You know something? I'm totally cool with junk food entertainment. I'm even cooler with hot chicks wielding swords. I know, I know, I are a kritik, and I'm not allowed to say that for fear of having my Elitist Bastard Club membership revoked, or at least my keys to the executive literati washroom taken away. But really, what's wrong with wanting to kick up your heels, microwave a little of the old Pop Secret, and spend the evening wasting your brain cells on enjoyable trash?
Nothing whatsoever. Thing is, even trash has to be well crafted on its own terms. And while the Rogue Angel series — brought to you by the fine folks at Gold Eagle, the "men's adventure" line from Worldwide Library, a firm whose chief legacy to reading culture will always be Harlequin series romances — isn't badly crafted, I think it exemplifies why this stuff always gets such a bad rap. This isn't a book, it's a Product™, produced by publishers who think mediocrity is a perfectly acceptable standard to aspire to, and anything else a writer might choose to indulge in — you know, originality, imagination, innovation, all that artsy-fartsy crap — just gets in the way of entertainment. You could point to so much work on the SF and fantasy racks right now to belie that misbegotten axiom. Off the top of my head, try Tim Pratt's swell Marla Mason novels, which blow the doors off Rogue Angel as entertainment by effortlessly doing what this book tries to do with great effort, only to fall short when set against Pratt's immeasurably superior creativity.
Hackwork in fantasy fiction always comes up wanting, because in this genre, it's from a writer's creativity and imagination that the Entertainment flows. I'll never grok why many readers don't grok this, and allow themselves to be satisfied with the bland offerings of mass-produced media tie-ins and Product™ like Rogue Angel, when they could be enjoying the good stuff. Seriously, just because all you want for lunch is a cheeseburger doesn't mean you have to settle for dried-out corporate soy product that's been sitting all day under a heat lamp, when you can grill up half a pound of 100% pure Angus beef, and savor it with a tall cold longneck!
Alex Archer is the shared pseudonym of Victor Milán and Mel Odom, who seem happy to cash their checks delivering exactly what Gold Eagle seems to want in this series and not much more. If they know they're hacking it, and have come to terms with it, who are we to criticize? The debut novel, Destiny, appears to be an Odom offering, as he is thanked on the copyright page for "his contribution to this work."
Our heroine, the titular Rogue Angel, is Annja Creed, who's like Lara Croft crossed with Lara Croft. I imagine Gold Eagle might want us to think more along the lines of Indiana Jones crossed with James Bond, then given boobs. But then we're back to Lara, so why live a lie? It's so much better to get these things out in the open. Double entendre! Damn, I'm good.
As another critic famously wrote about the bestselling fundamentalist Christian Left Behind series (to which Mel Odom has, incidentally, also contributed), Destiny is a novel for people who don't read novels. Its antecedents aren't literary. They're movies, TV and video games. When it comes to establishing its characters, it goes straight for the cliché shop in the mall and stocks up on clearance items. Annja is a) an orphan, b) raised by nuns, who c) has become a brilliant archaeologist while d) managing to work in martial arts and weapons training at some point in her past, because, hey, those digs can get rough, and let's not even get started about defending your dissertation. She is e) amazingly hot but f) not especially ready for or even interested in committed relationships, making her pretty much the average guy's ideal chick, because you hardly ever run into that sort in real life. Not to say there aren't really lots of hot bachelorettes out there, it's just that average guys are of no interest to them.
Annja is in France, on the trail of the legend of a local monster, the Beast of Gévaudan, for a cheesy cable show she cohosts to pay the bills. So maybe she's a bit of a Mary Sue, in that, like her authors, she isn't above a little hackwork if that's what it takes to finance her real passions. In no time she finds herself chased by an arch-villain named M. Lesauvage. I have to say that naming your arch-villain "Mr. The Savage" has an undeniable, James Bondian, Eurotrash élan. Lesauvage employs the usual retinue of movie henchmen who rush about firing submachine guns at Annja and always missing. They must be unaware of how many times Roger Ebert has pointed out that you simply cannot kill an action hero with a machine gun. It's like a law of cartoon physics or something, akin to the one that keeps coyotes from dying no matter how high a cliff they fall from. This same law ensures that Annja's shooting will be much better. For instance, in one scene she shoots out the back tire of a speeding motorcycle racing away from her, at night, in the rain. That's hot!
Like a lot of the cheesy movies that inspired it, Destiny hopes that by making its plot way more cluttered than it needs to be, you'll think it's better than it really is. You have Lesauvage, seeking treasure and willing to kill to get it. You have the Brotherhood of the Silent Rain, a secret society of monks determined to protect a secret, which seems a suitable occupation. There is a problem, in that the secret they're protecting would be easily guessed by your pet parakeet, provided you have one and he could read this book. And how these guys manage to remain a secret society when they make public use of firearms, explosives, and sundry meleé weapons in dealing with people they don't like isn't adequately explored. But you gotta have gunfights and explosions.
Finally, there's the secret of Annja's destiny, which is tied to Joan of Arc. That's not a spoiler, as it's set up in the prologue. Two men, Roux and Garin, once allies and now bitter enemies, both seek the remnants of Joan of Arc's shattered sword, which is, of course, all magical and stuff. The sword prefers the company of Annja, who can summon it by pure will from some other realm where magical swords are evidently stored when not in use. Roux and Garin are not only fabulously wealthy but have lived over 500 years, for reasons the story doesn't see fit to explicate apart from having Roux suggest they've been "cursed by God." If God has gotten this generous with his curses these days, I imagine old Lot is feeling royally gypped right now.
Is this enjoyable? Sure it is. It's all about Eurotrash bad guys, ancient secrets, bloody fight scenes, and a hot chick with a sword, after all. But that's the problem: it's enjoyable, when I suspect the original aim was kickass. And it's solely because the book never thinks it even has to try to rise above its many off-the-shelf tropes and recycled formulas that it falls short of that aim. Look, do you remember a TV show called Witchblade? Maybe the title rings a bell. But do you remember it? That's right, you don't, not really. That's my point. Years from now, someone may ask you, "Do you remember Rogue Angel?" And you'll crinkle your brow and remark that the name rings a bell, but no, no, you can't say you remember it. For Annja Creed — a hottie who deserves better — that's not such an enviable destiny.