In our first installment, we learned about the former Soviet nation of Karistan, which has been reclaimed by its native tribes of nomadic warriors, who also recovered the coding device to several still active nuclear missile silos they’re using to hold back any advance from their neighboring enemies in Balminsk. The elderly chieftain of Karistan has recently died, leaving control of the device and his people to his granddaughter Alexandra Jordan, who had, till now, been working as a noted fashion designer in Philadelphia.
Hoping to avert a nuclear disaster, the clandestine US department OMEGA orders Agent Nate Sloan – codename: Cowboy – to infiltrate the Karistan people by bringing them the gift of a prize-winning breeder horse, Three Bars Red. While he’s doing this, Agent Maggie Sinclair – codename: Chameleon – will go undercover and join a UN nuclear exploratory committee heading into Balminsk.
Nate shows up in Karistan, being all “aw shucks” and cowboy like in his jeans and denim as he starts eying Alexandra, is eyed by her cousin Katerina, and is given a lot of vodka by the guys. In Balminsk, Maggie, the master of disguise, has nerded herself up with makeup and is instantly fed up with the UN committee leader, nuclear physicist Richard Worthingon, a gangly mama’s boy who keeps tripping on things and beating Maggie up by accident.
Back at the camp, Nate takes advantage of a quiet moment alone with Alexandra to shove her against a wall, pin her arms to her sides, and forcefully kiss her, calmly smiling and shrugging when she threatens to have him flayed should that ever happen again.
Suddenly, people start screaming!
Let’s dive into Chapters 5-8 of The Cowboy and the Cossack!
So, about those screams we left off on. It seems Three Bars Red cantered his way into the main ladies’ tent and it knocking it all over the place as he bumps and swivels through some shenanigans within. Now, before you all start imagining a Tijuana horse show involving crusty lube and an aging hooker all too eager to demonstrate her love of animals, I must stress that his actions are completely innocent. It’s his notorious sweet tooth that’s the real culprit here as he forces himself on a helpless jar of freshly gathered honey. Nate gets Three Bars Red under control and out of the tent, then helps Alexandra start sorting through the mayhem. Which, of course, includes him saying suggestive things while taking the opportunity to get his hands all over her lacy undergarments. Because that’s totally the perfect capper to a sequence that included him sexually assaulting her.
During this is a nice bit of introspection as Alexandra thinks back on her parents and the two worlds that led to her being. The chieftain grandfather of tradition and warrior strength, the economist father of modern business and logical reasoning, the mother pulled back and forth between the two until their animosity grew to the point where she said hell with it and left with her husband. I’m a little disappointing that her mother’s life was so heavily defined by the men within it, but we have to be honest and acknowledge that, while not the most progressive of situations, it is something some people honestly do find themselves in. And look at the great character that came as a result: Alexandra. She’s strong, intelligent, with ties to both old and new worlds. A few pages later, she’s pondering the life she once forged for herself and how her knowledge of traditional ways benefited her then, just as the things she knows about modern society help her now. We were all a little iffy on the idea of a fashion designer from Philadelphia becoming the leader of a nomadic tribe descended from the Cossacks, but I’m really impressed and how thoughtfully she’s been fleshed out and executed, using the fashion industry as a reflection of her diametric views, two ways of the world fused through a single expressive viewpoint.
But then we get to the next big twist. After having a meeting with the women of the tribe, Alexandra approaches Nate and tells them her people will accept the American offer of a breeding stud. But they don’t want the horse. They want Nate.
I probably should have prefaced this by saying the majority of the tribe is female, with many of the men lost in the civil wars following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and those remaining being old battle scarred vets the ladies aren’t all that interested in. So, of course, they now leap at the opportunity to fawn over Nate en masse while he has to choose whether or not it’s within his mission parameters to offer up a little seed to help this tribe repopulate with some fresh blood, all while the one lady he’s really interested in still won’t give him the time of day. Before you can say harem, the ladies are competing for the opportunity to be his prospective wife by gorging him on food and doing all manner of chores without his request, heaping up shapely amounts of cleavage while they’re at it. Surprisingly, Nate brushes most of it off, though he does have the classic “I can’t believe they actually acknowledged it” line of:
“You want to tell me how I progressed overnight from a potential rapist who had to be warned off with threats of being flayed alive to the prize in the Crackerjack box?”
Meanwhile, in Balminsk, Maggie and Richard head their UN convoy through a wooded pass. By heading the convoy, I mean they’re waaaaay far ahead because of the reckless speeding of the local driver. Realizing they passed their turn a half hour back, Maggie forces the driver to stop so she can sneak into the woods for a tinkle and to call Nate. She has a laugh over his predicament, but returns to the car to find Richard with a gun to his head. Holding the gun is Nikolas Chartoff, a local ex-Soviet general and son of the local leader, the White Wolf of Balminsk. Once documentation proves our heroes are the expected UN team, Nikolas lets up on the gun and escorts them into town.
Dammit. I was hoping for some sparks to fly in an unexpected and refreshing romance between the capable spy Maggie and charmingly befuddled scientist Richard, but no. We’ve got Nikolas. With his smoldering air of authority and dark, dashing good looks (enhanced by a scar on his chin, of course) you just know he’s the one destined to be on the receiving end of Maggie’s lingering glances. I’m holding out hope that something happens to take the story in an unexpected direction, but it’s a tiny hope. These books aren’t really known for bucking trends.
Back to Nate. Alexandra and the men of the tribe decide to take Nate out riding to put him through his paces and see what he’s made of. This means challenging he and Three Bars Red to a race weaving through narrowly spaced trees, then to see who can ride to a stream, gather water, and ride back the fastest. The natives, all horseriders to an expert degree Nate can only dream of, totally kick his ass, taking trophies in the form of ballcap and silver belt buckle, but they still applaud his effort and skill. In fact, a recurring theme throughout this section is Alexandra noticing how Nate is fitting in a bit better than she is. I know the title of the book caught many a curious eye, but Cowboys and Cossacks aren’t really all that different, both living quiet lives on the plains with their horses and hard work getting them through the day. Nate’s fitting in fine, whereas Alexandra is thinking of her life outside. No, she’s not thinking about money and comfort, but rather the way someone can feel like they’re tied into and affecting the world as a whole instead of being tucked away in an isolated corner. Which is probably the draw that led her to the nuclear coding device and the big political play she’s planning in her head.
This is where the book is at its strongest, in establishing interesting, deep characters, dropping them in a rich, thoroughly researched world, then finding ways to weave their motivations in and out of one another. Where it’s at its weakest is the espionage plot, which really hasn’t taken off yet at all (half way through the book by this point) and the forced inclusion of bodice ripping tropes. We’ve already covered the disturbingly forceful kiss. Give me a minute, and we’ll get to another eye-roller.
A sudden storm blows in and one of the tribe’s horses, startled by thunder, falls into the river. Nate follows along the shore as it’s dragged by the current until it get snagged up in a tree, albeit on on the other side of the river. Alexandra jumps the river with Nate on her heels, and she secures a rope while he climbs out on the tree, lassos the horse, and tears away branches until it’s freed. With the storm in full force, and Alexandra soaked from an accidental dip she took in the waters, they’ll have to wait before again crossing the river, so she waves her tribesmen back to the village and she, Nate, and the horses take shelter under an overhang.
Yes, this is the obligatory “we need to get out of these wet clothes” scene. Nate peels off his shirt and mud filled boots. Alexandra sheds everything but her lacy underwear (both the author and Nate are quick to note the visibility of her puckered nipples through the fabric) before she huddles under her heavy coat. So they talk a bit, clean the horses, then he decides to warm her toes up with a sensuous foot massage while he talks about how he’d rub old Wily Willie’s bruised feet after rodeos. Yes, men, talking about rubbing old men’s feet is the perfect icebreaker to set the mood on a damp wasteland night.
As his fingers move from her feet to her calves, talk turns to questions of why Nate never married, then they talk some more about his assault of her and she teases him a bit with talk of how her peoples’ whips cut through skin. And that’s when it happens: Nate gets a boner. Literally, his penis pops to attention, causing Alexandra to finally pull away and Nate to awkwardly cross his legs as he starts fuming to himself about how he’s losing focus on the mission.
I’m still mostly enjoying this book. I like the characters, I like the prose, I like the bits of world-building and history that come into play. There is still that troubling assault, but it’s acknowledged here, with Nate flat out stating what his actions looked to be, and getting into his head of him finding the self justification needed to achieve the missions goals. It doesn’t defend his actions, nor find a way to make them right, but it does admit they’re part of the ethical grey zone of espionage. More troubling is why Alexandra never did anything about it, but it’s the one flaw in her otherwise strong and compelling character.
I’m really quite eager to check out Part 3. I promise it won’t be delayed as long as this one was.