>> Tuesday, November 25, 2014
TITLE: The Double Cross
AUTHOR: Carla Kelly
PUBLISHER: Camel Press
SETTING: 1780s New Mexico
SERIES: First in the Spanish Brand series, followed by Marco and the Devil's Bargain
The year is 1780, and Marco Mondragon is a brand inspector in the royal Spanish colony of New Mexico. A widower and rancher, Marco lives on the edge of Comancheria, the domain of the fierce Comanche.
Each autumn, he takes cattle and wool, and his district's records of livestock transactions to the governor in Santa Fe. he is dedicated, conscientious and lonely. This year, he is looking for a little dog to keep his feet warm through cold winter nights.
He finds a yellow dog but also meets a young, blue-eyed beauty named Paloma Vega. Paloma is under the thumb of relatives who might have stolen a brand belonging to Paloma's parents, dead in a Comanche raid. As a brand inspector, Marco has every right to be suspicious of brand thieves. If Marco has anything to do with it, Paloma's fortunes are about to change.
Don Marco Mondragón is a rancher and brands inspector living in 1780s New Mexico. His ranch is in what's quite literally the frontier, the remote Valle del Sol, just on the edge of the Comanchería. Marco has been on his own for many years, since his beloved wife and twin sons died of cholera while he was away on his duties. Since then, the only warmth he's had has been from his late wife's dog (not like that, you dirty-minded pervs! The dog simply sleeps on the foot of his bed and keeps his feet warm).
Now that little dog has died, leaving Marco with cold feet. He decides to get another one on his upcoming trip to Santa Fe, and as luck would have it, he sees a likely candidate in the first place he stops. That is at the house of Señor Moreno, whose daughter one of Marco's companions on the long trip to Santa Fe will be marrying within days.
The dog is the runt of a litter Paloma Vega is taking care of. Paloma is Moreno's niece, whom he took in after her whole family was killed in a Comanche raid. Well, "took her in" is a bit of an exaggeration. Paloma hasn't been treated as family, but as a servant, and a neglected one, at that. She works from dawn to dusk and is painfully thin from lack of food.
Marco is immediately attracted to Paloma, but the death of his wife has left him scared. The idea of coming to care for another woman, potentially for children as well, and having to leave for work with the fear that they might be dead when he comes back... well, that's enough to put him off. Reluctantly, he takes with him only the dog.
But thanks to some meddling, sympathetic priests, that's not the last Marco and Paloma see of each other.
This is a bit of a strange one. It's a romance (in the sense that the romance is the main focus) only in the first half. That's when Marco and Paloma meet, start developing feelings for each other and overcome adverse circumstances to get together again. But by the 50% mark, they have married, love each other and are very comfortable with the fact. They're loving their relationship (physical and otherwise) and are perfectly happy to tell each other so. There's not really anything to resolve in their relationship. I was wondering where the tension was going to come from. Well, the second half is about Paloma becoming established in Valle del Sol. There are goings on in a neighbouring ranch which force her and Marco to intervene, and as a result of that Paloma must reconsider her fear and mistrust of all Comanche people. Both plots were actually all right, it just felt a bit weird and episodic to have the book structured that way.
There is a lot to like. The setting felt really fresh. This is back when New Mexico was still Spanish, and the flavour is completely different to the sort of Westerns we're used to in romance, which take place much later. Actually, it felt more similar to what things would have been like in South America. That is especially the case with the religion, I think. All the characters here are Catholics, and religion is a big part of their lives. It doesn't cross the line into inspirational, but religion is something that's always at least in the background.
Also Kelly is doing a difficult balancing act here with her portrayal of the Comanches. At the time, for the people living here, they were the enemy. They would have been feared and hated, and people in this book do feel that way, even our protagonists. But through developments in the second half and a Comanche character who becomes very important, Kelly introduces some changes in attitude. These were borderline too modern, but mostly stayed on the right side of being believable.
What I didn't like so much was Paloma herself. She's fine at the start, but then she develops into an intensely annoying character. She doesn't put one foot wrong, ever. She's perfect, and everyone loves her. Well, every single good character. In this book, not liking Paloma is shorthand for being a shitty person. The scenes featuring her often cross the line into saccharine and twee. I think I was supposed to find such scenes adorable and sweet, but they made me go "oh, spare me!", instead. Like when Marco proposes and Paloma goes off on one because she doesn't have a dowry, and she doesn't want to dishonor such an important man. If she truly felt that way, ok, I could deal with that, but she's happy to accept his solution of her giving him her dilapidated sandals as a dowry, so it really musn't have been an issue. Yet it's clearly not a flirting, playing sort of episode, she really did seem to think the lack of dowry was a problem. So we're left with the conclusion that she's the type of person who cares about the letter of the law, but not the spirit.
Also, and this is an issue I've long had with Carla Kelly, the portrayal of pretty much every single woman of Paloma's class is horribly mean. Paloma's cousin and aunt are irrational, cruel, stupid and mean. The neighbour's daughter is a harridan. Ugh.
The second book apparently continues Paloma and Marco's story. I'm not in a hurry to read it, but I liked the world portrayed well enough that I might pick it up in the future.
MY GRADE: A C+.