Runaway Brides, Book 1
Heat Factor: This burn is slow, but once it gets going, we’ve got a full-on conflagration
Character Chemistry: Extremely stoic men are hard to develop chemistry with, but our heroine manages it
Plot: Woman runs west to find herself, finds true love in the process
Overall: Based on the first chapter, I thought I would hate this book, but I ended up really enjoying it
In a recent review, I lamented my inability to find authors writing good Westerns right now. Luckily for me, a friend lent me this book by Amy Sandas, so I can say: I found one!
Malcolm is a pretty standard extreme stoic Wild West hero. He’s on the trail of a bad bad man – but it’s personal. He has spent the last eight years of his life seeking vengeance (or justice?) for the death of his brother (with a side hustle in bounty hunting, naturally), and is therefore a loner who fully expects to die violently in the not too far off future. Having lived so long on the fringes of society, doing nothing but courting revenge and killing bad guys, he believes he’s no longer suitable to settle down, and until Alexandra shows up, had forgotten that he once wanted to. He is stoic all the way down, so the reader gets way less insight into his mind than we do for the heroine (more on her in a second), but… it works. We get just enough that we can see the way his opinion of the heroine evolves, from annoyance to grudging respect to full-on respect and desire.
He also has a standard arc. He wants to be left alone, and refuses to help Alexandra when she first walks into a saloon asking for an escort. But then she really gets stuck in a tight spot, and he’s her only option, so he reluctantly agrees to escort her to Montana. On the way, they run into some bad guys, and through their various adventures the pair find true love.
What makes this book really work for me is Alexandra. If Malcolm is a standard hero, Alex is not quite the standard heroine. Now, the book starts off with the classic Western trope of naive eastern city girl out of her depth in the Wild Wild West. And really, Alex’s reasons for running off to Montana from her cushy life in Boston seem ridiculous – she gets engaged, feels smothered, and decides she needs to find herself by revisiting her childhood one last time. She does the thing where she shows up in a saloon wearing fancy traveling clothes and gets robbed, etc. Insert extreme eye rolling here.
However, Alex is not fully the eastern Miss she first appears to be. She didn’t just grow up in Montana, she grew up roughing it in Montana with her father and no one else, so she has all kinds of skills (you know… hunting skills, sharpshooting skills, herbal remedy skills…). What really works, though, is that Sandas reveals the extent of Alex’s abilities slowly, as they become necessary for her continued survival. In addition, as Alex allows more of her western self to resurface, she becomes increasingly desirable – and one way that Sandas tracks that is through Malcolm noting the way Alex smells.
I may have noticed the evolution of Alex’s scent because I read a recent piece by Kate Clayborn about smells in romance novels shortly before I picked up The Gunslinger’s Vow. While the piece is mainly focused on what it means to “smell like MAN” (if you’re interested in what MAN smells like, the Male Scent Catalogue is pretty amazeballs), she does touch on traditionally feminine smells as well. Clayborn writes:
“We can contrast this with the scents we often find for women characters. There’s no escaping the outdoors, but women are less likely to be linked to trees than they are to the smaller, more delicate specimens out there: flowers or gentle herbs. As frequent as alcohol is in describing heroes, it is damned rare in describing heroines, who are more likely to be linked to food, but only certain kinds of food: strawberries or other fruits, cake or other baked goods. If men seem to be repeatedly linked to strength and work and wealth, women seem to be linked, again and again, to delicacy and ornamentation and comfort and nourishment.”
Alex starts off smelling like honeysuckle – a nice, delicate floral scent that goes with her East Coast Society persona. But then, there’s a scene where she and Malcolm eat dinner together, and she drinks some whiskey with him to toast his agreement to taking her on to Montana, and Malcolm specifically notes the smell of whiskey on her breath – and finds it attractive. Later, after she has proven her competence more completely, she smells “earthy and fresh,” and Malcolm’s desire increases even more. Alex doesn’t smell delicate and ornamental and nourishing; she smells like nature and strength and competence, and I found this whole dynamic sooooooo refreshing.
Alex’s journey is not just about returning to her childhood home and asserting her competence and becoming more attractive to the hero. On a deeper level, it is about facing the traumatic experience that exiled her from the West in the first place, and her decision to live in a manner that is true to herself. She overcomes her past in a way that’s all about her (not Malcolm saving her). Part of that process is explicitly through refusing to live by others’ standards and embracing freedom. Recapping it makes it sound cheesy, but Sandas builds this process slowly, and in her hands Alex’s journey feels empowering.
The evolution of Alex’s character, combined with a truly hot slow burn romance, meant that this romance was something special. If you’re interested in Westerns, check out Amy Sandas. You’re welcome.
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