Name: Kendra Carlsen
Rank: Trainer, Dept. of Covert Ops
Objective: Get out of the office and into the field
Name: Declan MacBride
Rank: Tracker, Dept. of Covert Ops
Status: Bear Shifter
Objective: Protect Kendra at all costs
The steamy Costa Rican jungle brings out the bear in Declan MacBride when he and new operative Kendra Carlsen are ambushed. In the midst of relying on each other to survive, and fighting his explosive attraction to Kendra, this shifter is about to lose control…
Yeah, I know this is about as far away from my usual reading as you can get, but dammit, somebody put me up to it. Peer pressure is a helluva thing.
Fine, I admit it, they didn’t have to do much to put me up to it. I was really curious about this book. I saw it in the library one day while I was shelving and something about it just stuck in my mind. I didn’t really intend to read it until a conversation about that sort of thing came up, and my contribution was “I think I once saw a book where there’s a special forces operative who turns into a bear and also has sex a lot.”
And the consensus was that I was destined to read it. At least that was my consensus.
This is one of those things where I know from the start that I’m not the target demographic. I’ve seen this book categorized as paranormal romance, and in a way that’s exciting to me, because I’ve never read one of those before. Sure, I’ve read a regular old romance novel now and I feel like I learned a lot from it. I suppose now it’s time to see what can be learned from a romance novel that includes people who turn into animals.
I keep phrasing it like that, but one of the first things I learned when I opened this book up is that it’s not a porny version of Animorphs. I was perhaps a little disappointed.
This is book three of the X-Ops series, and based on what I read on Amazon, it’s not necessary to read all of the books in a row, so I started with this one. For one, it’s because it’s the one I found at the library and got me so interested in the first place. For two, I like bears.
I get the impression that each book details the adventures (both in and out of bed) of a different pair of X-Ops agents. The characters from previous books are still around, and they actually get some point-of-view time, but most of the action takes place between Kendra and Declan. The point of view jumps between the two of them in a seamless way. I was surprised and impressed.
In fact, I’m just gonna come out and say it: I was surprised and impressed by the majority of this book. For what it was, it was really good.
In the world of the X-Ops series, there are people called Shifters. The exposition, of which there wasn’t much, tells us that Shifters are people who are born with some DNA that is pretty close to a certain kind of animal. In the case of Declan MacBride, it’s a bear. Not only does Declan have certain bearlike qualities all the time (he’s big and strong), he can also shift into a more bearlike form, growing claws and fangs, getting stronger, and developing superhuman senses.
Kendra, on the other hand, is a regular person. She’s about to go on her first field mission, since her job is usually filing reports. She’s been bugging her boss about trying out field ops for a good while, and he’s finally relented. She’s going to be going down to Costa Rica with Declan and his team. Declan is not happy about this.
As I got into this novel, I found that I had certain expectations for where the story was going to go. I expected Declan to be mad about Kendra’s inclusion because of some kind of “We don’t need untrained useless people in the field with us” or, at worst, “She’s a woman.” From there I expected a grudging respect to develop over the course of the book, leading to an explosive culmination of animal passion.
I wasn’t far off, but dammit, this book had a lot more complexity to it than I thought. Declan isn’t mad about Kendra because he thinks she’ll be a drag on the team. Oh, no. He’s mad because he spent a good seven years of his life pining after her while she wouldn’t give him the time of day. Now he’s finally convinced himself that he’s over her, and they’re thrown into the jungle together.
Kendra isn’t totally oblivious to this, either, but this is her opportunity to prove herself as a field agent, and she’s not going to miss it.
She also starts to see Declan as the hunky piece of man-meat that he is.
Things go wrong for the team almost immediately. They’re ambushed by some things called Hybrids, which have been encountered in the series before. Some group is trying to artificially create something akin to Shifters by inserting animal DNA into people. The results are volatile and extremely dangerous. Declan and Kendra are now on the run while the rest of the team tries to set up a rescue.
The couple start to get to know each other a little better. Kendra turns out to be a highly competent field agent. She knows how to use a gun, she’s got a decent head on her shoulders, and she doesn’t flinch in the face of danger. She’s badass, for lack of a better way of putting it. This ain’t no damsel in distress story. She sticks up for herself.
Declan, on the other hand, is apprehensive about using the full extent of his Shifter powers. It’s revealed that before he entered the DCO (Department of Covert Ops), he was engaged to a woman named Marissa. While he and she were out for a night on the town, they were jumped by some thugs. His Shifter powers took over and he dispatched them, but Marissa was seriously freaked out by this and left him. As a result, he’s kept them under tight control.
The story goes from one dangerous situation to another as Kendra and Declan grow to like each other. There are a lot of will they or won’t they moments that build the tension pretty well, but it’s clear that they will. When they finally do, it’s great.
I was expecting the love scene, which took place right around the middle of the book, to be pretty tame. I’m not sure why. I was wrong. It was explicit and detailed and whew, when it was over, I needed a cigarette. It was full-on makin’ love, not fuckin’. It took up an entire chapter.
What impressed me the most, though, is that Declan was almost ready to give it up when he realized he didn’t have any protection. That’s right, the love action was interrupted by a discussion on safe sex practices. Once they had an open discussion about the possibility of STIs (they were both recently tested) and the fact that Kendra was on birth control, they got down and dirty and it was hot as hell.
A key phrase to keep in mind here is enthusiastic consent.
After they finished, the POV jumped over to the rescue team for a chapter, then it returned and we got to watch them bone again. That’s right, two whole chapters of incredibly hot bonetown.
And to make it clear, the love scene was explicit without being porny. It was tender without being tepid. It was exciting without being adolescent.
It might have been the best sex scene I’ve ever read. I’m serious.
The couple leave their love nest in the jungle and set about trying to escape again. There’s another Hybrid attack and Declan is seriously wounded. It turns out that he, like all Shifters, can heal quickly, but in his case he basically has to go into hibernation. He does so and Kendra keeps watch. Sure enough, some Hybrids show up while he’s sleeping. Kendra takes the initiative and tries to lead them away from her helpless lover, but in the process gets captured.
When Declan wakes up, he goes into a frenzy. He finally unleashes the full extent of his Shifter powers and goes after the Hybrids, heading straight into their camp and raising a lot of hell.
This coincides with the rescue team’s effort to liberate the camp, and there’s a big old battle scene. Declan finally kills the Hybrid leader by grabbing him by the fang and twisting his neck around until it breaks.
On the way out, Declan gets distant again. It’s not totally clear why, and Kendra is heartbroken. They get back to DCO headquarters and nobody is talking about it. Finally she goes straight to his apartment and confronts him. He says he’s going to leave DCO. She asks him why. He states that when he came charging into the enemy camp, he saw the same look of horror on her face that he once saw on Marissa’s that night she left him.
Kendra assures him that the look of horror wasn’t what he thought it was. It was the horror of concern. She had attempted to save him, and now here he was in this dangerous situation because of her. He accepts this and they make love again just as the book ends.
So there you have it. This book did a lot of things right and I have to give it a ton of credit. Each of the main characters defied certain gender assumptions in ways that totally worked. Kendra was smart, tough, and situationally aware in ways you don’t often get in female protagonists. Declan, on the other hand, had real emotional depths. There was a lot of hurt there and he needed time to let it scab over a bit. He was the exact opposite of some kind of macho womanizer, despite the fact that he was a huge bear man.
Even the sex in this book was astonishingly thoughtful. Declan was careful not to let his immense size hurt Kendra while they did the deed, and Kendra admonished him for it, saying something along the lines of “I’m not made of glass, you know.” They had a frank and open communication about the safety of what they were doing, ready to stop if either of them didn’t feel comfortable. They genuinely felt for each other and weren’t using sex as a sort of distraction. There was no creepy ownership dynamic or anything like that. Holy hell, this is easily the most adult and respectful relationship I’ve ever seen in a Schlock Value review.
The sci-fi element, if you can call it that, was a little bit light. I don’t mind that. I’m glad the author didn’t try to throw in anything more than “some people have animal DNA” as an explanation. It’s a little bit goofy but I’ve seen worse.
The action that wasn’t sex was well described and cinematic. None of the fight scenes went on for too long. They were quite often quick and dirty with a lot of confusion. They worked.
If I have to complain about anything, and it’s only because you forced me to, I had to say that the fact that everybody in the DCO was super-sexy was a little bit off-putting. There’s not a single character in this book on the good guy side that’s described as anything less than stunning. Good guys are pretty, bad guys are ugly.
And furthermore, these good guys are supposed to be professionals. They do their jobs well enough when it’s time, but something inside me isn’t pleased that they’re all running around boning all the time. Two of the characters are secretly married, despite that being against the rules of the DCO. Apparently everybody but the commanders know that, so that’s a source of tension. Still, these people have got jobs to do, and maybe they shouldn’t be letting their hormones dictate which rules they do or don’t follow. Even if everybody in the organization has an amazing body and a great personality to boot.
I’m not gonna say I’m seeking out the rest of these books, at least not for review, but I certainly have to say that I misjudged this one from the start. Was it some kind of brilliant masterwork? No, of course not. But it didn’t need to be and it didn’t try to be. This was entertainment, and on that level it succeeded. It was also sexy entertainment, and by god, I have to give Paige Tyler major props for succeeding there.