One of the first great category romances I ever read was Karina Bliss’s What the Librarian Did, making me a category-convert for life. Bliss’s Special Forces series was also among the best I’ve read and the first and last, Here Comes the Groom and A Prior Engagement, among the best romance I’ve read, category, or otherwise. Reading Redemption brought back their goodness and reminded me what wonderful writers some category authors were. I’m so glad Bliss kept writing and publishing romance (after the sad loss of the Superromance line) because reading her is always a pleasure.
Redemption and its “Rock Solid” predecessors have a connection to that among-the-first category I read: What the Librarian Did‘s hero, Devin Freedman, is Rise‘s and Redemption‘s hero, Zander Freedman’s younger brother, also connected by having experienced the rise and fall of their uber-successful, world-famous rock band, Rage. What was Elizabeth and Zander’s HEA in Rise continues in Redemption. While not a marriage-in-trouble romance, it is a relationship-growing-pains romance. Zander and Elizabeth are not estranged, but trying to be vulnerable, work through their fears, and love and support each other. They make mistakes and, out of self-doubt, don’t always communicate. Bliss’s blurb fills in further details:
Like every woman emphatically in love, academic Elizabeth Winston figured she’d fix her rockstar lover’s emotional problems with her shiny, all-encompassing acceptance. Oh boy. Even though she’d heard her minister father counsel couples throughout her childhood, she forgot the take-away. You can’t force someone to heal before they’re ready. Now she’s five thousand miles from the man she loves and hawking intimate details of their relationship to salvage his iconic legacy. Struggling to keep her own identity, and increasingly unsure whether Zander’s even on board. Can she redeem his reputation while holding onto her career, or is she making things worse on all fronts? And that’s before she makes a mistake that changes everything.
He gave up the world for love. The world isn’t ready to let him go. Fame is a destroyer. Which is why Zander Freedman quit music. These days its moderation in all things, except Elizabeth Winston. But building an ordinary life with an extraordinary woman isn’t easy. For one, she’s deep in the snake pit he left behind. For two, he has a stalker that stops him being by her side. Loving her is easy. Letting her love him is something he works on every day. How hard does Elizabeth’s life have to be before she regrets choosing him?
Bliss has many strengths: she’s a mighty fine writer, pithy, clear; great pacing; natural, engaging dialogue, and terrific characterization. Great romance writers understand that plot is secondary to the above: if they don’t, nothing ever comes alive for the reader, even in that most “plot-driven” of subgenres, romantic suspense (of which Redemption has a smidgen). Also, like most great romance writers, the talent is in the details. For example, reformed-bad-boy Zander has a TBR of relationship-advice books: “The half dozen books he’d bought on making a romantic relationship work weren’t teaching him the one thing he most wanted to know: How to deserve Elizabeth.” This motivates and underlies Zander throughout the romance: as a former-bad-boy, he’s not quite comfortable, or confident in his new skin as an ethical, considerate, loving, responsible man in love with a wonderful woman. He’s not tempted by his old life, he’s uncertain about acing his new one.
It makes sense what Bliss does with these two: they suffer from performance anxiety in their relationship. As Zander confesses: ” ‘What’s really freaking you out?’ ‘What if I’m successful again? I’ve finally clawed back some personal integrity. I don’t want to lose that or risk the relationships I’ve rebuilt with my family and friends … Sometimes he was still afraid she’d see something new and awful in him and change her mind.” They’re both good at what they do, sing and write, they’re terrified they’ll get something wrong and somehow lose each other. It’s a wonderful romance in that it’s not about the HEA-journey, but how to trust in its strength and endurance. Elizabeth too has her vulnerabilities, including a great scene where she has to contend with one of Zander’s former hook-ups. The real contending, however, comes later when she tells him about it. While Zander struggles to deserve Elizabeth, Elizabeth struggles with expressing anger, or hurt. As Zander often says to her, she’s a “care-taker” and her feelings are always subsumed. Those scenes where Elizabeth, because of Zander’s love and encouragement, sheds some of that good-girl constriction are marvellous.
90% of Bliss’s romance is awesome. That meh-10% has to do with the resolution to the Zander’s stalker situation. I won’t spoil it, but I will never enjoy a narrative where mental illness is held up as the reason behind violent behaviour. Too many romance authors give way to this shortcut and I’ll never like it (it matches the ending of my recent Ruth Galloway read and it is also a vulnerability for crime fiction writers). To give Bliss credit, however, she didn’t just dismiss the character with violent behaviour, she tried to endow her with a sympathetic backstory and vulnerability which made for surreal, but more human scenes. And it is part of Bliss’s great romance writing to bring her main characters to a crisis point of epic proportions, where they’re stripped of all control and, frankly, the easiest way to describe what happens to them: they’re a downright MESS. (The most memorable of this Bliss convention was the end of Here Comes the Groom and I hope you read it, it’s terrific.) But don’t forgo Redemption because of my quibble. It’s a wonderful romance about two people who navigate the joy of loving another while finding their worth to being loved by the other.
Karina Bliss’s Redemption is self-published. It was released in November 2020 and may be found at your preferred vendor. I gratefully received a copy from the author for the purpose of writing this review.