Caught In Amber takes on a challenging premise and does a great job with it. The ending is a bit of a cop-out but overall I was pleased at how the author made this book enjoyable and romantic without sugar coating the serious issues it describes.
Caught in Amber is set in what appears to be a not very distant future, when an illegal and highly addictive drug called Amber has become popular. Sasha James is a parolee and recovering Amber addict. As part of her parole she has a chip in her neck that reports her movements to law enforcement and also controls her physical cravings for Amber.
Sasha is approached by Nathan Sterling, a lawman whose sister has fallen under the charms of the same man (Guy Christiansen) who got Sasha hooked on Amber. Nathan says that he can get Sasha's chip removed, an act that would make her more vulnerable to Amber but also give her freedom from her parole conditions and from being under Correction's watchful eye permanently.
Obviously there are a lot of serious issues at play here. Drug addiction is not a topic I'd think would lend itself well to romance, and this story is quite clear on the fact that Sasha is a “recovering” addict, not someone who has been cured. Even with the chip decreasing her physical addiction, she remains psychologically drawn to the drug. Helping Nathan contact his sister will mean that Sasha will be mingling with people who are using Amber, and this exposes her to temptations she's previously avoided.
The chip raises interesting questions – is it a good thing or a bad thing? How much of Sasha's sobriety is due to the chip and how much is due to her own determination? How much freedom should Sasha surrender, either involuntarily or voluntarily, to stay clean?
Then there's the issue of emotional abuse. The women with whom Guy is involved will do anything to please him. They will take the drugs he makes available, only to be banished when they show inconvenient signs of addiction. They will watch Guy take on other lovers and either tolerate or aid his criminal activities.
They seem to both adore him and fear him. Certainly Sasha is terrified of him without any reference being made to his ever having physically hurt her during the time they were dating. His dominance is so complete, and her self-esteem so low, that to actually hit her seem redundant. Guy was a compelling villain (although now I can't stop thinking of him as 'The Bad Guy' and tittering). My only nitpick is that he's described as “the drug lord” a bunch of times. In a book that shuns telling as opposed to showing, the author sure does want to tell me what Guy does for a living, over and over again.
Even though the story doesn't shy away from its tougher issues, it stays entertaining and enjoyable, not too bogged down in angst. The various schemes are exciting and suspenseful. The main characters are funny and engaging. I really rooted for Sasha and Nathan, and I appreciated the fact that their attraction to each other wasn't too overplayed. They are attracted to each other enough that their romance is compelling, but not in that sort of “She is like a Goddess! I have lost my capacity for thought” kind of way. I understood why they liked each other beyond physical appearance – they admire each other's courage, compassion, and tenacity. Nathan values Sashsa's determination and she values the respect and courtesy he extends to her and to others.
The science fiction elements are interesting because they are so underplayed. This is a story in which people live in a world that we are assumed to understand and for the most part it's a great example of showing and not telling. There are several other books by the same author set in this time period, and I don't know how much world building was done in those, but I liked the subtle futuristic touches and the lack of lengthy exposition in Caught. I don't know what year the story is set in but it's clearly in the future, and I have some sense of the world's social structures and technology just from watching people live their lives. I felt curious while reading the story, but not confused or disoriented.
My one problem with the book is that the ending seems too easy. SPOILER: After all this stuff about how agonizing it is to quit Amber, Sasha seems to need nothing more than some nice medical care and a lot of sugar after Guy forces her to take Amber again. She is weak, but not experiencing the kind of pain and suffering she describes earlier. I didn't want the character to suffer, because I liked her, but it just felt like a cop-out to have her second recovery be so relatively easy after all that build-up.
This novella is almost a full-length novel at 80,000 words. The longer length shows. There is time for characters to develop and time for a relationship to grow. The use of the phrase “Caught in Amber ” to describe addiction is a powerful one that can easily be used to describe drugs other than Amber itself. The issues are tough but the book remains enjoyable and I very much wanted Nathan and Sasha to be together because they tended to see the best in each other, something I treasure from romance couples. Initially I thought the writing style was choppy but either it improved or I got used to it, because soon all I noticed was the story moving me along. A great book despite an overly simplistic ending – I recommend it!