A couple of nights ago, I had an unfortunate encounter with an espresso. The espresso was delicious; its consumption, way too close to bed-time. Oh, happy sleepless night, however, I had a great encounter with a romance novel. A heck of a book hangover the next day, but delicious in being able to read Susan Cliff’s Navy SEAL Rescue in its entirety. I cut my romance-reading teeth on romantic suspense and this year I’ve had the privilege of reading two great practitioners: Anne Calhoun and now, Cliff. Like Calhoun, the suspense was tense and interesting; the background didn’t pander to chest-thumping American patriotism; the main characters shared a hot, tender relationship; as individuals, they were neither idealized, nor caricatured. Hero and heroine managed to be flawed and yet sympathetic. Cliff’s novel opens when the heroine, Layah Anwar Al-Farah, rescues Da-esh (Islamic Front) captured SEAL, Petty Officer William Hudson. While saving the American SEAL from beatings, starvation, and eventual death is an act of mercy, Layah, in fact, has other plans for him. She will ensure that he heal and regain strength in order to help her and a group of refugees cross the Zagros Mountains into American-allied Turkey, and eventually, at least for Layah and her orphaned nephew, Ashur, into Armenia and her parents’ safe arms. Well, the best laid plans of mice, men, and beautiful Assyrian doctors often go astray …
I loved Cliff’s Navy SEAL Rescue for three reasons, all of which make her romantic suspense stand out from the he-man HOOHA patriot-heroes and TSTL heroines that the subgenre is peppered with: the protagonists possessed interesting personalities; Cliff did some research on the complex politics of the region that don’t always show American involvement in a good light; and William, Layah, and the refugees’ journey kept me on the edge of my bed (because sleep was ne’er to be had, not till the last page was Kindle-tapped).
William and Layah were the heart of the novel and kept my sympathy and attention. I appreciated that William’s soldiering was borne of his risk-loving, daredevil youthful ways. As William says about his younger self: “He’d wanted to chase tornadoes and climb mountains and touch the sky.” And he ensured that grey hair sprouted from his mother’s scalp daily. Joining the military, honing body and regulating his impulses not only rendered him an elite soldier, it matured and tempered him – until one reckless mistake saw him captured. While William doesn’t agonize over this, he does consider, regret, and hope to learn from his actions. He’s not driven by nationalism, but loyalty, as he says, to “his country and his team.” In a way, Layah is as well. As a doctor in Damascus, she saw enough of what war can do. As a woman who loved her rebel-soldier husband, she’s known grief and loss. As a minority Assyrian Christian, she wants nothing but a place of peace and security for her war-orphaned nephew and herself. William’s SEAL training and mountain-climbing skills are going to ensure that she reaches that place. What neither count on, in their mutually-convenient bargain, is the inconvenience of falling in love.
Through Layah and William’s wary initial encounters, Cliff builds a romance that doesn’t assume that the reader can’t understand the complex political situation in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, disputed Kurdistan, politically wily Turkey, and minorities caught in geopolitics, such as Layah’s people or the Yazidis they travel with. Here is one particular William-Layah exchange I valued:
“This country,” he muttered.
“What about it?”
“It’s a goddamned mess, that’s what.”
“Yes, it is. We live in rubble left by the US intervention.”
He made a sound of skepticism. “Your wars go back centuries, before the US was even founded.”
“Before your ancestors stole land from the natives, you mean?”
That’s a burn, Billy-boy!
In the course of their pulse-pounding journey (with a knuckle-biting stop in Iran), Layah and William gain respect, liking, and mutual understanding for each other. They evolve from seeing each other as means to an end, as expedient, to a seeing the other as desirable, worthy, lovable, and not the one-dimensional American and/or Arab. My one moue of disapproval was minor: there’s a lot of lusting in circumstances one would think were not lust-inducing. But there are also wonderful moments of “we’re alive!”, let’s seize life with “a snowflake-melting, life-affirming, toe-curling kiss.” The betrayals are superbly believable and the HEA darn satisfying. Whether you’re going to stay up till the wee hours like I did, or like a reasonable person, take this in at your leisure, I would urge you to read Cliff’s humble category if you read only one romantic suspense novel this year. Of course, you MUST also read Calhoun’s Turn Me Loose …
With Miss Austen, I would say that I’ve found a new romantic suspense writer to follow and anticipate and deem Navy SEAL Rescue “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Susan Cliff’s Navy SEAL Rescue is published by Harlequin Books. It was released on April 3rd and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-ARC from Harlequin Books, via Netgalley.