Full disclosure: Jill has been a regular on the blog both as a guest author and reviewer, and we are Twitter friends.
Penny and Owen met years ago during the earthquake that almost killed them. At the time, he was in prison and a member of a white supremacist gang (more on this later) and she was pregnant. There was an instant connection between them that only intensified when he ended playing a pivotal role in their rescue.
Fast forward a few years later, and Penny’s father is the first Mexican-American running for president. Owen, who since the earthquake has tried to rebuild his life and become an outstanding citizen, is working as Penny’s bodyguard (yes, suspension of disbelief plays a role here) and is pretty much in love with her, feelings she clearly returns, but that he won’t accept because of shame and insecurity. But then Owen’s brother kidnaps Penny and her son, and all bets are off.
Penny had a straightforward approach to things that I found appealing. Yes, when she was a teenager she got pregnant and the guy abandoned her, and yes, she never had another relationship until Owen, but as bad as that sounds, I never got the impression that she was traumatized or waiting for a magic penis to heal her. There’s also the fact that she comes from a rich, powerful and conservative political family, whereas Owen is the boy from the wrong side of the badlands. Needless to say, it’s great to see Latinos portrayed as something other than undocumented immigrants or drug dealers. Also, the book (superficially) deals with class issues, but the white character is the one who doesn’t feel good enough.
As much as I liked Penny, I think Owen was the heart of the story, and I really, really like what Ms. Sorenson did with him. This is a book about a hardened bodyguard who will do anything to protect the woman he loves. But if you expect the usual action hero, you’re going to be disappointed. Owen has had training, but he’s neither invincible nor infallible, and in fact, things go wrong for him a handful of times. He’s outnumbered and unable to prevent Penny’s kidnapping. He gets beaten up and his injuries hurt and weaken him. He has a hard time killing people and once he’s forced to do it, he gets sick and doesn’t handle it well. When was the last time you read a Romantic Suspense hero who felt human? That alone makes him remarkable, but he’s also sweet, sensitive, shy and awkward. He’s been in love with Penny for years, but shame and feelings of inadequacy keeps him from pursuing her. Penny wasn’t sitting around waiting for the healing penis, but Owen kind of was waiting for a magical vagina, so kudos for reversing a trope I hate.
Unfortunately, not everything is puppies and rainbows, and I had two issues with the Badlands. First, Owen was part of a white supremacist gang while in prison. It’s clear that joining the gang was a life-or-death decision for him and that he didn’t share the gang’s views, but he still joined and had swastikas tattooed all over his body (tattoos he had since gotten removed). And although both his backstory and overall characterization go to painful lengths to prove that he is not a white supremacist, his past is very close to a line I’m not willing to cross when it comes to Romance heroes.
My other issue is that I loved Penny and Owen as individuals and as a potential couple, but boy, those two had no chemistry whatsoever. Chemistry, of course, is partly in the eye of the reader, so I have a hard time articulating why the pairing wasn’t entirely successful. The closest answer I can get is that there’s little page-time devoted to their relationship and attraction, and so the romance suffers for it. So even though we have followed their story thorough two books, when it’s time for them to be the leads, the action takes away from what it could be a more satisfying romance.
Regardless of the issues, I think Ms. Sorenson is one of the best and most consistent Romantic Suspense authors, and this book (and series) is worth reading.
Love is the most dangerous territory of all . . .Badlands by Jill Sorenson
Every day, bodyguard Owen Jackson puts his life on the line — and keeps his feelings for Penny Sandoval locked away. Assigned to protect Penny's father, a presidential candidate, Owen can't get emotionally involved. That is, until Penny and her young son, Cruz, are abducted and taken deep into the California badlands.
Owen knows the bleak territory from his childhood. Worse, he knows the gang leader making ransom demands — his own brother, Shane. When a terrified Penny escapes into the desert with Cruz, Owen has to save her: from the elements and from the gang in close pursuit. Owen has hidden the darkness in his past from Penny. Now his only chance of keeping her alive is to let her see the man he really is — even if it means losing the only woman he'll ever want.
Harlequin HQN. December 31, 2013.