Agatha Christie, Joan Collins and Bauhaus. Oh and SEX.

Shadow Lover - Anne Stuart
They lived in shadows, the two of them, with secrets and lies surrounding them. But what lay between them was real. And that was all that mattered.

I remember very little from reading Anne Stuart's Ice series. I remember the gamma heroes, the formulaic plot progression and not being overly thrilled with either. I remember those books being widely shelved as Romantic-Suspense when it felt this side of anemic on both aspects for me.

Okay, maybe I remember more than a little but I definitely don't remember it being as much fun and sexy (good Lord was it sexy!) as Shadow Lover.

Carolyn Smith has always considered the MacDowells her own blood. Despite being seen as nothing more than a dignified servant, she has remained faithful and loyal to its members. Especially the matriarch of the moneyed and illustrious family, Sally MacDowell whose health has been rapidly deteriorating. Her looming death and the large inheritance has brought to the doorsteps of their Vermont mansion a man who claims to be Alexander MacDowell, Sally's only son who disappeared and has been presumed dead for the last 18 years and more importantly, the sole heir to the MacDowell fortune.

Carolyn is certain he's an impostor, carrying the secret baggage of being the sole witness to the real Alex MacDowell getting shot to death on the night he ran away from home. Yet this man bears a striking resemblance to the irascible, beautiful and troubled boy who tortured her throughout their shared childhood. This man bears scars and knows secrets only she and Alex are aware of. And this man stirs something in her that she has long buried, emotions meant to be unreturned.

But if he is the real Alex MacDowell, who tried to kill him that night so many years ago? And why isn't he dead? 

At first glance, the premise of Shadow Lover comes across this side of predictable with huge hokeyness potential. In truth it comes across as the bastard child of an Agatha Christie novel and a Joan Collins-starrer soap opera, if that child wears a lot of black, heavy eyeliner and listens to Bauhaus. If that doesn’t pique your interest you just might be dead, please consult your doctor. 

The mystery was deceptively simplistic. The question of whether the man claiming to be Alex is the actual Alexander MacDowell gets answered quite early in the book which of course leads one to expect a more intricately fashioned layers of deceptions, lies and counter-lies. Don’t worry this book delivers on so many levels deeper than that aspect. I have a nasty habit of guessing ahead where the story will go and how it will get there and while I’ve had some success in the maze Anne Stuart created here, I’m not ashamed to admit the plot twist of the plot twist of the plot twist still managed to surprise me. I liked how the reveals were peeled off gradually, a striptease of WTFery that was never irritating or gimmicky. It all felt streamlined smoothly into the tension surrounding each of the characters which adds to their appeal individually and as a couple.

And that’s a huge incentive for an atmospheric, goth romantic-suspense. I liked that the hero and the heroine have a shared childhood history. The backstory of thirteen year-old Carolyn’s simultaneous hatred and inexplicable crush on seventeen year-old Alex, her rebellious tormentor, is something I have a great weakness for. It made for great banter and intense sexual energy between them whenever they were together and its been a while since I’ve seen such intense chemistry in this genre.

”I remember coming up to your room. I was half-tempted to take you with me, you know,” he added. You were very tasty back then, and you did adore me so. Teenage boys need to be adored.”

“Teenage boys need to be beaten,” she said.

While the chemistry between Alex and Carolyn was undeniably flammable, they were likeable independent of each other. Enough for me to care that they end up together in the end. Carolyn could have easily devolved into a sentimental doe-eyed girl who argues half-heartedly with Alex while imagining him naked. She didn’t. She’s the person Alex needs most to convince of his identity and I find her rigid loyalty to a family who only cares for her superficially, bittersweet and heart-rending but also admirable. Alex is not a stereotypical hero. He’s neither an alpha, beta or a gamma. He just is. He doesn’t turn into a steaming pile of lovelier mush after sex. He’s smart in a very utilitarian sense complemented by a sometimes abrasive and acerbic wit with a habit for sexual innuendoes that has the right blend of… I dunno, tempered randiness. 

The MacDowells hold some insane family secrets that fit quite well with the underlying sinister feel of the book as a whole. Let’s just say they’d totally be great neighbours to the Lannisters, the Barratheons and the Tullys.

I liked how very unpredictable the scenes were and the reactions from each character on each plot twist were uncanny and non-stereotypical. Attempted murder with an intentional food allergen challenge test? 

Can I just commend Anne Stuart for writing one of the most intensely hot sex scene I’ve read in a while? I mean, I know I’ve been reading one too many YAs lately but once upon a time I read my share of books with crazy sex scenes involving vegetable play and what-not. This was… different. And I’m not even talking about poetic narrative with frou-frou descriptions of emotions and the universe and destiny and whatever. No, fellow pervs, this was carnal and graphic. You could only read about sex so many different ways before it gets derivative and boring. This was very good in being creative without crossing ridiculous.

Unfortunately some of Shadow Lover weak spots were in the archaic stereotypes it chose to adhere. Everybody is beautiful, of course. And conversely, the heroine is clueless as to how attractive she is. Of course. The reminder that Alex has “Cossack eyes” was too often to ignore among other repetitive observations peppered with limited and redundant adjectives. I liked how this managed to avoid being dated by not incorporating much technology in the storyline but combined with these old-fashioned details this could’ve as easily been a book from the 80s. And I’m not sure if that was the author’s intention. I would’ve liked some more dialogue from Alex and Carolyn’s pasts as their banter as adults were quite entertaining to witness, but again that maybe the YA-reader in me talking.

Shadow Lover may be handicapped by a deceptively throwaway, generic title, an often rehashed story and some old-fashioned romance novel pitfalls. But it's making me reconsider the rest of Anne Stuart’s backlist so it must have done a couple of somethings right.

ARC provided by BellBridge Books thru Netgalley in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.