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REVIEW:  The Double Cross (The Spanish Brand Series) by Carla Kelly

REVIEW: The Double Cross (The Spanish Brand Series) by Carla...

double-cross

The year is 1780, and Marco Mondragón is a brand inspector in the royal Spanish colony of New Mexico. A widower and rancher, Marco lives on the edge of Comanchería, the domain of the fierce Comanche. Each autumn, he takes cattle and wool, and his district’s records of livestock transactions to the governor in Santa Fe. He is dedicated, conscientious and lonely.

This year, he is looking for a little dog to keep his feet warm through cold winter nights. He finds a yellow dog but also meets a young, blue-eyed beauty named Paloma Vega. Paloma is under the thumb of relatives who might have stolen a brand belonging to Paloma’s parents, dead in a Comanche raid. As a brand inspector, Marco has every right to be suspicious of brand thieves. If Marco has anything to do with it, Paloma’s fortunes are about to change.

Meanwhile, Marco has other challenges to contend with. An elderly ranchero named Joaquin Muñoz has set in motion events that involve the ever-dangerous Comanches and threaten the uneasy peace of Marco’s jurisdiction. Set against the mountains and high plains of northeastern New Mexico during the decline of Spanish power in the New World, The Double Cross is a story of loss and love regained, at a time when honor went hand in glove with bravery, and danger was never far away.

Dear Ms Kelly,

When I heard that your latest project was going to be a book set in 1780 in New Mexico, I was excited. I began reading your Regencies first but your westerns have always proved to be among my favorites and since the readers at DA are looking for something other than the usual settings, reading it for my next book seemed a great idea.

Brava for having mainly Latino leads and secondary characters in a setting little used in romances – 1780 pre-gringo New Mexico. There is also a sympathetic Kwahadi Comanche character who is not either a villain or a Noble Red Man stereotype. Lots of the secondary characters are priests which makes sense in a world where religion and faith are inculcated from birth and central in the lives of the inhabitants. Marco and Paloma don’t just give lip service to the Church, they are faithful worshipers who pray daily, adhere to the tenants of Catholicism and really mean it.

There seem to be two kinds of Kelly characters – the good ones and the evil ones. You usually have very little gray. I have to be honest and say that here even when some shading is added to a character, I don’t always truly feel it. Paloma is treated badly by her relations but she confounds her husband and another person when she expresses ultimate sympathy for how poorly her cousin was raised and the challenges this person faces in her new life on the frontier. Paloma has good reason to fear Comanches but after a brief period of hesitancy on her part to help one, she soon seems to become his nurse and advocate. A few references are made about how she wishes Toshua would just leave but they seem more lip service.

Still, I don’t mind that these characters are not too different from your usual ones. They aren’t. But I like reading about nice people who find love amidst their angst and issues. The main difference I find are the settings used and the way they’re used. By that I mean this is a western but not a 19th century American frontier western. The book also focuses on things new to me such as Marco’s position as Juez de campo which earns him the de facto role as lawman of the area. I’m curious as to whether or not the description of Marco’s hacienda matches an actual one of the time. Reading about its construction and the 24/7 safety precautions carried out, I really got a feel for the fear of Comanche raids under which these people lived.

Marco is a man scared by the tragic loss of his wife and children to disease. As such he’s put off remarrying for eight years. When he sees Paloma, he begins to just think about the possibility which I like much better than having him suddenly be ready to jump right into marriage. Paloma has almost given up all hope of a family of her own as she has no dowry and has reached the decrepit old age of (gasp) eighteen. Thank you for making the point that women of this age expected to marry young and including it in the story.

Also bravo that Marco is a man who likes to see a little meat on his heroine’s bones. He’s not all ‘ooh, she’s sylph-ish and slender’ he’s ‘let’s get some weight on her and fill her out.’ There’s lots of sex compared to your old Regencies. These two are like rabbits! The sex though seems to mean something to each of them and serves to bring them closer as a married couple rather than just being perfunctory.

I’m not sure about all the Comanche information. I didn’t think they ever ate dog – not that this happens here. I also wasn’t sure how a warrior would ever remain a slave but the fact that he’s apparently older and has been cast out by the tribe helps me believe it.

I saw somewhere that you hope for this to become a series. When I started it, I hoped that the book would be complete on it’s own rather than ending with untied plot threads. After finishing it, I believe you’ve left yourself some issues to revisit and possibly resolve but that the book can also stand on its own. I would enjoy coming back again to see more of these characters and especially discover if Paloma gets her heart’s wish. B

~Jayne

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REVIEW: Eyes of Silver, Eyes of Gold by Ellen O’Connell

REVIEW: Eyes of Silver, Eyes of Gold by Ellen O’Connell

Dear Ms. O’Connell:

When I saw that Kristie J. highly recommended your self-published Western, Eyes of Silver, Eyes of Gold, I admit I was excited but also trepidatious. I’m always a bit wary of Romance novels featuring Native American protagonists, because the stereotypes seem so entrenched in the genre. The opening scene of the book was so suspenseful and compelling, however, that I knew early on that this was not the book I was expecting, which turned out to be a good thing. Despite the fact that I think the book would benefit substantially from additional editing and less telling, I found the voice fresh, the characters engaging, and the storyline emotionally satisfying.

Eyes of Silver, Eyes of Gold by Ellen O'ConnellAnne Wells does not want to marry any of the men her father wants; in fact, she has proven so resistant that her father has locked her in her room and is starving her, hoping he can weaken her will enough to wed her to his latest pick. Anne is already more desperate than her father could ever guess, but her desperation drives her to escape her home and run to the one place she hopes she can hide in safety. And when Cord Bennett finds a wet, cold, sleeping woman in his barn, it seems Anne is correct, because Cord merely sends her into his house for a warm meal and a frank conversation.

Anne knows it’s not Cord Bennett she has to fear, despite his reputation for being a “half-breed bastard,” Cord is merely a man tired of living under everyone else’s prejudices, and who now keeps to himself and to the horses he trains to support himself on his family’s Colorado ranch. Cord and Anne met as children, and they developed a mutual affection and respectful trust early on, even though it never really went anywhere. Still, Cord is willing to help Anne escape her father’s tyrannical marriage plans, which gives her great relief. Until, that is, some men her father hired manage to track her to Cord’s place, where they proceed to force Cord and Anne to marry on the spot, celebrating the event by beating both of them brutally, believing they have killed Cord and almost raping Anne (she saves herself by accidently vomiting on her attacker).

Anne’s father, Edward, who has been present for the whole disgusting event, merely admonishes his daughter, who is lying on the ground near her would-be savior:

 

“You brought this on yourself, daughter. Honoring thy father as commanded would have spared us all this disgrace. . . You are filthy in every way and I won’t have you on a horse with me. You get yourself cleaned up and consider how you’re going to convince me to allow you back under my roof.”

 

Not surprisingly, Edward’s stubbornness is matched by Anne’s own, and thanks to her tenacity and nothing short of a miracle, both Cord and Anne manage to survive. For days following the attack, Anne is solely responsible for Cord’s animals and for Cord’s care. She has no idea if he will survive, or even what is wrong with him internally. And she doesn’t know when the men who tried to kill them will return, or what will happen when they do. Still, the experience emboldens her:

 

Anne had lived her whole life following the dictates of others. Now all the decisions were hers. What to do, when to do it. How to do it, so much depended on her, but instead of feeling weighed down, minute by minute, hour by hour, this new life wove a spell around her, leaving her feeling lighter and freer than she had ever dreamed possible.

 

So when it becomes clear that Cord will ultimately heal from his injuries, Anne is determined to protect him and Bennett Ranch from any and every predator, including Cord’s mistrustful brothers, her own brother and father, and myriad townspeople who think that Cord’s Indian blood and proud, defensive personality make him a virtual savage. In fact, Cord’s sister (his father married twice, and his second marriage, to an Indian woman, yielded Cord and his sister), Marie, married a white man and moved away from the family at her first opportunity, leaving Cord to fend for himself against the town’s ambivalent attitudes. Cord had spent some years in Texas, but homesickness brought him back to Colorado, where he has become a talented horse breeder and trainer, work that brings him enough income to live somewhat isolated from the townspeople.

Some of those people, like Sheriff Noah Reynolds Cord’s older sister, Hannah, and his sister-in-law, Martha, respected Cord and wanted to protect him. Others, like his brothers, Ephraim and Frank, kept their distance from Cord, and were not sure what to think of his violent reputation. No one really knew what to make of the purported marriage between Anne and Cord, including Anne and Cord themselves:

 

He could smell the slightly spicy scent of her. “Mm.” He wondered what would happen if he just put an arm around her here and now and tried holding her. If she made a face in the darkness, he’d never know.

What happened was she nestled in the curve of his arm, head on his shoulder, and whispered, “This is the nicest Christmas I’ve ever had.”

It sure as hell was.

 

I have always been a fan of the arranged marriage device, because I think it forces an emotional intimacy between characters who might otherwise have only a physical attraction or who would likely walk away from each other because of a difficult relationship. In Eyes of Silver, Eyes of Gold, however, the device serves a dual purpose. It forges the natural alliance the characters have with each other, and with the reader, who immediately sympathizes with their persecution. But it has a deeper narrative purpose and effect. Because Cord’s racial identity is so much a part of the town’s distrust and dislike of him, it would be easy for the reader to identify Anne and Cord’s relationship purely in terms of that prejudice – to root for the success of their marriage merely because of the unfair discrimination against Cord. While that might be emotionally satisfying, it would not necessarily challenge a lot of the racial stereotypes leveled against Cord (or the stereotypes the reader might bring to the book from other Romance novels featuring Native American characters, namely the “noble savage” hero-type).

Here, though, the arranged marriage between Cord and Anne places their own relationship – one that exists within an awareness of the racial hatred aimed at Cord – above the stereotypes. In other words, it draws the reader into a position where they must confront Anne and Cord, as well as the difficulties in their relationship, within the context of the individual characters. Cord, for example, has certainly been affected by the negative views of his Indian heritage, but some aspects of his personality are intrinsic. He is independent, quiet, assessing, and scarred by personal loss in a previous relationship. Like Anne, he is hardworking and straightforward, inexperienced with love and expectations that go beyond physical intimacy and the daily responsibilities of a shared life. That Anne has to stand up for both herself and Cord both builds her confidence and increases her sensitivity to the attitudes Cord has encountered his whole life.

Watching them struggle with the uncertainties and discoveries of a strong emotional and physical connection is made more poignant by the misconceptions people have about Cord, but for me the novel struck a nice balance between focusing on racism and developing a romantic relationship between two complicated, multi-layered individuals. The sub-plot around Anne’s father’s revenge (and her brother’s racism and her mother’s weak betrayal) was nicely executed, with several unexpected turns away from easy melodrama to something more interesting.

The way the book handles the relationship between the town’s prejudice and Cord and Anne’s relationship is one of its greatest strengths. There were moments in the book where I felt that given the book’s setting, Mason, Colorado, the late date, 1885, that the profoundly negative views of both Anne and Cord were not nuanced enough for the changes the second half of the 19th century had wrought on American multiculturalism and intermarriage. There was also the use of the word “haters,” which threw me out of the book every time I read it and belittled the serious issues the book was contemplating. Further, the overall language was relatively plain, sometimes downright flat, which sometimes weighed the narrative down but, at the same time, fit well with the Western setting and ethos of the novel.

The book’s real weakness, however, is that it is overwritten. In fact, it reminded me a lot of the first Judith James book I read, which was fresh and compelling but way too long. Eyes of Silver, Eyes of Gold shares that problem to the point where the telling sometimes threatens to overwhelm the emotional impact of the story:

 

Edward Wells had been angry when he’d realized his daughter would not come home. When he realized she was not in Chicago as everyone supposed, his fury knew no bounds. In Edward’s opinion Anne needed to spend the rest of her life living like a recluse in Chicago to mitigate the disgrace she had brought on the family . . .

Having for years been obsessed with seeing his daughter married, Edward was now obsessed with seeing her marriage ended. He would have like to just ride out to the ranch with another mod and take her, but Edward knew that when the Double M men left town two of them had gunshot wounds. He had heard rumors about how they got those wounds.

 

There are a total of seven in a row detailing Edward’s obviously villainous perspective on Cord and Anne, and the mix of omniscient third person narration and interior monologue can sound pedantic and even rambling. With some good content editing, though, I think Eyes of Silver, Eyes of Gold could have been an A read for me. I enjoyed the protagonists, was engaged with the large cast of characters and the negotiation of so many different relationships, and appreciated that the issues around Cord’s race were not, for the most part, simplistic and heavy-handed. And while the somewhat undisciplined narration served as a periodic distraction, it wasn’t enough to ruin my interest and make me put the book down. B-

~ Janet

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