REVIEW: Into the Storm by Rachel Grant
Dear Rachel Grant,
Into The Storm is the first book in the Evidence: Under Fire series, where your Evidence and Flashpoint series’ meet and make babies. Evidence is a lengthy series and while I have them all (or most of them) on my TBR I haven’t read them all, unlike the four Flashpoint books (highly recommend, especially on audio, they’re great). As best I can tell, the connection to the Evidence series is strongest, with important cameos from Luke and Undine (from Cold Evidence #6) but there is little direct connection to the Flashpoint books which are all set in Africa.
Set in the Pacific Northwest, in and around the Mount Olympus National Park, Into the Storm is about a SEAL training gone wrong and a park archaeologist caught in the middle of it. Dr. Audrey Kendrick is the archaeologist for ONP. Her role is to survey and document historic and native sites within the park, taking steps to preserve them, education for park visitors and also consideration of applications for third party uses of the park – such as Navy SEAL training.
Chief Warrant Officer Xavier Rivera is a former SEAL, now a trainer after a mission went badly 18 months earlier and he was significantly injured. It is his job to set up the training and liaise with the park to get the approval. For much of the book readers don’t know exactly why the training is so important but it’s clear that there’s a specific reason for the training, that it’s time sensitive and the unique geography and climate of the ONP are mission critical.
Audrey and Xavier met when he was scouting the site with his friend, Jae, a park police officer, who was aware of Xavier’s goal of using the park for training. Unfortunately at that point, Xavier couldn’t tell anyone else so Audrey had no idea even that he was military. Other than that he’s a friend of Jae’s – and Jae is also a good and trusted friend of hers, she can know little about him. Still, they have scorching chemistry and agree to have a hot night together.
When Audrey refuses the Navy’s application for training on the basis that a proper assessment of environmental and other damage had not been done, Xavier uses their night together to go over her head and assert she’s only declined the application because she’s a jilted lover. Audrey barely keeps her job as a result so she’s very angry (rightfully so) with Xavier when the book begins. She’s also 11 weeks pregnant because of a packet of condoms past their use-by date. (Xavier and Audrey’s first meeting and their night together is contained in a free prequel novella. Before The Storm: One Hot Night is available from Amazon or Kobo. I read the prequel first and then went straight into the novel so I had everything fresh in my mind.) Audrey hasn’t told Xavier about the pregnancy yet because she’s too angry and she wants to be calmer when she tells him. She’s been trying to work out how to do that for a few weeks.
Given that Xavier went over her head for approval and all the trouble he got her into (shitty move Xavier, really shitty), Audrey has been cut out of all information about the SEAL training. That part of the park closes for winter as the one road leading to it is far too treacherous. She is called to the park because some cameras she had set up to monitor a Native burial ground which had been looted suddenly stopped working and she’s worried the looters have returned. Audrey has no idea the SEAL training is about to start or that Xavier is there. That he handcuffs her on their first meeting since he nearly torpedoed her career does not further endear him to her.
It’s soon clear however that Audrey’s motive for being in the park is genuine and, when Xavier accompanies her to the burial grounds, he sees something alarming. It wasn’t looters earlier – someone had hidden a cache of weapons and they’d come back to retrieve them today. The SEALs who are about to HALO jump into the Lake Olympus will have only “Simunition” (basically, paintball guns) and will be expecting trainers to play the part of the “tangos”, all following agreed rules of engagement. But now there are real tangos and real guns. The SEALs will be sitting ducks without any warning. Xavier tries to call off the training but all communications have been cut off – the planned signal jamming has been started early.
It’s Audrey and Xavier against an unknown group of bad guys, hiding out in a severe storm in January in the Pacific Northwest. They have limited supplies and little help and no contact with the outside world. The other trainers have apparently been taken hostage and Xavier has to try and warn the SEALs of what they’re heading into as well as generally save the day. Audrey is an experienced hiker and camper and knows the park very well and these skills are essential to their survival too. Audrey’s ever-present hiking pack holds most of their few precious supplies.
They may also have a secret weapon: George Shaw is a Native American Tribal Elder who lives within the park. He’s also a Vietnam Vet and he knows a thing or two about IEDs. However, they don’t know if he’s gone to his family on the reservation for the winter as planned or if he’s been hurt or taken hostage by the bad guys, so they can’t count on his help.
Over the next 3 or so days, Audrey and Xavier have to devise ways to make contact with the SEAL team while dodging the bad guys and then come up with a plan to rescue the hostages and somehow extract the wounded from the park.
Given the short time frame of the story, it really helps the romance that Xavier and Audrey had previously met and had something of a history. Still, the romance is whirlwind and had me raising my eyebrows a bit. I don’t usually mind babies or pregnancy in romance/romantic suspense but this time it was not my favourite thing. I found it a little too saccharine and overpowering within the story. It served to focus the couple and their plans for the future but it didn’t stop me from thinking that it was all far too quick.
There are some other POV characters beyond Audrey and Xavier, which helps to flesh out what is happening in other areas of the park (another trainer and a SEAL) and outside of it (Jae, Undine, Luke) but which sometimes felt a little clunky.
My biggest issue with the story is something I can’t talk about. It’s revealed very late in the book and it would be too spoilery. But it has to do with the failed mission Xavier was on and his actions during it. My note after reading that part was “Oof”. I still don’t quite know how I feel about it other than that I sincerely wish it hadn’t been there at all.
In relation to Audrey, Xavier made some very bad calls (albeit for what he sincerely believed to be good reason) and I thought she let him off the hook for those things too easily. What he did was (probably) for a worthwhile higher purpose but she could have made him suffer a bit longer is all I’m saying.
I liked that Audrey contributed to their eventual success (it’s a romance after all) in ways that made sense. She was far more than a damsel in distress but she also didn’t suddenly become a ninja warrior either.
There were important (and sometimes extremely convenient) actions taken by other cast members which made critical differences in the story. I had somewhat mixed feelings about them. On the one hand, I liked that Xavier and Audrey couldn’t do it all alone. I liked where they got their help from. On the other hand, I thought the code-breaking required was just a bit too much and was mostly designed to show Audrey being clever (which I didn’t really need because I already thought she was clever).
The suspense/survival parts of the book worked best for me. They were gripping, tense and full of action. I’m not entirely sure the eventual reason for the bad guys’ behaviour held together super well – and some of their actions during the course of the book also seemed curious from time to time – but I don’t have any major quarrels with the suspense plot. It held my interest and kept me fully engaged. I raced through the book in only a couple of evenings.
I have learned that I dislike the phrase “slipped her tongue inside” when referencing kissing and unfortunately it was a phrase that appeared more than a few times in the story. This is very much a me thing however.
I’m finding this one hard to grade. Overall I enjoyed it, perhaps the suspense more than the romance which was a little too much baby and too quick for me – although I enjoyed the romance too – but that “oof” moment had an impact and not in a good way. I’m going with a B-.
I also have Into the Storm as a B-, with a similar take to yours about strengths (Audrey, the setting, the suspense/survival stuff, good secondary characters) and weaknesses (plot and bad guys may not hold up to closer scrutiny, too many POVs). I agree that his book works better if you read the prequel first.
One issue I have with Into the Storm, and this echoes Undine and Luke’s book Cold Evidence, is that in both novels a main character that did something that hurt the other badly, and Grant doesn’t fully grapple with the implications of this. In Cold Evidence, Luke points out early on that Undine’s actions when she was younger fundamentally altered the course of his life; she at least had the excuse of being young at the time, and the harm was not intentional. Xavier knew exactly what he was doing and he’s an adult – sure, there are national security issues, but it’s a massive betrayal that could have ruined Audrey’s life. As a reader, I needed more to justify her trust in him as a romantic partner rather than a “fighting bad guys” partner.
There’s a lot to like in Grant’s books: the settings are interesting, the women are smart and resourceful, there are really nice friendships, and her perspective as an archeologist makes for some cool storylines. That said, a recurring issue for me (especially here, in Covert Evidence and in Cold Evidence) is that she overcooks the suspense plot at the expense of the characters and the romance. Did this book really need the final confrontation? Could it not have been merged with the demise of another bad guy, and more space given the Audrey and Xavier’s relationship?
I know Grant going to be publishing thrillers under a different name starting next year, and I’m curious to see how that affects her romance writing.
@Rose: I didn’t know she was writing thrillers under a different name from next year. Interesting. (I’m probably not the audience for them though.)
Yes, what you said.