When I first started to read romance again, after a thirty-year hiatus (ah, the “lost years”), one of the first romances I read was J. R. Ward’s Lover Eternal (2006), a romance novel I thought at once execrable and utterly compelling. Really, I couldn’t put it down, even though I was embarrassed for enjoying it and yet thinking how laughably bad it was. I can’t say I experienced the same reader self-hatred reading the first of Ward’s new non-vampiric “Firefighters” series, Consumed. Maybe it was the first flush of allowing myself to read romance again, but I’d gained some distance from Consumed in a way I hadn’t with Lover Eternal, though I read it with the same enthusiasm and rueful self-doubt. I can now recognize what makes Ward compelling: there’s a hyperbolic physicality to her characters, a gritty underbelly feel to her setting, and a rawness to it all that makes for a powerful formula. There’s NOTHING small-town cutsie or gentle about Ward’s world and she’s pretty fearless about writing her characters’ edginess. I liked that about her and I liked Consumed, though, at times, it bugged the heck out of me.
Ward’s hero and heroine are firefighters, sharing camaraderie and danger and as the novel opens, one unforgettable night of love-making. They’re on their way to a fire, one that will change their lives irrevocably. Ward’s hero, Danny Maguire, is ripped, every movement rippling muscles and always described with clothes that barely contain his body. Ward’s comic-book-hero proportions for her heroes distinguishes: it’s a deliberate trope for her. She does no less for her heroine: Anne Ashburn is strong, capable, smart … and, at the end of that fire, thanks to a recklessness that matches Danny’s, disabled, ending career and what was, at best, a fragile, new-found possibility of a relationship with Danny. To complicate matters further, Danny is implicated in her injury and injured by her carelessness.
In the months that follow, Danny and Anne lick wounds and make a slow way to recovery. Of the two, Anne emerges stronger, physically making her disability no more an impediment to her life than her gender was to her previous profession. She takes a job as an arson investigator and is soon embroiled in revealing corruption in one of the vilest, creepiest villains I’ve encountered in a romantic suspense novel. Danny, on the other hand, is haunted by loss. His twin brother, also a firefighter, died in a fire gone badly, as did a friend, and the loss and guilt mixed up with his love for Anne have left him with one beer too many and a chip on his shoulder a mile-wide. He’s insubordinate, snarly, brooding, and on a path of sure self-destruction. Until Anne returns to his life … his hotheadedness remains, but suddenly, he’s got a reason to live, making sure Anne isn’t hurt, helping and supporting her. It’s easy to peg Danny an “alpha”. He’s not diffident about telling Anne, in no uncertain terms, he’s going to protect her. However, there’s such a strength and smarts to Anne, and such respect for her on Danny’s part, that I thought Ward navigated this line well.
I liked Danny and Anne together: their demons subside and we’re left with two tormented souls expressing tenderness and devotion. I also liked Danny and Anne apart: their apart demons come to the foreground and Ward handled them with insight. Anne’s coming-to-terms with her disability is as important as forging a relationship with a loving mother she never respected, a brother she keeps at arms-length, and opening a heart that she’s shut off from love. Danny, in turn, makes being in love with Anne the reason he makes his way to dealing with PTSD, grief, survivor’s guilt, and anger.
Where does Ward fail? Honestly, she has some writing quirks I disliked, metaphors that don’t quite work, awkward turns of phrase, a lack of elegance. But her pacing clips along and the rawness of her characters’ lives, setting, and emotions is more like a clanging bell than a pretty tinkle. I didn’t always love it, but I couldn’t look away either. She messes up Danny and Anne’s dark moment, when their relationship experiences a seemingly terrible rift. Given how she’s bonded Danny and Anne to that point, what breaks them up is puerile and not in keeping with their personalities. The mystery is left hanging, but maybe it’ll be resolved in a following book? Nevertheless, so much is healed and we leave Danny and Anne in such a good place that I was forgiving of the latter elements. Ugh, I hate to say it, but I’ll probably be back for book #2. With Miss Austen, we say Ward’s Consumed offers “real comfort,” Emma.
J. R. Ward’s Consumed is published by Gallery Books. It was released on October 9th and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-galley from Gallery Books, via Netgalley.