River of Fire, by Mary Jo Putney

>> Friday, September 22, 2006

River of Fire is one title most people never mention when talking about Mary Jo Putney's Fallen Angels series and its spin-offs. I've heard it called not really a part of the series and "the least necessary "Angels" book", for instance, and I guess that's not wrong. Unlike the other heroes, Kenneth wasn't a character who had been screaming for his own book throughout the series. Be that as it may, ROF has always been one of my favourites.


He was known as the Demon Warrior. As rebel, soldier, hero, and spy, Kenneth Wilding had never known defeat. But nothing can save his heritage when he returns from the wars to an empty title and a ravaged estate. Nothing--until a stranger offers a devil’s bargain: financial salvation in return for Kenneth’s special subversive skills. Reluctantly, Kenneth enters the household of the greatest artist in England to unmask a terrible crime. But he also discovers something infinitely more dangerous: a tantalizing new way of life and an irresistible woman. Everything he has ever wanted, and can never have.


After a scandal destroys her trust and her reputation, tempestuous Rebecca Seaton withdraws to her attic studio and buries herself in her work. Then Kenneth Wilding sweeps into her life, dazzling her senses with his pirate’s face and poet’s soul. Warily, they slide into a duel of desire that brings both searing risks and shattering fulfillment. But Kenneth’s secret mission comes between them, unleashing a danger that threatens Rebecca’s life even as a passion sweeps them into a river of fire that transforms their very souls.
A few weeks ago I read one of Putney's newer releases, A Kiss of Fate. I liked it well enough, but reading River of Fire has really brought it home to me that Putney's books used to have a certain quality to them that just isn't there any more. To bad she's not writing them like this now, but at least I can reread! ROF was an A-.

Kenneth Wilding, the new Viscount Kimball, returns home from war to find his ancestral home devastated by his late father's infatuation with his young wife. The woman was a greedy bitch (yeah, yeah, *eyes rolling* and a pretty clichéd one, too, but that's pretty much the only bad thing about this book, so don't despair), and the old Lord Kimball sold and mortgaged whatever he could get his hands on to cater to her every whim.

So when Kenneth comes back home, it's to find huge mortgages on the house and no way to pay them. But he finds a possible way out when a gentleman offers him a deal: all his debts will be cancelled if he accepts to undertake a certain investigation.

The gentleman is Lord Bowden, and what he wants Kenneth to do is to infiltrate the home of Britain's most famous painter, Lord Anthony Seaton, and investigate the death of Seaton's wife. Why does Lord Bowden care? Well, the dead woman, Helena, had once been Bowden's fiancée, but left him for his brother, who just happens to be Lord Seaton. Bowden is still somewhat obsessed with her, and believes her husband has murdered her.

Kenneth isn't too happy with his assignment and dislikes the deception involved, but the offer is irresistible. After all, he's not doing anything illegal and he won't be harming any innocents. If Bowden's suspicions are correct, a murderer will be punished. If they're not, the man's will have some peace of mind. And even if the results are inconclusive, as long as he's given the investigation his best effort, Kenneth's debts will be paid anyway. No problems at all, right?

Wrong. Kenneth easily obtains the position of Seaton's secretary and starts his inquiries. But he didn't count on coming to like the man, and much less on his growing attraction to Rebecca, his daughter. As these two become friends and then even more involved, and Rebecca helps him make his dream of seriously painting come true, Kenneth's deception weighs more and more heavily on his mind.

My love for this book is all about the characters. The mystery subplot is interesting, but it does nothing more than provide the initial setup and add an element of conflict to the romance, as Kenneth feels he has to fight his attraction for Rebecca because he knows she'll feel betrayed when she finds out why he is in her house. Heh, nothing more. What I mean is, there isn't a huge focus on Kenneth's investigation. He keeps his eyes open and tries to talk to people about Helena as much as possible, but it's not something that's particularly obtrusive during the book. Much more attention is paid to the development of the romance.

Rebecca is a very interesting character. Ever since she was ruined as a young debutante, she's been living like a hermit in her house, devoting herself to her painting. The story of her ruination gives a good idea of who this woman is: it wasn't a tragic episode in which Rebecca was the victim, or anything like that. She thought she was in love with a poet and they eloped, but halfway through the elopement, she realized the guy was an idiot, so she went back home. Anyway, ever since, she's told herself she doesn't mind being ruined because she doesn't care about society anyway, so she's been home, painting wonderful pictures no one but her family sees.

Until Kenneth arrives. I loved this guy. This is a man whose very stable, reasonable façade hides an artist tortured by his experiences in the war, most especially by the death of his lover, a young Spanish guerrilla. Rebecca sees the turmoil inside him immediately, though, and just has to paint him.

These scenes in which Kenneth poses for his portrait are probably the most wonderful parts of the book. They're tremendously sensual, and perfectly show their attitudes towards each other shift. First they go from not liking each other and not being particularly comfortable in each other's presence to being friends. And then they go from friends to lovers, in a lovely process.

One of the things I liked best was that the way Putney shows us that Kenneth and Rebecca care for each other. They each intuit what it is that the other wants more than anything in the world but is afraid to reach for, and they do their best to help. This is what happens with Kenneth showing Rebecca that it's possible for her to take her place in society, and with Rebecca showing Kenneth that he can, too, become a serious painter if he wants to (and that he can use his talent as a way to exorcize his nightmares).

And speaking of painting, I absolutely loved the peek into this world that we get through ROF. The way Putney described them, I could almost see the pictures these people painted. Actually, I wish I really could see them, especially Rebecca's. I guess some of the theory on painting might be construed as info-dumping, but it didn't feel that way to me, maybe because it was just so incredibly interesting.

You know, for some reason, this has been quite a difficult review to write. I've just read back what I've written and I don't think I've managed to really convey how much I loved this book and why. What I've written reads like the review of a very good book, not a great one. I guess that's because what made me love this one so much wasn't an objective thing, but the way it captured me and made me feel immersed in that world, and how I didn't want it to end because I wanted to be there with these people for a while longer!


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