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REVIEW: In Total Surrender by Anne Mallory

Dear Ms. Mallory,

I have been anticipating the release of your novel, In Total Surrender, since I read about the Merrick brothers in your last effort, One Night Is Never Enough. There’s just something about a pair of intellectual thugs that gets my blood pumping.

In Total Surrender is Andreas Merrick’s book. The one in which the taciturn and deadly Lord of the Criminal Underworld falls in love with the upbeat daughter of a merchant.

In Total Surrender	Anne MalloryAndreas Merrick is once again the object of an assassination plot. A plot he has anticipated, for the assassination attempt is the direct result of his own plan to bring down his arch-nemesis, Lord Garrett. Andreas has been plotting this man’s downfall for ages and he is so close to finally destroying him that he can taste the victory. Unfortunately, things are not going quite as he had intended. There have been . . . set-backs. A warehouse has been burned down and other attacks against the Merricks’ empire have been made, the assassination attempt not the least among them.  More irritatingly still, his brother Roman is on his honeymoon and has left him to deal alone with the various employees, spies, and cogs in the wheels of their empire. So when a cloaked and hooded woman enters his offices after a particularly irritating evening of dealing with various attacks, Andreas is expecting—well, he’s expecting to have someone try to kill him.

What he is not expecting is Phoebe Pace, the daughter of the merchant James Pace. The family Pace has been under his gaze for quite a while now. He’s been watching them, interested in their comings and goings. For the Pace family is a key ingredient in his machinations against Lord Garrett. In fact, one of the set-backs his plot has suffered was the disappearance of the only son, Christopher and the reclusive nature of the father. The only time, it seems, that the family leaves their home is to attend the theater. So Andreas has been writing to James Pace, trying to convince him to meet. But James Pace is strangely reluctant. He keeps refusing, and no one refuses Andreas Merrick.

That Phoebe Pace should come to him in the dead of night is absolutely extraordinary. It doesn’t take him long to figure out that the person who he has been corresponding with has not been James Pace at all, but Phoebe. That this girl has been the one running the company since the disappearance of her brother and the seclusion of her father is astonishing. And not just a little bit irritating.

Phoebe Pace proceeds to become more irksome still for what she wants from Andreas Merrick is information. She seems to believe that he knows or can find out what happened to her brother. Is he dead? Is he missing? Kidnapped? By whom? And for what reason? Phoebe isn’t put off by assassination attempts and ruffians. She begins a campaign to insinuate herself in the Merrick household through baked goods and kind words. But Andreas isn’t fooled. What is she up to? And how much does she know?

Andreas is sure she knows something. He also realizes that her interference in his plans is his own damn fault. After all, his fascination with her has led to this. It was through his doings and schemes that the Paces are involved with him at all. It was his design that entangled them with his vendetta against Lord Garrett.  He was using them like pawns in a chess game. So whatever Phoebe wants and whatever Phoebe is, her optimism and good nature are just a front, a tactic to throw him off and let down his guard, because he knows that what she is after is far more intertwined in the danger that surrounds  them than perhaps either of them are aware.

But more distressingly still, he thinks about her. He goes to the theater to watch her and he hates the theater. She seems to be able to see into him. And he, he is totally unable to see into her. He cannot understand her. This disturbs him, because she, herself, disturbs him. She’s disturbed him from the first moment he saw her at the theater:

It had been immediate. How the hell that could be, he didn’t know. But her eyes had connected with his, somehow, as she’d entered the box on the opposite side of the theater—connected with his even through the dark shadows he surrounded himself with. And her mouth had bestowed a warm smile on a random stranger in the crowd.

Barbed warmth sinking under his skin, biting and clawing.

Her body was cloaked in the color of innocence, but her lips were passion-stained. The warmth of the lamps seemed to converge on her at all times, no matter where she moved, or with whom she spoke—a bright spot pushing back the shadows.

In many ways this novel is playing with and manipulating romance tropes and forms.  On the surface it seems to be the classic tale of the good girl and the rogue. But this is quickly dispelled. Mallory makes a point of adjusting the story just enough that it doesn’t read quite the same as it ought to. I am for this adjustment. I am for the manipulation of tropes and conventions. I think it gives us wonderful romances when romance authors dare to twist, turn and pervert the usual generic standards. Mallory often does this in her books. She tweaks things. Starts at odd points and places in the story. She doesn’t reveal or fully explain the characters past, even at the end of the story. She uses time and perspective in slightly idiosyncratic ways. All of this is very well done. All of this I support.

For instance, In Total Surrender is predominantly told from Andreas’ perspective. Particularly in the first seven chapters when we, the readers, are privy to none of Phoebe Pace’s thoughts. Phoebe is an utter and complete mystery to Andreas. Her motivations, her goals, her desires are totally foreign to him. He knows, quite perfectly well, that she is up to something. He simply cannot figure out what it is. In fact, Mallory makes Phoebe a mystery—in my humble opinion—precisely so that she might play with the trope of sweet, optimistic young women who invades the dark lord’s home and turns it upside-down for the better. Because Phoebe, as we learn, is not exactly sweet, is not exactly optimistic and is invading Andreas’ establishment the way that Catherine the Great invaded Turkey, turning things upside-down in pursuit of her own warm-water port.

Ms. Mallory uses, like most romance novel authors, limited third person perspective as her narrative mode. However, there are many ways to use third person. In most romances, the narrator is invisible. This is in contrast to other books like Middlemarch, where on occasion the narrator offers an opinion about the characters manners and behaviors. Or, as in Jane Austen where there might not be an actual intrusion into the narrative, but there is an ironic distance to the tone in which events are related. Mallory, like her sister romance authors, remains mostly invisible in the text; however, she also does this thing where she closes the distance between herself and the character. She imposes upon her narration a very limited and constrained perspective. Often the reader finds herself in the dark about past events and motivations, even when occupying the space inside a character’s head. Moreover, Mallory has a particular talent for visceral and claustrophobic narrative. Her stories are rather gothic because of this.

The effect of all of these narrative devices is to heighten the tension and the friction in the relationship between the hero and the heroine. By not being able to know what the other is thinking, and by imposing that same limitation on the reader, Mallory ratchets up the sexual tension to quivering levels. We, the readers, feel the effect of this tension. We share it, for neither are we able to understand or to know the object of the hero, Andreas’ desire. Instead, we must wait, like him, to find out about Phoebe; to find out about her secrets, her thoughts, her knowledge and her plans.

The problem with In Total Surrender is that it doesn’t deliver. I think it does work quite well in its manipulation of certain tropes and genre conventions, but it fails in three significant ways, three significant ways which are primarily confined to the end of the book rather than the beginning.

First, the sex scene. When I talked about this with Jane she described it as vague and unsatisfying and I would have to concur with that assessment. The sex scene is vague and unsatisfying. Unsatisfying because the sexual tension is practically thrumming by the time you reach that point in the story. You can feel Andreas’s nerves about to snap. So the fact that the sex scene is so brief really does little to dissipate that tension. This dissatisfaction is exacerbated by the sheer vagueness in which it is related. What, if anything, happens? I wasn’t actually entirely sure they had sex for a minute there. That’s how vague it was.

Now, I’m not all about the sex scene. In fact, there are times I wish there was no sex scene. For example, there are certain authors who rely on the sex scene or the sex scenes to carry the rest of the story to its close. This is both to the detriment of the story and the detriment of the characters. Hero and heroine spend the last third of the book shagging themselves senseless and boring the bejesus out of me. Usually, what remains in these books is some half-arsed mystery plot that I have already solved. Or sometimes the hero just hasn’t said “I love you” but this is not enough to keep me reading another 80 pages.

Mallory has not committed that crime. And if I might be so bold as to presume to know the author’s intentions, I see both the vague and unsatisfying nature of the sex scene in In Total Surrender as endeavoring to do the opposite. I applaud Ms. Mallory for attempting to do something different with sex in a romance novel. It was a bold move. Unfortunately, as if often the case with bold moves, this one didn’t quite work. The tension between Phoebe and Andreas was such that it needed to be consummated more than the sex scene allowed for.

Second, the use of historical personages. Or the historical personage who is the deus ex machina. This one, I don’t understand. It was totally unnecessary to the plot of the novel, to the development of the characters, or to the themes of this book to have a Historical Personage appear. The Historical Personage was inserted with all the deftness and subtlety of a bull in a china shop. Or a toddler with a pair of scissors. Why, dear author, why? In order to explain why this didn’t work I must spoil the surprise, thus:

SPOILER ALERT

 

[spoiler]Part of the plot of both this novel and the once preceding it, One Night is Never Enough, is the mystery surrounding Andreas Merrick’s identity. In fact, Andreas’ identity is intimately tied to his involvement with Phoebe and his grand vendetta. We know that he wasn’t always the Lord of the Criminal Underworld he is now. We, perhaps, even suspected more gentrified origins. And, indeed, it should come as no surprise that we were right. Andreas is not of the lower classes, but was the eldest son of a titled family. Alas, he is also a bastard and his father knew it. A tragic, abusive childhood followed, finally culminating in his father trying to have him killed. This history is vital to the plot. However, the identity of his real father is not. In fact, it detracts.His real father is Frederick, Duke of York. We find this out and we also find out that Phoebe had some strange childhood crush on the Duke of York, due to him saving her from a carriage. Neither of these revelations revels anything of import about either character. It is superfluous. Frederick does not acknowledge Andreas. Nor does he pardon him. Nor does he do anything other than suggest that had Andreas come to him when he was abandoned and nearly killed by his legal father, Frederick might have taken him in. For whatever that’s worth. The whole meeting doesn’t even seem to give Andreas a sense of closure about his family or his paternity. In fact, it seems to exacerbate those anxieties. Moreover, his father being the Duke of York is in no way pertinent. The same effect could be had with just about anyone. There is no reason that the Duke of York and not the Duke of Earl or the Earl of Duke had to be Andreas’ father. It was an unnecessary detail to the plot.

[/spoiler]

 

END SPOILER ALERT

The appearance of the Historical Personage highlights two things: the hasty ending and the sudden upswing to the saccharine. Prior to the appearance of the Historical Personage, the sex scene—though vague and unsatisfying—was the major weakness in the book. The tension and conflict at the heart of Phoebe and Andreas’ relationship was well-written enough for me to ignore some of the flaws, including the sex scene itself.

But the ending. Oh the ending. It wasn’t that it wasn’t happy. It was. It was too happy. It was too damn happy. The first third of the book—nay! Nearly the entire book is characterized by a tone and atmosphere that could only be described as dark and grim. Lord of the Underworld describes not only Andreas himself, but the feel of the book. One feels as if one is in an underworld, a world without sunshine or light, a world of shadows and twilight. But then, first the Historical Personage shows up and, worse, an abrupt flash into the future that shows how blissfully happy our heroes still are twenty years after the events of the book.

Clearly, my problem isn’t HEA. Clearly, my problem isn’t epilogues. But this wasn’t properly an epilogue. Nor was it properly a resolution to the final conflict between Phoebe and Andreas. It was if I was reading an early draft of the novel. It just went from a declaration to a flash forward to a saccharine ending so sweet that it threatened to give me hyperglycemia.

And he kissed her. Not a farewell kiss, or an evening kiss, or a friendly kiss at all. It was a forever kiss, and it was everything she’d ever wanted.

“And I love you too, Phoebe.”

 

If only that were the ending! But no. Then we get this:

Twenty years later, Phoebe Merrick still anticipated weekly notes, placed in different spots where she had to hunt to find them. No one had ever said the man was not difficult. But now he always smiled readily and laughed when she chased him down.

The twins were a constant joy.

It isn’t that we have not seen this before. But rather that this flash forward ejects the earlier tension, darkness and gothic atmosphere for an entirely different kind of tone. It is the sort of paragraph I would expect in a Julia Quinn. There’s nothing wrong with that but this is not a comedy. Thus, this last part of the book rang discordant for me. It was like listening to Beethoven’s Fifth and then having the recording suddenly, and without warning switch to the opening strains of The Temptations’ “My Girl.” It jangled.

I like Ms. Mallory’s books very much, generally. But some of her backlist has been hit or miss for me. This one is a miss. And it started out so well, too. I feel like I began in different book than the one I finished. As such, my grade dwindled. With the vague sex scene, this book was probably a B. With the historical personage, may be a B-. With the saccharine ending that resolves nothing and changes the entire tone of the book . . .  C+

Lazaraspaste

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Lazaraspaste came to the romance genre at the belated age of twenty-six. While she prefers historicals, she's really up for anything . . . much like her view of food! Some of her favorite authors include Jo Beverley, Anne Stuart, Lisa Kleypas and Joan Smith. Once a YA librarian, she is now working towards an advanced degree in literature with the mad idea of becoming a critic and teacher. Though she loves romance, fantasy has always been her first love. She hates never-ending series and believes the ending is the most important part.

18 Comments

  1. May
    Oct 10, 2011 @ 14:20:27

    EXACTLY Lazaraspaste. GREAT review.

    “There’s nothing wrong with that but this is not a comedy. Thus, this last part of the book rang discordant for me. It was like listening to Beethoven’s Fifth and then having the recording suddenly, and without warning switch to the opening strains of The Temptations’ “My Girl.” It jangled.”

    I read this book last week for review and I agree with you on every single point. It was so dark and fantastic… and it got ruined. My Girl INDEED.

  2. Jane
    Oct 10, 2011 @ 14:24:12

    @May I’m sorry. I forgot to change who the author was of the review. It’s lazaraspaste and so I edited the comments. I think what struck me the most about this book was how unfinished I thought the story felt. Unfinished emotionally.

  3. May
    Oct 10, 2011 @ 14:28:40

    Well Jane, that explains why you were addressing yourself in the review (it was Lazaraspaste!) :)
    I accused the book of giving me literary blue balls. The potential was never realized, the climax never hit. It just… turned so sweet I felt like a kid after Halloween. Blech.

  4. Jane
    Oct 10, 2011 @ 14:35:22

    @May I’m turning into one of those people that refers to herself in the third person. But yes, vague and unsatisfying was my response to Lazaraspaste which is too bad because, as you said, the potential was tremendous. Phoebe was a great character but the limp way in which the highly charged tension was consummated complete with the CareBear ending made this book a disappointment.

  5. Meoskop
    Oct 10, 2011 @ 15:55:38

    Your review is better than mine, but I am leaving mine in the queue as it is. I can acknowledge a great write up where I see it! I disagree about the sex, but completely agree about the ending. Overall, I liked other elements enough to really love this book. Andreas’s unapologetic criminality carried me past the super sticky sweet finale. In light of your review, I agree it would have been better with a smoother finale.

  6. Chelsea B.
    Oct 10, 2011 @ 17:16:37

    Hmmmm. I appreciate the honest review! I like to know what I’m getting myself into when I pick up a book in a bookstore ;-) It sounds like this author is a fantastic writer, so I think I will start with a another title. I’m pretty sure One Night is Never Enough is in my TBR pile….

  7. Susan Laura
    Oct 10, 2011 @ 18:33:28

    Too bad. As I started your review I had such high hopes . . . but the problems you describe would definitely bother this reader, too.

  8. Lynn
    Oct 10, 2011 @ 19:21:35

    While I agree with the three points brought up in this review, I think they are minor when reflecting on the book as a whole. The writing, characterization and overall tension Mallory delivered was 99% of the show (and page space), so for me this book is solidly in the in the B+ to A- category.

  9. Sarah
    Oct 10, 2011 @ 20:13:14

    I also really liked this book–it was the first by this author. I think it was the first part where we only get the hero’s perspective that I really liked–the end just kind of trailed off, not particularly memorable for me.

  10. Susan/DC
    Oct 10, 2011 @ 20:46:36

    As it happens I just bought this today and have not yet read it so cannot comment on specifics. I did want to say that Mallory is not the only one with sweet epilogues that don’t match the tone of book that came before. Anne Stuart is the queen of this sort of thing. I’ve loved some of her novels (“Son of the Morning” is one of the Best Books Ever and the epilogue is perfect) but I’ve wanted to roll my eyes after the epilogues of some of them even if I liked the book. She has mega alpha heroes, rakes and assassins, who wind up dandling babies, many babies, on their knees, thereby negating all of the character building in the first 95% of the book. At least the Mallory epilogue is short and doesn’t overdo the fecundity.

  11. Vanessa
    Oct 10, 2011 @ 22:26:24

    I agree with just about every point you made (except for the epilogue one, it didn’t really bother me), but I still LOVED this book lol Honestly, I think that the fact that we’re in his head so often completely overshadowed any kind of negative feeling I had. The story she told, and the way she told it, absolutely sucked me in. The sex scene really was disappointing, though, no lie :/

  12. swati
    Oct 11, 2011 @ 00:27:40

    I agree about the ending. It completely and unnecessarily changed the tone of the entire book. Too sweet for Andreas.
    Regarding the sex scene, i am ok with that. Lately the historical romances i have been reading have had way too much graphic sex. So, this is good.I can understand that she wanted to keep it subtle but what i felt was that they were almost like an afterthought. They were footnotes to the chapter. She could have structured them better.
    Overall, a good read.Loved the first seven chapters when we only get to hear Andreas.

    *spoiler*
    I wish the conflict about her brother’s disappearance had been more dark. It resolved so neatly. What if Andreas had done what was actually hinted throughout. I would have liked to read that.

  13. njoireading
    Oct 11, 2011 @ 12:36:59

    I totally loved this book and really like the way she wrote so much of the story from Andreas POV. I found myself smiling over some of his thoughts on Phoebe as she was such a puzzle to him. I liked the epilogue probably because I really wanted these two couples to be really happy. The men had really tough lives growing up and neither woman had exactly super wonderful things going for them until meeting Roman and Andreas.

    I did forget about the “coming together scene”. I too was disappointed at the time I read it. I also agree about Frederick–the story didn’t really need him, but it didn’t detract for me. What I do remember is that I loved this book, and since I had forgotten my disappointment, it obviously didn’t matter to me at all. I would give this an solid B+.

  14. Nita Gill
    Oct 11, 2011 @ 12:57:12

    I was soooo looking forward to reading their first love scene. The build up was awesome. I wanted to see the play between Andreas’ intensity and Phoebe’s teasing. I was so disappointed. I couldn’t believe that was it!

    I really enjoyed the rest of the book, though, and ended up giving it 4 stars on goodreads.

  15. Jennifer
    Oct 11, 2011 @ 16:14:14

    I found the book very jarring to read. I would read a paragraph and think, “Am I missing something? Do I not understand language today?” I liked Mallory’s last two books, but didn’t as much with her earlier works. Not sure if her next one would be an automatic read for me.

  16. lazaraspaste
    Oct 11, 2011 @ 16:24:21

    Thank you all for the comments! What really surprises me about all of them is how much agreement there is here with my review, and yet how much those flaws or problems seemed to affect everyone’s response to the book so differently.

    It really goes to show you how diverse readers’ experiences and reactions are to the different elements of a book.

  17. Review: In Total Surrender by Anne Mallory | Smexy Books
    Oct 14, 2011 @ 06:46:59

    [...] Reviews: Fiction Vixen – B+ The Book Pushers – B Dear Author – C+ Among the Muses – 4/5 Book Binge – 4/5 [...]

  18. arnique
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 05:55:02

    I actually thought this was the best of Anne Mallory’s books. I’ve started reading her books this year; her earlier ones were so terrible (anachronisms and flighty heroines galore!) that I put them down after a chapter or two, but the last few have been quite good. I really, really loved how Merrick’s thought processes went, very ‘I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.’ It was lots of fun watching how he coped with his feelings and the effect Phoebe had on his life goal.

    The three points you raised are valid, but in my opinion did not detract from the quality and novelty of the book. Re: sex scene (or lack thereof), I thought it emphasised that Merrick loved Phoebe not for her uber-sexiness (lust seems to a major factor of relationships in historical romances) but for her kindness and almost Pollyanna-like personality (neither annoying or ingratiating, surprisingly) and really I’m more for the trad Regency treatment on the topic. I agree that Mallory could have made up some other Lord to be Merrick’s father but I suppose she needed someone powerful enough to get X’s murderer Y off the hook in the end and she had previously introduced the Duke of York in Roman’s book. For me, I found it a little unbelievable but I’ve read odder stuff (mostly concerning Lord Byron and George IV) before, so it was easy to ignore. I found the premise that his mother abandoned him to be more jarring than the Duke of York issue.

    Lastly, on the ending, I would venture to say that 95% of historical romance ends in a very cheesy way that totally screams FICTION to the reader. I generally gloss over the last chapter (and always skip the epilogue) of such books and In Total Surrender was not an exception. So I think you were a wee bit harsh to subtract points for what occurs in every other romance novel. The only writer who ends her books perfectly is Georgette Heyer, I think, even Jane Austen could have done without the HEA recap. I will say, though, that I can believe Merrick becoming a big old softie after 20 years with Phoebe the eternal optimist. :P

    I agree with Lynn’s rating of B+/A- but I liked your review, lazaraspaste, for the in-depth discussion on WHY you didn’t like it.

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