Hi, I’m Noel. Some of you already know me as the one who sends Dayna into grossed-out spittakes and who stapled himself to Kevin’s coattails so as to better ride them. The latter is why we’re here today as I set out to further my goal in copying everything he does by temporarily taking the reins of this site and sitting down to read my very first – and, hopefully, very bad – romance novel.
Well, that’s not entirely true. My very first, and most definitely bad (note the lack of very), was the Twilight saga (yes, I’ve read all four), but that’s a discussion for another day. For now, I’m here to suffer for your pleasure through a novel entitled The Cowboy and the Cossack.
Getting some initial predictions out of the way, I bet we can all guess where the Cowboy aspect will go. He’ll be a dashing dude in boots and a wide-brimmed hat who squints and talks in a very clipped, tight-lipped manner and smolders at the woman when she brings some brightness to his dusty life. As for the Cossack, I haven’t got a clue. Like most of my fellow Yanks, when I hear the word Cossack, the first thing that springs to mind is this:
I can do without the swords, but if I don’t get some spinning leaps and squat kicks during a sex scene, I’ll be sorely disappointed.
The cover clearly establishes the male Cowboy, with his jeans, boots, and saddled horse, but I’m trying to figure out how a very bare female leg, complete with anklet chain, that looks like it just walked off the Santa Cruz Boardwalk evokes a Cossack. I doubt it, but maybe there’s a cultural tie to the way he’s feeling up her thigh.
There’s a synopsis on the back, but why spoil the fun. Let’s dive right in!
In the fictional former Soviet nation of Karistan (no relation to the rugs), two shadowy figures huddle close together in a tent. Before you start having your dirty thoughts, one is a dying old man who fought with and led his people to reclaim their tribal land on the windswept steppes following the collapse of the USSR. The other is his granddaughter, Alexandra, summoned from her modern home in Philadelphia. She is now the last of the chieftain bloodline and her grandfather passes on leadership of the tribe to her. Along with an ancient saddle bit and a mysterious high-tech black box.
So far, so good. It’s compelling and sweeps me up in Alex’s dilemma while filling me with enough questions to keep me turning the page. And the prose isn’t all that bad, with fine passages like:
The golden eyes glazed, then rolled back in their sockets. Alex sat back on her heels, ignoring the ache in her fingers from his agonizing hold, unmindful of the fact that she hadn’t eaten or slept in two days of hard traveling to reach his side. She wanted to scream at him not to leave her, not to desert these people who needed him so desperately. She wanted to run out of the smothering black tent and fly back to Philadelphia, to her own world and all that was familiar. But she did none of these things. With the stoicism he himself had taught her, Alexandra watched her grandfather die.
It nicely captures the conflicts in a person’s mind as someone she’s just reconnected with is yanked away from her forever, casting her into a situation that forces her to completely alter everything she might have expected her future to be.
Can it be that this book isn’t actually bad?
In the embassy district of Washington, DC, a normal looking townhouse hides the secret headquarters of OMEGA, a top secret task force brought in “when other, more established organizations such as the CIA, the FBI, the State Department or the military couldn’t respond for legal or political reasons.” Yes, because we know the CIA always cares about politics and legality, especially when it comes to things like our current plot.
Despite the nuclear disarmament of the past, the Soviets never got around to completely dismantling their nukes before their collapse, leaving several primed missile silos in outskirt regions, like, for example, the open plains of Karistan. A UN inspection found that the arming devices for several of the missiles has gone missing and, gee, I wonder what that little high tech box was that Alexandra inherited from her grandfather. Anyway, the US is worried about the ancient feud between Karistan and their neighboring country, Balminsk, so two of the top OMEGA agents have been summoned.
Sprawled with his usual loose-limbed ease in a wingback chair, Nate Sloan shrugged. “Never heard of the place, unless it’s where those fancy rugs come from. You know, the thick, fuzzy kind you can’t even walk across without getting your spurs all tangled up in.”
And we have our cowboy! Seriously, my prediction wasn’t far off as he’s a blond, tanned, drawling dude in boots, jeans, and a denim coat who owns a small ranch north of Cheyenne and constantly recites words of wisdom he learned from ol’ Wily Willie. The only departure from my checklist is that, instead of a cowboy hat, he wears a Denver Broncos ballcap. But his code name seriously is Cowboy.
The other agent is named Chameleon. Really Maggie Sinclair, she’s an expert linguist and master of disguise, traits that allow her to easily blend into native populations. And it’s good she has those skills because “her technical knowledge of nuclear missiles was limited to the fact that they were long and pointy. She’d be the first to admit she didn’t know plutonium from Pluto.” It’s comforting to know that a task force that outranks the CIA and FBI doesn’t give all of its agents training in nuclear weaponry.
We learn a bit more about Alexandra, last name now revealed to be Jordan. Her mother was the daughter of the chief, her father an American economist with World Bank. The two met while the woman studied at a city college and they ran away to America together, which didn’t sit well with the old chief, who almost blew his son-in-law’s head off at one point. We hear nothing more about her parents, so I don’t know if they’re dead or not. I’m presuming the mother is, otherwise she would have showed up in the prologue.
Oh, and Alexandra is also a world-famous fashion designer, specializing in native horsetail belts, which Maggie geek flails about as she stands up and shows off one of the belts, which she happens to be wearing. It’s a silly scene, but it follows an equally ridiculous bit where Nate hops up with a “Whooo-eee!” when he learns the government wants to appeal to the Karistanians through the gift of a world-famous breeding horse that Nate is a total fanboy of.
Our agents head off to prep and pull a team together. Nate will escort the horse, Three Bars Red, to Alexandra’s tribal village and oversee negotiations. Maggie will head into neighboring Balminsk, which has her bummed because she doesn’t get to meet her favorite designer.
So there you have it, the setup of our story. It’s… interesting. From the cover, I never would have expected the international intrigue, the trading of a top breeding racehorse, nor the potential of nuclear war, but I kinda dig it. It’s silly, but Lovelace appropriately plays it a bit tongue-in-cheek.
What’s most refreshing is that I totally feared the presence of Maggie would drop us in a love triangle, but not only is she not in a relationship with Nate, there’s absolutely no sign of any romantic tension there. At all. Sure, he gives her a few winks and calls her sweetheart, but in a way that lets you know that’s how he treats all the ladies. She mostly ignores it, but does find it annoying and calls it out as outdated, even perfectly describing him as a Malboro Man. So, yeah, it totally gets points for not instantly dropping into swoons as it introduces our male lead as a pretty normal, realistically flawed dude. And we get a little past in that Maggie went through a failed marriage before becoming an agent, and Nate once fell in love with an Irish operative who died when a mission went bad.
During their flight to Karistan, Nate bonds with Three Bars Red, who has a notorious sweet tooth and will dig into anything he feels might be hiding a candy bar.
“Just make sure you don’t set them down within sniffing distance [...] or you’ll have twelve hundred pounds of horseflesh in your lap, trying to get to them.”
Please, please tell me the horse doesn’t form part of a love triangle.
The guide grunted at about the same moment the powerful muscles in Red’s shoulders rippled under Nate’s thighs.
He never flinched, never skittered off course. His massive hindquarters bunching, he leaned into the breast harness with every ounce of power he possessed.
Note to romance authors: it might not be the best idea to describe interactions with animals the same way you would a love scene.
These awkward bits aside, there is some great descriptive text in this section as Nate and Three Bars Red meet up with a guide and take in the scenic plains and mountainscapes of Karistan, which Nate finds very reminiscent of Wyoming. When he sees a stray steer heading for a cliff, Nate rides into action, taking the bull down with some fancy lasso work. He’s rewarded for his efforts with a rifle to his head. Held by none other than our Cossack: Alexandra Jordan.
“You’re very close to learning how to dance, Cossack-style. If this steer has been lamed, you might yet!”
Make her day, punk. There’s very little sexualizing of her character as she’s covered in baggy native gear with a rifle and bandolier. It’s a little odd, given how they’ve gone out of their way to set her up as a fashion designer from Philadelphia, but I like how she’s presented as strong, sharp, capable, and respected as a leader among her people. The one and only bit of cheesecake comes from Nate constantly checking out her ass every time the wind blows her baggy garments against her skin. But while he’s instantly drawn to the woman, she’s instantly sick of his macho drawl and thick headedness. The steer that was about to go over the cliff? Actually headed for an incline leading down to a watering hole, which we see it and the rest of the herd walk with ease.
So we’ve got our Cowboy and our Cossack, and both are finally together as they head toward her village Accompanied by an erotically described race horse.
I didn’t mention Adam Ridgeway back in Chapter 1. He’s the director of OMEGA who briefed the agents on their mission. There wasn’t much more too him at that point, but here, when Maggie swings by the office again before taking off for Balminsk, she catches sight of him in a suit, all polished up for an ambassador’s diner, and her heart skips a beat. Yep, Maggie’s got the hots for her boss and, at the end of the scene, it’s suggested he’s got a thing for her, too.
However, that’s not what the scene is about. Before heading out, Maggie’s been struggling to find a babysitter. No, she isn’t a single mom with a child for one of our character to “shockingly” be revealed as the father of. She has a German shepherd-size iguana named Terence.
Let me say this again: A German shepherd-sized. Iguana. Named Terence. Who likes to “blow kisses” with his yard-long tongue and shove his head up ladies’ skirts. Looking it up, yes, there are Iguanas that can get that big. Mostly in tropical regions and the book does point out that she smuggled Terence into the country after she came across him on a mission.
With Terence in the hands of a co-worker who owed her after she watched his twins (the book goes out of its way to mention how much the 32-year-old agent would still love to have bunches of her own children one day), she heads to the airport all nerded up – bushy brows, blemished skin, Coke-bottle glasses – as a geologist accompanying a UN survey mission of the nuclear missile silos. She’s suddenly attacked, knocked to the ground with a knee to her stomach and “a rather sensitive area of her female anatomy.”
It’s not an assassin. It’s nuclear physicist Richard Worthington, the head of the team. Don’t go forming any pictures in your mind of a dashing professor type. No, Dr. Worthington is a dork in the classic sense: a socially and physically awkward young man stumbling all over his gangly limbs and stuck in the shadow of a battle axe mother who pushed bearing way being the point of over after her little child prodigy was kidnapped at age six, which resulted in the loss of a pinkie tip. His violent introduction to Maggie was him tripping yet again on whatever’s in the immediate era, which is followed by a shrieking, soprano assault of “I’m sorry! Are you okay! I’m sorry!”
My prediction: love is in the air between the undercover agent and the man experienced in science, but not in life. You can tell this by the several points where she considers killing him and he talks about his mother and how itchy a beard can get.
Alexandra leads Nate into the camp village. Three Bars Red is secured and Nate is given a tent where he’s bunking with Petr Borodin, a bearded, one-armed old military vet with a chest covered in medals. Nicknamed Peter the Great by Nate, he’s assigned to tail the American and make sure the dude doesn’t wander around or outside the camp. Oh, and he has Vodka.
The other character we meet is Katerina, Alexandra’s voluptuous cousin who takes an instant liking to Nate and makes several attempts to lure him away so as to ride him like a certain prize-winning breeding horse we’ve met. Alexandra keeps breaking the two up and takes Nate aside to fill him in on what would be considered improper conduct among her people.
Taking advantage of their momentary privacy, Nate presses Alexandra against a wall, pins her arms to her side, and forcefully starts to kiss her.
And that, friends, is where the book turned on me. Up until this point, I was feeling guilty for making this the subject of such a blog, because it certainly wasn’t bad. The setup was unique, the characters distinct and memorable, the writing itself pretty good with a nice tongue-in-cheek dash of wit to push through the sillier aspects.
But then this happened.
I have two massive issues with this scene. Let’s start with the lesser. I buy that Nate is a spy and he sometimes has to do unethical things in the name of his job, but this is not one of those times. The mission is to find the box with the arming codes and the first thing he should be trying to do is win the favor of the local political leader so she’ll want to help, want to do something that, while lessening her international leverage, will guarantee that no nukes go off. By forcing himself on her just a few hours after they met, he’s essentially taken his mission and shot it in the testicle.
The second massive issue is that Alexandra goes with it. You’d expect her to say “no”, fight back, whip out the knife we see a couple of scenes later, call her villagers to drag this dudebro out into the desert and execute him where his bones will never be found, but no. She doesn’t add anything on her end, but nor does she fight him off, and when he finally lets her go, she just tells him never to do that again, then takes a stroll with him as he talks about his old mentor, Wily Willie.
No, it’s not the almost-rape from The Virile Viking which sent Kevin over the edge, but I hear this kind of “bodice ripping sensual thrill” runs rampant through the romance genre, where a forced, non-consensual act is ultimately okay as long as it feels good while it’s happening. And that’s exactly what’s going through Alexandra’s head when it happens. She had no physical interest in this man before the action, but her loins are all aflutter now that it’s been done.
What’s most disappointing is that Alexandra had been quite an awesome character to this point. She’s skilled with a knife and a rifle, an excellent rider, and perfectly at home in this native village where she’s the firm and respected leader. And they didn’t fully butch her up as she’s still wearing tailored clothes from her fashion designer past, albeit ones that are impressively practical given the climate. But according to this book, all a strong woman in power needs is to be put in her place by someone who doesn’t respect her authority. That she’ll not only go with it, but she’ll actively desire a man rescuing her from an alpha position.
I might be getting a little ahead of myself as we still need to see where the story ultimately goes, but this was a pretty lousy note to end our first installment on.
Oh, wait. The cliffhanger. There’s a scream in the village that everyone runs towards. End of chapter.
So that wraps up part one of The Cowboy and the Cossack. It was a surprising amount of fun to begin with, and I am intrigued to see where it goes, but it just couldn’t rescue itself from that damn genre cliché that cut it down at the knees just after it bought itself so much good will.
And, no, that’s not a sigh of unbridled passion. It’s a sigh of fully bridled passion. Seriously, I’m wearing a saddle. Someone ride me like there’s no tomorrow and feel the powerful muscles in my shoulders rippling under your thighs.
No takers? Damn. Well, it worked for Three Bars Red.