The Dark Horse
by Patricia Simpson
(Tor, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0765353245
When I saw that Patricia Simpson’s The Dark Horse includes tarot and Egyptian elements, I was intrigued and couldn’t wait to dig into the story. What I found was a book with characters who were too clichéd to keep my interest.

Claire Coulter has a problem. Her boss, Tobias Benton, needs her help to translate the code at an archeological site. Claire is somewhat reluctant to assist, especially when Benton begins to hint that the expedition would give him and Claire an opportunity to get to know each other better. Claire ultimately agrees because Benton promises to make sure her brother receives a green card and the kidney transplant he so desperately needs.

The expedition takes Claire and Benton to the Dark Horse ranch in the Sierra Nevada. Once there, they meet their guide, Jack Hughes, a man Claire finds both compelling and unnerving. Unfortunately, Benton forced Claire to pose as his fiancé, so she can’t pursue her interest in Jack.

Claire’s journey to the archeological site is faced with problem after problem, including fighting off Benton’s advances, getting caught in a flash flood, and being chased by a tarot card image come to life.

The tarot angle is an interesting one. However, if you’re expecting a positive look at tarot, you won’t find it here. Simpson’s portrayal is entirely negative. Still, it’s incorporated into the story in a unique way, even if it’s not well rounded.

The characters themselves are more problematic, with most of them coming straight from romance cliché-land. For example, Benton’s attempts to express his interest in Claire are as subtle as a Viking invasion. He compels her to pose as his fiancé so they have to share a tent. In addition to giving Claire lingerie, he’s fond of comments like this one: “You might try lightening up. This could be an interesting trip. Exploring the unknown, if you know what I mean.” This statement is on page 26, and it just gets worse from there. Benton is the main villain, but his lecherous and petulant behavior throughout the book makes it hard to take him seriously.

And that leads to Claire, a heroine who is an unusual mix of character traits. On the one hand, it should be easy to sympathize with her. She’s trying to do the best she can for herself and her brother, and she’s put in some difficult situations.

On the other hand, she is a classic martyred heroine. Her needs come second to those of her brother, who needs not only a kidney transplant, but also a green card. Since Claire is on an expedition, she doesn’t see her brother during the action of the book, but she talks to him on the phone often enough to reinforce that she can’t simply tell off Benton and leave the expedition, even when it becomes clear that his motives are suspect in every way.

Then there’s the way Claire interacts with Jack. She thinks he’s arrogant but can’t help being attracted to him, she tries to stay away from him but he’s so manly, etc. I knew things were bad when I didn’t care about something that happens toward the end of the book. Readers should care about the hero and heroine; sadly, I didn’t.

Although The Dark Horse includes some interesting paranormal elements, at its heart is an all-too-familiar story with characters that are too unrealistic to care about.

--Alyssa Hurzeler

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