Harlequin Intrigue returns to its roots in "Secret Sanctuary," an interesting, though uneven, modern gothic by Amanda Stevens. Moriah's Landing, Massachusetts has a dark and mysterious history reaching back to when witches were burned at the stake in the 1600s. Twenty years ago a serial killer swept through the town and was never caught. When Professor Elizabeth Douglas discovers the body of a young woman drained of blood, it appears to be starting again. Bodies begin to pile up and Elizabeth offers her help to police detective Cullen Ryan. Can this man she's always desired protect her when the killer comes after her?
For this reader and hopefully many others, "Secret Sanctuary" marks the beginning of a return to the kind of story Intrigue used to tell before the line became devoted to baby, cop and cowboy stories, when there was a real feeling of danger on every page and the stories were genuinely scary and suspenseful. It is reminiscent of Elise Title's Thornhill stories, also a New England college town with paranormal happenings, and the dark suspense of Jenna Ryan, Elaine K. Stirling and Bethany Campbell. Amanda Stevens has given many of her books a darker, almost gothic feel, so she seems like a good choice to begin this series.
Unfortunately, "Secret Sanctuary" is a book I wanted to like more than I did. I was thrilled to see Intrigue embracing so many paranormal and gothic elements again. But there are way too many of them. Witches, curses, ghosts, serial killers, mysterious recluses, isolated castles on cliffs, cults, secret societies, mad scientists. It's not a modern gothic. It's gothic stew. Somewhere along the line "Secret Sanctuary" lost all fictional believability for me and became a too obvious mishmash of all the weird themes Stevens (or since this is a multi-author series, the authors and their editor) could jam into one book. It stopped being suspenseful and started being silly. I could buy a town with a few extraordinary happenings but all this happening in one town? Eventually I had to roll my eyes and give up on even trying to believe a town like this could exist. It's interesting to note that, despite all the gimmicks, "Secret Sanctuary" is neither as gothic, atmospheric or suspenseful as another of this month's Intrigues, "Wedding Captives" by Cassie Miles. In that book, Miles takes one element, the isolated castle, and uses it to good effect. Here, the gothic overload lessens the effect.
"Secret Sanctuary" also suffers from the problem faced by most first books in a series. The author has to fit in so much information to set up the series that readers may be overwhelmed with information. Stevens stuffs huge chunks of information in at a time, not integrating it very well. The story comes to a stop, or takes a while to get going, because we're too busy being spoonfed information. The first few chapters are particularly overstuffed, and some readers may find themselves having to go back and reread passages to keep all the characters straight. With so much going on, the romance is shortchanged. While Elizabeth is an interesting, well-developed and unique heroine, Cullen is barely developed beyond what we learn about him in the first couple of chapters: former bad boy, now a cop. That's it. And the more unique and interesting part of their conflict, that Elizabeth is a genius and Cullen always thought she was a know-it-all, is overshadowed by the more predictable rich-girl/poor-boy conflict we've seen before.
Once the story gets going, Stevens delivers her usual pageturner, although the effort to begin the series must not have left her much time to plot her mystery. The killer is surprisingly obvious for an author who is usually so good at keeping readers guessing. On a more positive note, the story is certainly never boring. Stevens pens several suspenseful sequences with Elizabeth in danger that are gripping. I love how the title is unique, not an attempt to show what hook this story uses (for instance, no mention of a cop hero) and actually has a meaning that is revealed in the story, like a great title should.
I do think Stevens did the best she could with a tough assignment. Since most of these elements are related to the other authors' books, she had no choice but to incorporate them. It does give me some hope that, with all of this out of the way, the next books will be able to tell their own stories and not fill every page with as much gothic weirdness as possible.
"Secret Sanctuary" isn't a great book. It is a fun and entertaining one that should leave readers waiting to see what happens next in Moriah's Landing.