|Many of Nora Roberts’ most popular books take place in either her home state of Maryland or her spiritual home of Ireland. Northern Lights takes a break from these familiar surroundings for the beauty and wilderness of Alaska, and for the most part her readers benefit from the change. Roberts’ talent for delving into the male psyche is evident in the insightful portrayal of her hero, and the sections written from his point of view hit nary a false note. But her heroine is so tough and assertive that she strains the limits of the reader’s credulity and sympathy. Overall, however, Northern Lights is Nora’s strongest effort since 2002’s Three Fates.
The venerable “Stranger in a Strange Land” plot is always a good way to hook the reader’s attention – who hasn’t felt out of place at one point in their life? Ignatius “Nate” Burke has taken on the new position as Chief of Police in small, remote Lunacy, Alaska as a last resort after losing his partner and much of his sanity in a bloody Baltimore shootout. He’s not entirely sure whether he wants a second chance or a place to continue his descent into depression, but when confronted with Lunacy’s energetic citizens, he slowly starts to regain his footing. The presence of the brash, bold and beautiful pilot Meg Galloway aids his recovery, although the unwelcome attention of her man-eater mother Charlene makes him more than a little uncomfortable. Can a “lower 48-er” cop find fulfillment and happiness dealing with goofy drunks, killer snowstorms and renegade moose?
Then the stakes become much higher. When a dead body is found in an icy cave, a 16 year old mystery is reopened, and many of the “Lunatics” have reason to grieve. But the gruesome discovery is followed only days later by a second death, and Nate has to utilize all of his rusty detective skills to determine the link between two dead bodies – and to figure out if one of his Lunatics has crossed the line to crazed killer.
If Northern Lights reminds the reader of the late lamented TV-series “Northern Exposure,” rest assured that the similarities are superficial, other than the fact that both share a set of colorful characters and a fish-out-of-water theme. I’m sure it does take a certain independent personality to appreciate and survive Alaska’s unique beauty, which Nora describes in careful detail through her hero’s astonished eyes.
And a handsome set of eyes they are too. If you like good old fashioned heroes, they don’t come any better than Nate Burke. Although he starts the novel at his nadir, he’s never anything less than honorable and brave, with that touch of sadness that inspires women to take care of him. He may struggle to get out of bed at first, but he takes his responsibility to the town seriously, even when his investigation into the suspicious deaths unnerves a lot of its inhabitants. The male point of view, utilized for the majority of the novel, is entirely believable; more than any other female author today, Nora knows how to write men who are tough but not overly macho, and compassionate but not inappropriately feminine. The mystery notwithstanding, this is Nate’s story, and the reader roots for him to find love, happiness and a place to belong.
Which is why it’s slightly unnerving that the book’s heroine is such a problematic character. Meg Galloway was raised by a self-centered, immature mother and an irresponsible father who disappeared when she was a teenager, so you can understand her reluctance to open up her heart to anyone. She’s a successful pilot who can take care of herself whether she’s faced with a blizzard or a bear. But her brash personality without a hint of vulnerability was a little too much for me, and I was uncomfortable with her aggressive sexual advances to Nate. Although I think a woman should be at ease with her own sexuality, I don’t particularly want to read about one who can invite a man to have sex soon after they meet as casually as she would invite him to share a drink. Still, it was interesting to watch a courtship in which the man has to convince the woman to commit emotionally, and I’d rather have a strong heroine than a clingy one.
Nate’s a skilled detective, although the suspense aspect of the plot doesn’t hold up to the books penned by Roberts’ alter-ego J.D. Robb. The solution to the crime hinges on a little too much coincidence for my liking – something conveniently falls into our hero’s lap at just the right time. But the satisfaction the reader feels when Nate is finally proclaimed “one of us” is more important than the mystery anyway. A fascinating setting, interesting secondary characters, a hero to die for – so what if the heroine rubbed me the wrong way? I’ll just imagine myself keeping Nate warm while Meg is away on business…