Readers who have become weary of romances that seem mired in Regency England or the American West will be interested in Lioness. The strongest element of this contemporary romantic suspense is the unusual Kenyan setting. Rather than employ the setting as virtual wallpaper as is the practice in some books, Ms. Brien’s stories are rooted in their setting. In her debut novel, Veiled Journey, the American heroine is thrust into a situation that arises from its Saudi Arabian setting. Similarly, the characters and action in Lioness are unique to Africa and could not be transplanted in another continent or culture.
With her twin brother Joel, Cat Stanton operates an architectural firm based in Las Angeles; a catastrophic incident in their dysfunctional family history has created a special closeness between them. While scouting out possible sites for a hotel in Kenya, Joel is killed. Cat is dissatisfied by the meager information regarding the circumstances of his death and is even more unsettled to discover that the film had been removed from his camera. The cursory story she’s given about Joel’s being killed in a wildlife stampede doesn’t relieve her doubts. She resolves to determine the truth surrounding his death; her only clues are some sketches he’d sent shortly before his death.
In Nairobi she is frustrated in her attempts to contact a mutual college friend who is supposed to be an official in the Kenyan government. Moreover, Campbell Safari, the company who had taken Joel into the wilds refuses to retrace his route with her because they do not do business with women. Even with these setbacks, Cat is still determined to proceed, and eventually Dan Campbell, the owner’s son, reluctantly agrees to take her.
Dan, however, is not an ally in her search for the facts and is trying to divert her suspicions even while he pursues his own target. Even though they are soon attracted to each other there are many conflicting allegiances that will test their relationship.
This summary merely skims the surface of this complexly plotted story. Few characters are truly as they seem. Everyone has a painful past and a private agenda. Danger lurks at every turn. Gradually, one by one, the sometimes horrifying truth behind numerous deep secrets is exposed. There are sections in this multi-layered story that are so gripping it’s nearly impossible to put the book down. Unfortunately this focus on a suspenseful plot tends to overwhelm the romance.
Some scenes in Lioness of a gritty reality are significantly more graphic than is common in most romance fiction. Readers who prefer a light touch in their romances may find this book too explicit. There is one particularly brutal scene that had me doubting whether Dan really deserved the designation of “hero.” Similarly, I wasn’t much more drawn to the intrepid heroine. While I understood Cat’s motivation and determination to discover the truth behind Joel’s death, there are times she displays the classic Gothic heroine mentality where the lovely young governess takes off for the garden at midnight in spite of repeated warnings about an evil spectre. I want my heroines to display a little sensible caution from time to time.
My primary reservation in giving Lioness a whole-hearted recommendation, however, is that I have doubts that Cat and Dan are truly meant for each other. Their attraction seems to be primarily hormonal with little emotional connection involved. They have a number of issues to deal with - not the least a bicontinental difference in attitudes and experience between them - so that the convenient happily-ever-after left a question mark in my mind.
Lioness is, however, not another cookie-cutter romance. While the story doesn’t have the memorable impact of the author’s first book, both the setting and the plot are sufficiently original that many readers may want to check it out.