This RITA® Reader Challenge 2014 review was written by Anna Richland. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Romantic Suspense category.
Wildlife biologist Axelle Dehn isn’t about to let anyone harm her endangered snow leopards—not the poacher intent on killing them, nor the soldier who wants to use them as bait. But Axelle is unknowingly entangled in a conflict that stretches back three decades, a conflict that could spark a war between two of the world’s great nations.
British SAS soldier, Ty Dempsey, is on a mission to hunt down an infamous Russian terrorist in a remote region of Afghanistan. Dempsey hasn’t failed a mission yet, but when Axelle is kidnapped by the Russian, he is forced to choose between duty and his heart. He risks everything to save the determined, prickly woman he’s fallen for, but in doing so sparks a deadly series of events that threaten to expose the most successful spy in history. A spy who will destroy anyone who gets in his way.
And here is Anna's review:
I enthusiastically recommend The Killing Game by Toni Anderson. If you enjoy tense romantic suspense, military heroes who are old enough to retire from the military (Ty Dempsey enlisted at seventeen and has served twenty-two years = a thirty-nine year-old hero) and heroines who are passionate about their work, then skip the rest of this review and start the book now. You can be most of the way through Chapter One before you finish this review.
If you need to be convinced, then here it goes. SAS Sergeant Ty Dempsey and Dr. Axelle Dehn are an amazing couple. She’s an emotionally remote wildlife biologist (yet full of simmering passion, as a main character should be) who specializes in endangered snow leopards that live in the farthest reaches of northeastern Afghanistan. She has about fifteen layers to her, and I don’t mean the thermal underwear and coats she has to wear in the Hindu Kush Mountains.
If you read “Afghanistan” and think “oh, it’s a terrorist story, I’m done with those,” fear not! The bad guy plot goes all the way back to the 70s and 80s when the Soviets fought in Afghanistan and everyone else was operating on the ground in secret capacities. It’s a Cold War spy story that collides with modern romance! That’s not a spoiler because the spy angle is clear from the beginning. The story includes a parallel plot of flashbacks from the life of the old Russian soldier-turned-poacher. He’s a great foil for the hero.
That brings me to Ty Dempsey, a British SAS sergeant, and I regretfully have to admit that he and his teammates seem classier than some of their fictional American counterparts. He does not talk about sex all the time, and even ends up looking away with his scope when the heroine takes a quick outdoor shower. Instead of swapping tales of tail when he and his teammates are together, they talk to each other like this:
“Two Westerners? In these mountains? In the middle of the bloody night?” Baxter raised a skeptical brow. “They’re either up to no good or they’re bloody loonies.”
“And yet, here we are, in these mountains, in the middle of the bloody night,” Taz commented dryly.
“Aye, but we are up to no good,” said Baxter.
“And you’re a loony,” Cullen added.
If that’s not cute enough verbal interplay from the men, imagine them feeding bottles of yak milk to orphaned snow leopard cubs.
Yes, pause on this image: A Special Ops team with British accents, baby bottles and white- and black-spotted kitties. But not regular household kitties. Because these are awesome dudes, they cuddle deadly predator kittens.
Oh, someone who has more internet skills than moi, is there a soldier with kitten gif to add? Because we all need to see that. (Have you bought this book yet? Let me repeat: Special Forces with kittens!)
Okay, if that hasn’t done it, what about the image of our hero Ty wrestling an adult snow leopard away from the heroine Axelle rather than shoot it because it’s endangered, she’s a wildlife biologist, he’s crushing on her, she’ll be pissed if he kills the animal, so he puts his gun away and uses his bare hands and a blanket to save her from a half-tranquilized leopard? And then he cleans her cuts. Oh, so gently. So, so carefully. Believe me,I would wrestle any form of wildlife, including the laundry room spiders, if Ty showed up bearing alcohol swabs. Anyone who has taken care of their own knife-to-finger injury while swearing the same word over and over and trying not to cry, this scene is for you. It shows you don’t have to kiss to melt.
The writing is superbly flavorful. From Ty’s masculine point of view:
The terrorist they were tracking had connections that gave politicians hard-ons the size of Cleopatra’s Needle.
[FYI, that’s an Egyptian obelisk in London like a mini-Washington Monument.] And:
He saw no weapons except the basic rifle they’d taken off with yesterday and the old AK-47 which was as ubiquitous as a dick in this part of the world.
Both Axelle and Ty have slow and believable awakenings to each other. This is not a wham-bam sex fest. They are characters with complicated pasts, who respect and admire each other and have a lot of baggage to work through before they jump into bed (although they do get there). But here’s a taste of what’s simmering in Axelle:
Handsome enough if you liked sharp planes and blunt features. She didn’t. She frowned, trying to remember what she did like. He wasn’t her type at all, but he reminded her she’d once had a type, and that was a first in a long time.
Reading Toni Anderson’s descriptions of the narrow Wakhan Corridor, I was in that valley with her characters. She nailed the cold, the snow leopards, the dirt and the tents. Every detail felt authentic until I believed this story couldn’t have taken place anywhere else. The setting was completely organic, and she used the caves, avalanches, gravel scree and everything that the landscape provided, as part of her story. Her use of the location added immeasurably to The Killing Game.
The thing that breaks many otherwise good romantic suspense stories for me is the suspense plot. These villains are complex with understandable motivations and no serial killers or mustache twirlers. Perhaps I should call them a villain and an antagonist, because one of them was a cause of conflict but not irredeemably villainous. I thought the complexity of having two different villains contrast with each other (especially in flash backs) provided depth to the conflict. Nice to see the bad guys have rifts and struggles both internally and with each other, too. These guys are traitors to themselves, their countries, their families and their souls. One struggles with what he’s become and what he’s done, one doesn’t. Their complications kept me worried for the outcome.
Two things related to the suspense plot caused me to give The Killing Game a “minus” after the A rating. For some reason Ms. Anderson included a couple passages where one villain deliberately adopts mannerisms that might be construed as gay. It was odd and I didn’t see the point of including that in the story.
“Jonathon folded his hands one over the other. An effeminate gesture he’d cultivated years ago that served him well. Despite having had a wife and child, people believed he was homosexual, and he used the misconception to his advantage. Women certainly seemed to like it. Maybe it made them feel safe.”
That passage, and a few other short references to similar deliberate affectations, threw me out of the story because I was left wondering why … why was the villain doing this and why should I care? It seemed to be unnecessary and didn’t achieve anything except to puzzle me. The author didn’t use that mock homosexual behavior of the villain in any way, positive or negative, to achieve anything over the story arc. It seemed to be both odd and gratuitous, but not in a good way. Upon reflection, I wondered if there was a direction she was going to go, but didn’t, and this got left in the text.
I have only one other criticism (and please note there are zero complaints about the awesome Ty Dempsey or the heroine Axelle, who I would like to wake up and become because she’s super cool). The great big confrontation at the end feels more than rushed, way more than “WTF-just-happened?” rushed. It’s like a Sharknado™ landed on the book. SPOILER (Highlight text to read): Over the course of about three pages: after the SAS team parachutes onto a yacht and seizes control of it, a British jet blows up a Russian navy submarine in the English Channel, killing the bad guy and presumably all the Russian navy personnel. People, it could have been a nuclear sub! Maybe the navy or coast guard might have rammed the sub, but blowing up a foreign super-power military ship in peacetime is EVEN HARDER to get your chain of command’s approval for than shooting down a civilian airliner hijacked by terrorists. The former starts a war, the latter is a terrible tragedy but not an act of war.
If that spoiler happened, the result would be insanity. Contrast the way it plays out in the book with the real-life hearings on Benghazi in the US and the phone-hacking hearings in Britain. Read this book—because you must read a book where Special Forces feed kittens—and you will totally know when you get to the WTF point because you will moan noooo, that didn’t just happen. Remember the picture of President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton and dozens of other high ups sitting around a table watching the live video of the operation in Abbottabad against bin Laden? Think of that photo, and all those people in the room, and the months and years of work on the operation and still some of those advisors were telling Obama not to take the chance because of the risk of an international incident going way too far. I find it impossible to believe that even a British Prime Minister with a personal vendetta could order what happened. However, I loved Ty and Axelle and the rest of the story so much that this was not a deal-breaker, just a minus.
But wait … the WTF thing is NOT THE END. No, in the final pages, Ty and Axelle and the awesome British SAS team rescue the kittens again! All was redeemed for me.
You know you need to read this book like you need to click on kitten videos.
(By the way, there were two short but gruesome animal-related scenes, but they felt necessary to me and the good characters responded appropriately. The plot would not have carried the weight and emotional punch without it, in my opinion, but your mileage may vary.)