DUELING REVIEW: Black Ice by Anne Stuart
Dear Ms. Stuart,
Black Ice is my favorite of all your books — the ones I’ve read, that is. You have a huge backlist and I have not come anywhere near reading them all, but I’ve read several of your most popular titles, including A Rose at Midnight, To Love a Dark Lord, Moonrise, Nightfall, Ritual Sins, three more books in your Ice series and others as well. I have enjoyed some of them more than others, but not until Black Ice came along did one of them blow me out of the water.
Twenty-three year old Chloe Underwood is a translator of children’s books living in Paris and longing for a little more sex and violence in her reading material. Little does Chloe know that she’s about to get more of both, but it won’t be in the pages of a book.
Chloe’s British roommate Sylvia is a fellow translator who had lined up a side job for herself, translating for some business people over the weekend in a chateau. At the last minute, Sylvia’s wealthy lover invites her to spend the weekend in his company. Sylvia’s dearest hope is to marry for money, but in the meantime, she can’t afford to lose her job. So Sylvia pleads with Chloe to take the weekend translating gig in her place, and Chloe reluctantly agrees. When a limo comes to pick up Sylvia, Chloe, with a suitcase full of Sylvia’s glamorous clothes, gets into it, little realizing the impact this action will have on her life.
Meanwhile, an operative whose real name is not revealed until later in the book has spent over two years establishing an identity as an arms dealer named Bastien Toussaint. Bastien, as he is referred to, works for a shadowy organization known as the Committee. At the Committee’s behest, Bastien has infiltrated an international cartel of arms dealers — the business people Chloe will be translating for. Bastien is ruthless enough that he will do whatever the job requires of him, or so he believes.
When Chloe arrives at the chateau, she makes the mistake of letting the cartel members, who claim to be food importers, believe that she speaks only French and English. In reality, she knows several other languages as well, and can understand them when they speak Italian or German. Bastien quickly deduces this, and also notices that Chloe’s clothes don’t fit her that well. The two things make him suspect her of being an operative sent to the meeting to kill someone — perhaps even himself.
Chloe, of course, is entirely innocent, but she is still in grave danger. Gradually the members of the cartel grow more suspicious of her, and they have no compunction about killing her. Chloe can feel menace emanating from some of the cartel members, but the situation she is in is so outlandish that rather than trust her nagging instincts, she tells herself that she is being paranoid.
The organization Bastien works for, though purportedly in business to save the world, is as ruthless and brutal as it needs to be in pursuit of that goal. And though Bastien believes he is every inch the bastard he needs to be to get that job done, his thoughts from his very first appearance in the book reveal that he is not quite as sanguine about every aspect of that job as the Committee expects him to be.
Pondering the fact that chateau staff members are carrying semiautomatics under their loose clothing that may very well be weapons that he himself provided, Bastien thinks that “It would be damned funny if one of them killed him.” Later on, speculating about Chloe’s purpose in coming to the chateau, he muses:
Had she come for him, or for someone else? Was the Committee checking up on his performance? It was always possible — he hadn’t bothered to hide the fact that he was weary beyond belief, no longer giving a damn. Life or death seemed minor distinctions to him, but once you went to work for the Committee they never let you go. He’d be killed, and probably sooner rather than later. Mademoiselle Underwood, with her shy eyes and soft mouth, might be just the one to do it.
And there was only one question. Would he let her?
Those are the earliest, but by no means the last, signs that Bastien has a death wish. After years of performing his job superbly, he is starting to get erratic.
Since he is playing the role of a married womanizer, Bastien can act on the attraction between Chloe and himself. He comes on to her and suggests that they have sex, but Chloe, conscious of his wedding ring as well as feeling that he is out of her league, declines.
Eventually the other cartel members become suspicious enough of Chloe that Bastien is expected to interrogate her, find out how much she knows, and then either kill her or allow another of them to do so. And so Bastien is faced with a choice — to continue taking lives in the name of saving the world, or to save one life, Chloe’s, and in doing so, save what’s left of his own soul.
Bastien makes his choice, but not before Chloe suffers at his hands, so that by the time he rescues her and they go on the run, Chloe hates and distrusts him. Eventually she realizes that her life depends on Bastien and his proficiency at the very skills that disturb her so much. She must grapple with just how much to trust someone that has done the things Bastien has done, and with what else she might be feeling for him.
Black Ice is not a perfect book; for one thing, there are some annoying discrepancies, such as the fact that Bastien’s age is given as both 32 and 34, and his aunt’s name is first referred to as Celeste and then as Cecile. Contradictory information is also given about the location of Chloe’s passport.
Also, even after six or seven readings, I’m still not clear on why the cartel members would want to bring in an outside translator rather than training one of their trusted employees to do that job. If they had a good reason for that, I think it should have been provided in the book.
But there is so much that I love about this novel. One of the wonderful things about Black Ice is that it isn’t just a book with a dark hero, it’s a book with a dark world; many of the secondary characters are violent or corrupt, to such a degree that reading it is like entering another dimension. I loved that world because it created countless moral ambiguities and dilemmas for the main characters.
There’s some wonderful dialogue in the book, and one of my favorite bits comes when Chloe figures out that Bastien is not who he claims to be:
She stared at him, a cold, sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. “Can you tell me one thing? Are you part of the good guys or the bad guys?”
“Trust me,” he said wearily, “there’s not much difference.”
This little exchange encapsulates one of the things I love so much about the book: that though very violent, it is also about how violence can, after a while, make us not as different from those we fight as we want to be. In the process of battling ruthless killers with violence, Bastien and his organization became ruthless too, until they were little better from those they wanted to save the world from.
I love the moral complexity of that, and of the fact that rather than idealizing people in violent professions in this book, you made me question the heavy cost of collateral damage, the morality of the people who accept it as necessary, and even more so, the morality of our asking others to do that kind of dirty work for the rest of us.
I know that some readers, including my fellow blogger Jayne, feel that Chloe, in her innocence, is not a good match for Bastien, and on my first reading of Black Ice, I did feel that she wasn’t as interesting as she could have been. But since I still loved the book enough to read it several times after that (including three rereads right after I finished it), I’ve gotten to know Chloe better in my rereadings and come to like her very much just as she is.
I am now more in agreement with the writer of the Publisher’s Weekly starred review of this book, who described the characterization in Black Ice as brilliant. I feel that Chloe’s innocence serves an important function; her reactions to the shocking violence that unfolds around her reminds the reader that violence should shock us, that each individual life has a value. Whether death claims a friend, an enemy or a stranger, Chloe is shaken because she is sensitive to violence, and that serves to sensitize the reader, as well as the desensitized Bastien.
I also think that Robin, another of my fellow bloggers, was onto something when she once said that Chloe also serves as a mirror that reflects Bastien’s long-suppressed desires and that she therefore has to be neutral, or in her case, clueless. I agree with that; I think that Bastien’s questioning of whether Chloe is innocent or deadly may be his way of examining himself. As Janet said, it’s his own degraded self that Bastien sees when he discovers Chloe’s innocence, and that is what prompts him to act to save her.
Third, there is also a normalcy to Chloe that, in the midst of all the surreal violence, grounds the story. A heroine whose personality and background was more like Bastien’s would have made this book relentlessly dark, and would have deprived it of a window into the safe and secure world we all take for granted.
Chloe has some wonderful lines in the book, such as when she wonders if she is her growing attraction to Bastien is a sign of Stockholm Syndrome, when she compares Bastien to a highwayman in a poem, and when she thinks of Bastien that “He was a monster, not even human. But he was her monster, keeping her safe, and she was past the point of caring.”
The evolution of Chloe and Bastien’s relationship is fascinating because even as Bastien becomes less accepting of the world he inhabits and of the dark side of himself, Chloe, as she grows more familiar with the world in which Bastien lives, condemns him less and less.
Just as I love seeing Chloe contend with who Bastien is and what her attraction to him means, I love seeing Bastien struggle with Chloe’s growing importance to him. If Chloe serves as the book’s moral center, Bastien is on a kind of see-saw in his thoughts and emotions, alternating between wanting to save Chloe and wanting to stop feeling responsible for her so that he can get back to focusing on his job.
There’s a gap between the blunt way Bastien forces Chloe to confront certain unpleasant truths and even threatens her at times, and the way he protects her over and over that makes him absolutely fascinating to me. He is pulled in three different directions, one by his training to obey the Committee and his tendency to look out for his own skin, another by his weariness and his death wish, and a third by his need to for once save a life.
It’s this combination of ruthless competence, weary vulnerability, and the almost quixotic need to save one American girl that makes Bastien such a layered and complex character. His internal conflict works perfectly because in trying to get Chloe out of the cartel and the Committee’s reach, Bastien is trying to get himself out of their reach, too.
The emergence of love from such a place, and between two individuals who would normally never have sought each other out, is a big part of what makes this book so romantic to me. There are sections in the book, particularly in its final third, which are as moving as anything I’ve read in a romantic suspense. Bastien has a speech in one scene in a hotel that, coming from a man who is so emotionally shut down, has to go down as one of the most romantic speeches I’ve ever read.
I don’t want to close this review without saying a few words about how much I enjoyed the Paris setting (Why, or why, aren’t more contemporary romances set outside the United States?), the wonderful use of snow and ice both for atmosphere and as a kind of metaphor for death, and the lean, terse writing. I think that in this case the spare tone is perfect for such an action-driven story, and I love the way (especially evident in the chapter endings) you conjure a mood with so few words.
For me, Black Ice remains a bona fide keeper, and I give it an A.
I know your tastes in books don’t precisely align with those of your blogging partners. However, they very much align with mine, sometimes to an amazing degree. We often love the same authors. And often, out of ten or fifteen books that a favorite author has written, we’d luurrve the exact same three or four.
You read more widely than I do, to my lasting benefit. Upon your recommendations I’ve discovered, with great joy, the books of Sharon Shinn and Shana Abe. Megan Hart and Pam Rosenthal are on top of my TBR list because of your enthusiasm for them.
Yet once in a while, a book comes along that illustrates just how individual reading is, even for two people who come as close to being two peas in a pod as we do, in terms of what we demand and desire in a book. Four years ago, we had a passionate difference of opinion over Laura Kinsale’s Shadow Heart, an imperfect book that I loved deeply and that you, as much as you wanted to, didn’t.
This time, that book is Black Ice.
Having not the least compunction about setting a book aside as soon as my interest wanes for whatever reason, I start many more books than I finish. And usually, if I finish a book, it’s an automatic A–“it’s no mean feat holding my attention, as I’m both fastidious and lazy as a reader.
I finished Black Ice on the day I started it, but it’s not a keeper for me.
There is much to recommend. Stuart writes a muscular prose that is perfectly suited to her fast-paced, danger-laced story. You’d warned me that the first 100 pages or so might feel slow. They didn’t feel slow to me. The pace was tight. The scenes both illustrated character and propelled the story forward.
The background of the Committee and the cartel was sketchy. But hey, I adored Mr. and Mrs. Smith , so that didn’t bother me. Chloe was simply that girl at that place at that time. But that in itself didn’t bother me either–“I loved the romantic thread in The Bourne Identity in which the heroine was exactly that girl at that place at that time. It didn’t even bother me that Chloe was a sweet puppy of a heroine–“and I’ve spent most of my adult life writing various incarnations of the anti-heroine.
I agree that it is essential that Chloe be helpless and innocent, in order to trigger what remained of Bastien’s conscience, i.e., at this stage, Chloe is less a character than a plot device to tilt him over from mere weariness into action.
This is where my first problem came. I didn’t buy Bastien’s death wish. We were told about it–“in the paragraph you quoted in your review–“but I never felt it viscerally. Bastien had not messed up anything. He was doing everything he was supposed to. The impression I received was less a man who wanted to die than a man in need of a good, long vacation–“like how the accountant in me thinks longingly of the simple, concrete pleasures of 1065 tax returns when I couldn’t hack another day of character motivation. I would have been much better convinced had there first been a smaller crisis from which he pulled back and didn’t act and was psychologically devastated by it, thus precipitating his change of heart when faced with the next crisis, rather than have him jump in all of a sudden, when Chloe’s life was threatened.
Two, I wish I’d felt more of their initial attraction. For Chloe to be a catalyst on such a scale, I needed a lightning strike of an attraction, rather than the fairly typical one I got.
Three, while I support the theory that a darker heroine would not have worked here, couldn’t we at least have a stronger one, if not at the beginning, then by the end?
This book is overwhelmingly Bastien’s book, and I can understand that, because he is as dark, interesting, and layered a character as you said he is. But that Chloe is no match for him at all is something that does bother me. A lot.
I didn’t expect or need Chloe to turn into a kickass heroine. But I had to see a great deal more of gravitas and strength of character from her in order to believe that she could form the moral center of this relationship with this enormously complicated man. I needed to see not just tender care from Bastien’s part toward her, but respect, a ton of respect. And to believe Bastien would respect her, I had to respect her.
I liked Chloe, but my respect for her never rose above lukewarm, as she alternated between growing wiser and taking WTF action.
I think this book would have worked better as an action movie where the romance takes a distant second place. Or, alternately–“because my heart is black and poison flows through my veins–“as a straight action/suspense novel in which either Bastien or Chloe dies. There would be great poignancy in Chloe’s death, as it is shown to Bastien the true cost of his life of massive amorality, not in that he cannot repent, but that the innocent ones he subsequently touches must pay the price for him. And if Bastien had died, then it would be sort of like Titanic. Chloe would go on and live a normal life, but she would always remember the mysterious, charismatic stranger who gave up his life for her and saved his own soul in the process.
As it is, I close the book not very convinced of their HEA, or even happily for a year. All the interactions between Chloe and Bastien had been driven by the adrenaline rush of life-or-death situations. Other than boinking, I cannot see the two of them do normal stuff together. And because the world Anne Stuart had created was so dark, I’m just about 100% sure that someone(s) would come for Bastien and/or Chloe. And if Jason Bourne couldn’t keep his girlfriend alive, well, what hope do the rest of us have?
Bastien is such a great character, and Stuart has crafted some truly touching moments in his unthawing, and in the primal way he both conquered and protected Chloe. But ultimately, I can delight in a hero only as far as I can admire the heroine. So in this case, my enjoyment of Bastien’s journey was marred by my frustration with Chloe. I would still recommend this book, with the caveat that readers who go into a homicidal rage at the sight of a weak heroine approach with caution.
B-. (I got this book at the library. Not sure how my feelings would change if I’d had to pay for it.)
But, dear Janine, although this particular recommendation didn’t hit the target, I would still go on trying other books that you recommend, and even part with cash for them. :)
This book can be purchased in mass market.