CLASSIC REVIEW: Wolf in Waiting by Rebecca Flanders
The following is a review from author Kerry Connor who specializes in writing intrigues. From the bio on her website:
I always wanted to be a writer, and as a mystery lover from the time I learned to read, those were the types of stories I was always coming up with. It took a fateful detour at the local used bookstore to turn me on to romance. One day while perusing the shelves, I turned a corner and wandered into the romance section without realizing it. The mystery and romance sections were next to each other, with the Harlequin Intrigues fittingly shelved on the border between the two. With dramatic covers and great suspenseful-sounding titles, they looked like something I’d enjoy, so I bought a handful of them. It wasn’t long before I knew these weren’t just what I wanted to read, they were what I wanted to write: stories with the spine-tingling danger of great suspense and the heart of a good romance.
Getting the chance to write for Intrigue is as much a thrill for me as any found between the covers of one, and I hope to give readers all the action, emotion and twists and turns that made me fall in love with these books all those years ago.
Thank you for your interest in my work. I love hearing from readers, and can be reached at:
I haven’t been reading much romance lately. As someone who used to read hundreds of romance novels every year and who barely managed to finish 25 (if that) last year, I’ve been feeling really disconnected from the genre. I haven’t been sure if I’m burned out, or if what’s popular today simply doesn’t have much to offer me as a reader—or both—but it’s been a little depressing, as though I’ve lost something that meant a great deal to me.
When I learned that Wolf in Waiting was being reissued as a stand-alone ebook for the first time (previously it was only available as part of a bundle), I was thrilled, relieved…and frankly, a little nervous. Thrilled because this has long been one of my favorite books, and it deserves all the attention it can get. Relieved because I needed to read something I knew I would love, something that would remind me why I read romance novels. And yes, nervous. I actually hadn’t read the book in at least ten years, partly because I’d started to worry that it might lose its impact. I loved it too much to want to chance discovering that my tastes had changed or it simply didn’t work for me as well as it used to. That seemed like a particularly big risk now. Would my reading malaise affect my enjoyment of this book I loved so much? Twenty years after its release, would it be too dated now? Or was it possible the book simply wasn’t as good I always remembered it to be?
Nope. It’s still wonderful, still easily one of my favorite romance novels ever, and, though it seldom comes up in the conversation, a strong contender for the best category romance ever written.
Wolf in Waiting is the middle book in Flanders’ Heart of the Wolf trilogy, published in the late, great Silhouette Shadows line in 1995. Events from the previous book are mentioned, and there are a few slight references that are there to set up the third book, but this one stands on its own. If the others didn’t exist, this one could still be published in its current form. (A particularly good thing, since as of the time I’m writing this, the first book hasn’t been issued as a stand-alone ebook and is still only available as part of the bundle.) Released at the tail end of the original paranormal romance boom of the early 1990s, the series is set in a world where werewolves live among humans, who are unaware of their existence. The pack has adapted to the modern age very well, especially the business world, owning numerous companies under the umbrella of the St. Clare Corporation, which serves the financial interests of the pack.
In this world, Victoria St. Clare is the lowest of the low. She is an anthromorph, a werewolf incapable of changing to her wolf form. To the rest of the pack, she is, at best, a figure of pity or embarrassment; at worst, an object of disgust and derision. She has a token position in the corporation’s cosmetics division, because no werewolf would ever be denied a position in the company, but she also knows she will never be allowed to advance beyond it. She’s been passed over for promotions dozens of times. Her superiors steal her work and take credit for it. When evidence emerges that someone is leaking company secrets to their competitors—to humans—Victoria becomes a prime suspect. It’s an unthinkable crime, that a werewolf would ever betray their own, and it brings Noel Duprey into her life.
Noel is the new designated heir to be head of the pack after the previous one stepped down (in the events of the first book). It’s a position he never expected nor wanted, and he’s viewed with suspicion by many who don’t believe he’s up to the role. Uncovering the traitor is as much a test of his leadership abilities as it is vital to the welfare of the pack. When he’s forced to work with Victoria, he’s not sure if she’s been assigned to spy on him, or if she’s his target. He’s heard nothing good about her, so he’s amazed to discover what a beautiful, intelligent and all-around incredible woman she really is. The attraction between them is undeniable. It’s also impossible. Noel has a responsibility to the pack to choose a proper mate, and since werewolves mate in their wolf form, Victoria is the last woman he can ever be with.
I’ve included the cover of the original release with this review, both because it’s how I always picture the book in my head and because it fits the story so well. In a genre where heroes are typically seen as the main draw, this cover takes the unusual approach of depicting them both, but putting the focus on her, without even bothering to show his face. Sure, there are plenty of heroine-only covers out there, but generally if the hero is on the cover, he shares the focus, or overshadows her. (The cover of the 2002 reissue, which is also the cover used for the ebook, takes the more common approach of placing him front and center, while shoving her into the background and off to the side.) The reason this cover is so perfect is that this is fundamentally her story, and she is largely what makes it. Unlike in so many romance novels, including certain huge bestsellers of recent years, this heroine isn’t a drip with no personality. She’s legitimately fabulous. She’s witty and clever and smart and sophisticated. Several times while reading the book this time around, I honestly blurted out, “I love her.” I know it’s not the first time that’s happened.
This is a book that manages to do multiple things simultaneously, and Victoria is a prime example of that. She’s both the aspirational heroine and the outcast, someone whose awesomeness we’re able to bask in while she also remains relatable and sympathetic because she’s the underdog. Yes, she is beautiful and creative and talented—and it doesn’t matter at all. Everyone still treats her like complete and utter garbage. This is a world in which she has no worth. The only thing that matters—the only thing that will ever matter—is the one thing she can’t do. This book demonstrates how a heroine doesn’t have to be a blank slate for the reader to identify with her. Victoria is both a distinct, fully-drawn individual and someone I think anyone can relate to. She’s a heroine for anyone who’s been in a job—or any situation—where they have no allies and have to find a way to make it through the day. For anyone who’s ever felt like they aren’t being or will never be judged fairly because of something beyond their control. Or simply for anyone who’s ever felt like they didn’t fit in or didn’t belong. And yet, she carries herself with grace, with dignity, and yes, general awesomeness. The book manages the nifty feat of allowing me to admire her strength and her coolness in the face of adversity, while also appreciating that the story’s ultimate message is that maybe a woman should get emotional sometimes—and that’s a good thing—when the (real) world so often says the opposite. (I think her character particularly pays off in the ending, which I can’t discuss here, but I’ll include a spoiler at the end.)
Noel may be appear to be a more familiar character—the rich playboy/heir—but he’s a far superior version of the type. He’s undeniably alpha, but never an asshole. He’s not crazy and he’s not mean. He’s (understandably) fascinated by her, but never stalker obsessive. When he gets angry and the more animalistic side of his nature starts to emerge (he is, after all, a werewolf), it’s mostly in response to the way she’s being treated. He stands up for her. He fights for her. On the surface he’s a typical romance hero, but deep down he’s a far more elusive type: a genuinely good guy.
Both characters feel so much more vivid than most romance heroes and heroines. The story is told in first-person by both characters, with the chapters alternating between their points-of-view. This was an innovative device at the time (the first and third books in the series are both told in third-person), though it’s more common now (which is one thing that helps the book still seem fresh and contemporary today). Flanders still pulls it off so much better than most of the books that came after this. First person doesn’t amount to much if the characters narrating are boring and their voices so flat and uninteresting that the story might as well be written in third, as is too often the case. It isn’t here. Victoria and Noel are both interesting and engaging narrators with strong voices, and we get to know them on a more personal level than is typical for the genre. It’s fun spending time with them in their individual perspectives and seeing how they view the world. Flanders nicely plays their perspectives off each other, and there are some very entertaining moments where one character responds to something the other said in the previous chapter.
I love that the story is set in Montreal with touches of that distinctive French influence. I love that his name is Noel, which is so not the typical romance hero name—fitting for a book that’s so not the typical romance novel. I love how big the world Flanders creates feels. The story’s focus remains on Victoria and Noel, as it should, but there’s a real sense of a much bigger werewolf universe around them that we’re only seeing part of. (These books would be Flanders’ final ones for Harlequin/Silhouette; she would go on to write a single-title series as Donna Boyd set in a similar world of werewolves, developing the kind of larger universe she’s only able to offer tantalizing glimpses of here.) I love how Flanders manages to keep the sexual tension high and deliver sexy scenes even when she can’t offer the usual descriptions of outright intercourse. In fact, I may love it even more because of that. As someone who’s read so many sex scenes by now that descriptions of body parts doing things generally do nothing for me, the scenes in this book still pack a punch, because they’re all about the emotions, not the physical aspects (which is as it should be). I love how even the minor characters, while receiving minimal pagetime, are still interesting and distinctive in their own right.
Perhaps most of all, I love how this story is truly, deeply, desperately romantic, in a way romance novels too seldom are. It’s a story unabashedly about big emotions in that larger-than-life, lump-in-the-throat way. One thing Flanders is able to deliver so well is the sense of longing, of two people (or, you know, werewolves) who want so badly to be together when everything they know says there’s no way they can be. But the story gets me long before it arrives at that point, as Flanders taps into that simplest, yet most romantic, of notions: he sees her. He appreciates her. He likes her. She’s amazing, and no one sees it. All they see is what she isn’t. But he does. I suppose that’s what everyone wants: someone who recognizes the particular things that make us who we are—and who likes those things. Theoretically, it’s the kind of thing all romance novels should communicate, yet few do it as well as this one.
Now that I’ve built up the book so much there’s likely no way it could possibly live up to that, I should note that this opinion isn’t universal. (But of course, what opinion of a book is?) When the trilogy was originally released, Romantic Times rated the first and third books 4 ½ stars and named them each “Top Picks” for their respective months. This book received “only” four stars and was not a Top Pick. From where I’m sitting, this book is clearly operating on a much higher level than the others, and most romance novels in general, but different strokes and all that. Some may find Victoria’s coolness in the face of mistreatment a weakness rather than a strength and think she should fight back more, though personally I relate too strongly to the fact that sometimes there simply is no way to fight back (as there really isn’t for her here). The traitor plot is a MacGuffin, and is ultimately dealt with in the way MacGuffins usually are. That won’t necessarily work for everyone. At 250 pages, it’s a fairly short book, which may not satisfy readers who prefer longer reads. For me, it’s the perfect length. A longer book would let us spend more time with the characters, but it would also require more plot and more extraneous business. This one does what a category romance can: keeps the focus on these two characters and their story. Expanding it would only dilute the power of the love story.
In 250 pages, Flanders somehow manages to provide absolutely everything. The book has vivid characters who are simply a pleasure to spend time with. It’s beautifully written and engaging from start to finish. It makes me laugh more than most outright comedies. It hits me hard on an emotional level. It has the workplace environment and modern feel of a contemporary romance (and other than some minor mentions of technology—a fax machine here, a floppy disk there—it doesn’t feel too dated). It has the otherworldly aspects and strong world-building of a paranormal. It features characters struggling within rigid social strictures and with duty and high personal stakes, which any historical romance reader should appreciate. It combines romantic fantasy with themes that are relatable and relevant to real life and the real world. And yes, it’s a romance novel that is legitimately romantic.
Why do I read romance novels? For books, rare as they are, like this.
NOTE: I didn’t actually buy a copy of the ebook; I couldn’t wait and I bought a used copy online of the original edition instead, my own being in storage, so I can’t comment on the quality of the ebook. If you’re worried I’m shilling for Harlequin (pffft) or the author (who I don’t know and have never met, interacted or communicated with in any way) and want to prevent them from benefiting, you can always do the same. (Plus the cover’s better.)
Spoiler (spoiler): Show