I rate Ice Blue a bit higher than Ice Storm because it seemed more consistent to me in the sense that Taka was what I would expect a Committee agent to be, and Isobel was more competent in that book as well.

    I agree with you that Black Ice was the best of the series (I will be doing a dueling review of it with Sherry Thomas soon). But I think one of the elements that made Black Ice so great was the ruthless competence of the Committee and its agents, Bastien included. And it seems to me that that element is fading more and more with each successive book.

    I found Isabel's character to be somewhat disappointing. She was pretty weepy for an “Ice Queen” and never seemed to me to be the icily efficient female counterpart of Bastien or Peter. She did not seem to be that clever or resourceful an agent or administrator, and missed several really obvious, important intelligence issues about the motivations of the people she was working with and (supposedly) protecting, a fact that resulted in the deaths of many people who were working for her.

    That’s really my biggest issue with this book.

    It would have been nice to see her get the upper hand on Killian a bit more, but he kept taking her weapons from her like candy from a baby and doing exactly what he wanted.

    I think that that was the problem with the book — Stuart wanted Killian to have the upper hand and for that reason, she had to make Isobel less strong than she’d been in previous books. While that may have made for some emtionally intense relationship dynamics, it also compromised the consistency of the series.

    I was initially rolling my eyes at the reappearances of Bastien, Chloe, Peter and Genevieve (they keep turning up like bad pennies or Bedwyns), but in the final analysis, I love pretty much any scene with Bastien in it.

    LOL re. “bad pennies or Bedwyns.” But I eat up the Bastien scenes. I love the line in Jayne’s review where she says “Bastien proves that he's still my favorite of this whole series as he's really the only one with his eye on the ball.” I adore Bastien, and this is a big part of why.

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  16. elizabeth Kluczwski
    Feb 17, 2008 @ 18:07:13

    I did not like this book at all. There was no sexual tension between Isobel and serafim. Not the usual story By anne Stuart. I found it interesting when she included some of the characters from the other books. This just wasnt my favorite books. Hope the next with Reno will be better. I suppose the next book will be the last book. Does anyone know or is it too early. Thanks I also would like to mention that ICE BLUE was my favorite

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  17. Janine
    Feb 17, 2008 @ 19:10:19

    Elizabeth — Yes, according to something I read on Anne Stuart’s blog a while back, Reno’s book, Fire and Ice, will be the last one in the Ice series.

    ReplyReply

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    Mar 27, 2008 @ 11:01:01

    [...] Storm, was competent, but not earth shattering and not one of Stuart’s better efforts. Janine rated it a B- and Jayne a C. I haven’t always agreed with the inclusion of the JD Robb books every year, [...]

  19. Rhoda
    Mar 30, 2008 @ 15:39:10

    Personally, I loved “Ice Storm” and thought is was the fastet reading of the series

    ReplyReply

  20. Reader
    Apr 08, 2009 @ 00:25:35

    I was disappointed with this one. It was well-written as usual and Anne Stuart is superb at employing all her usual devices- fast paced action, steamy sex scenes, and riveting, emotional characters but it fell a bit sparse and lacking. I was more interested in Peter and G, Chloe and B and even Reno playing with Mahmoud than I was in Killian and Isobel’s ‘romance.’ I definitely felt a lack of connection to Killian- All the past Ice men have been ice cold, heartless, even cruel heros with a streak or tiny shimmer of humanity. But I couldn’t see anything in Killian; I knew nothing about him, his past, who he was except that he was weary. And had a grudging ardor for Isobel. I guess that’s not fair because that’s how it was with the past Ice men but for some reason, I couldn’t forge any type of connection with Killian. I would have liked to know more about his three wives, his dead pregnant wife- what did they mean to him? Mary seemed like nothing, a transient blurb, in his life…it was just very lacking for me. Anne Stuart has a way of creating such emotionally disturbing, dark, intense characters that so much back plot ( background history, the past problems, traumatic events, etc.) are never really integral or necessary to the plot- instead, she usually weaves the romance through the hesitant love between two unlikely characters. So it’s interesting that a story with so much back history would seem so lacking in the end. My favorites remain Black Ice, Ice Blue and Fire and Ice.

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  21. REVIEW: Silver Falls by Anne Stuart | Dear Author: Romance Novel Reviews, Industry News, and Commentary
    May 11, 2009 @ 15:33:19

    [...] come across a heroine who made me want to gnash my teeth so much since, oh, at least Isobel from Ice Storm two years back. If this book were a horror film, Rachel would be wandering alone in a dark hallway [...]

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  23. What Jennie’s Been Reading, Part the Third
    Mar 18, 2012 @ 10:24:18

    [...] million little ways that he is more competent than she, it damn near maddens me. It reminds me of Anne Stuart’s Ice Storm, and then it’s “flames, flames on the side of my face!” time for me. [...]

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