You know the kind.
I bitch endlessly about her books; after reading one I immediately log on to Amazon to write 1-star reviews. I rant about her to anyone who'll listen. I think her heroes have the emotional depth of teaspoons, her heroines are doormats and her writing so purple, it borders magenta.
But I read every damn one of her infuriating books. That’s right. Every. Last. One. And I hate myself.
After the debacle of Hot Night (a genuinely awful book, with a disturbing and dysfunctional central relationship), I found myself reluctantly won over by The Edge of Midnight, largely thanks to the sweet secondary romance. So I decided that if I was going to read another McKenna, I would do my honest best to analyse what it is about her work that makes it so hard to like and yet so - consumable.
And here I am. Get comfortable, this is going to take some time.
Just to get you into my mindset, I read Extreme Danger right after Kresley Cole’s Dark Needs at Night’s Edge (Thank you Kresely Cole for breaking my book-rut). McKenna and Cole share a certain modern sensibility. I’m not sure how best to put it, but their work is littered with pop culture references, zippy dialogue, techo-talk and women who are more recognisable to me than many others I encounter in contemporary fiction. But the similarities end there. For example, Cole is all about drawing out the sexual tension. In this instance, the heroine Neomi is a ghost and it is more than half way through the book before she actually kisses her hero. Despite this, DNaNE was hot as hell, with some truly sizzling foreplay - all the more impressive for the fact that they cannot touch for such a large portion of the story.
Contrast with Extreme Danger. On page 15, a wet and nude Becca Cattrell encounters Nick Ward for the first time. By page 30, he’s brought her to the big O, and by page 58, she is groped intimately by the villain. And that’s notwithstanding the skanky villain sex. McKenna isn’t wasting any time, here.
Oh, the plot? Nick Ward was due his own book after making perfunctory appearances in four earlier novels, revolving around the McCloud brothers and their respective doorma - heroines. Ahem.
Nick. Right. Nick has been a surly constant in the previous books: ex-FBI, a tattooed, foul mouthed presence paying penance for his unwitting betrayal of Connor McCloud in Standing in the Shadows. However, in Extreme Danger, we quickly learn that Nick has plenty of other reasons to be sulky, bad tempered and socially retarded: a bad childhood (natch), a string of failed relationships, job dissatisfaction. You know, the kind of really dark stuff that would turn any ordinary human being into a suicidal vigilante.
You heard me. Nick plans to take down the villainous Vadim Zhoglo, or die trying. Zhoglo is so evil, his latest money making scheme involves selling the organs of unwanted children for millions of dollars. He is also an arms dealer, human trafficker and all round evil-doer. In his very first scene, Zhoglo punishes one of his henchmen by adding his son to the human shipment “to defray the cost of your errors.” (this, you sense, is the gun that will go off in the third act).
So our Nick is on a suicide mission, infiltrating Zhoglo’s operation by acting as caretaker for one of his properties.
Enter Becca Cattrell. Becca has been a Good Girl all her life, but the end of her engagement to a cheating scumbag (who, of course, has never satisfied her sexually and yet accuses her of coldness) (duh) has liberated her to the extent that she plans to go skinny dipping in the pool house next door - also, coincidentally, the property that Nick is guarding.
And so ordinary, plain-Jane Becca stumbles into a situation wildly out of her realm of experience. So far so Anne Stuart. Nick assumes that the naked, luscious Becca must be a deadly assassin and ‘interrogates’ her to a quivering, lilac hued climax. Despite this, it soon becomes obvious that Becca is exactly what she claims, and Nick is forced to blow his cover to save her life, incurring Zhoglo’s wrath in the process.
And so on. In a campy, cartoonish way, McKenna’s overblown plots, florid prose and EEEVIIIIL villains make for an entertaining read. Even her protagonists, so often the embodiment of all that is wrong with the genre, have their peculiar charm. Her heroes are brawny, inarticulate alphas longing for domestication. As soon as they hone in on their woman, they become drooling, idiotic, erections on legs, prone to all sorts of over-protective, Neanderthal behaviour. Her heroines are quite likeable - relatable, even. Young, modern, single women with jobs, families and the attendant complications. Of course, they fall for the musclebound hero, but they are also dominated and overwhelmed by them. Sex scenes are almost always power struggles in which the hero overcomes and then subdues the heroine. This balance is never redressed.
The elements in Extreme Danger that leave me uneasy are the same in McKenna’s other novels. I’ll list them below and try to explain why they rub me the wrong way.
Sex. McKenna is known for her steamy novels, and Extreme Danger is no exception to this rule. Her prose is explicit and leaves little to the imagination. One reviewer from AAR, described it as cold, crude and juvenile.
My feelings are closer to Mrs Giggles, who said:
The love scenes are very nice, but because there is an emotional disconnect between me and the characters (especially with the heroine who comes off like a fragile ragdoll that needs to be coddled and pampered 24/7), the well-done love scenes are like well-choreographed scenes in an adult movie. Nice moves, yes, but where is the love?
Now, I don’t have a problem with the heroines (until they’ve been utterly cowed by the heroes and transformed into sex-dolls) but there is something about the sex that comes across as vaguely ‘adult movie-esque’ as opposed to erotic and romantic. It could be the excessive use of words like tits, ass and pussy in referring to the heroine, so that she is ultimately reduced to these body parts, objectified and sexualized to the point - half way through the novel, usually - that she loses every other aspect of her personality. It doesn’t help that McKenna’s heroines are all small with large breasts, and that the sex is hilariously, porn-tastically, non-stop.
Even Becca, a ‘plain’ heroine, isn’t spared this objectification. As Nick helpfully points out about her glasses:
“It’s a classic porn motif. The formerly frigid sex bomb secretary, right after her sexual awakening, but before she thinks to ditch the specs and lose the tight bun. Add virginal lingerie and you have yourself a fantasy.”
This might be amusingly meta if McKenna actually subverted the ‘classic porn motif.’ Instead, it is later enacted, in a scene where Nick asserts his sexual dominance in response to Becca putting herself in a dangerous situation and scaring him. Becca remains, to the end, the willing receptacle for Nick’s raging, domineering libido.
Women. This is tied to the sex. Strong themes of male domination run through McKenna’s books. Heroines might be plucky, they might save themselves from the bad guy, but they are small and vulnerable and must be protected by the hero. This protectiveness is cloaked in a jealous possessiveness. In the scene where Nick and Becca discuss being exclusive, this bizarre moment takes place:
He gripped [his erection], fixing a steely gaze at her. “Don’t even look at other guys,” he said softly.
Earlier in the novel, former-hero Seth, ‘playfully’ growls to his wife, “Don’t talk to other guys in a language I don’t know.”
When heroines from past books make an appearance, it is as brides, or mothers/ mothers-to-be. They are excessively interested in match-making and weddings (“Oh God!” shrieks Margot when she discovers Nick has a girlfriend. “I have got to go call Raine and Liv and Erin right away... This is so juicy. I love it. I just love it.” Exit Margot), whilst the menfolk play with their guns and chase the bad guys.
And then you have the glaring exception to this rule, Tamara, a mysterious, ball busting femme fatale who scares the other men with her dark skills and underworld contacts. Tamara is everything the other women are not - McKenna’s most brilliant creation - a woman who says nasty things, who kills and manipulates for her own gain. Who uses her sexuality as a weapon when she needs to, or just for fun. Tamara is the coolest character in these books, the author’s secret voice, perhaps. “She’s succulent” Tamara says of Becca, “I congratulate you on your lovely acquisition.” Even Tamara can see Becca is little more than an appendage.
Add to this potent cocktail, aforementioned Skanky Villain Sex (so last century), some unpleasant depictions of violence against women and girls, and I am left with conflicted feelings, consisting largely of regret and self-loathing.
Am I in an abusive relationship with this writer? Will I ever break free? For how long can I resist the temptation of Baddest Bad Boys?
C- for Extreme Danger.