Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Review: Unconquerable Callie by DeAnn Smallwood (5 stars, Western)

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Thoughts After Reading:
I had only moderate expectations upon starting DeAnn Smallwood's Unconquerable Callie. In retrospect, I'm not entirely sure why - I think it came across as likely being yet another "low-calorie" western with a silly romantic conflict. Therefore, it was a happy surprise to find how much I thoroughly enjoyed this sweet and sedate romance novel. To be sure, the main characters start out a tad stereotypical and the major conflict a bit inconsequential. But it is also a very fun and engaging story of adventure, following the heroine as she takes the trials of the Oregon Trail firmly in stride. The romance in interwoven into the journey, rather than being the primary focus of the novel, but the meaningful interactions that take place between the protagonists over the course of several months fully invest the reader in the genuine relationship. And while the romantic conflict is fairly easy to overcome, that easiness becomes an asset for the resolution.

The main characters are initially stereotypical in the sense that the heroine is very "pro-women," and the hero is very "anti-women." The heroine can shoot as well as the best of them, rides horses with ease, and her dream is to support herself in the progressive Wyoming Territory, where women are allowed to vote. In contrast, the hero starts out with a very low opinion of women. He tells the heroine her proper place is "in the kitchen" the first time he meets her, and believes that bringing women and children into the harsh wilderness of the Oregon Trail essentially amounts to murder. As the story continues, however, a greater depth of character is demonstrated by both protagonists. The heroine is shown to have a quick wit, and it is a great deal of fun to watch as she deftly maneuvers the male-dominated world she lives in to still achieve her wishes. Such as when she artfully cons a couple into selling a wagon to an unmarried woman, or when she uses her cooking skills to wiggle herself into a place on the wagon council. The heroine fearlessly and successfully manages the difficulties they encounter, tackling every obstacle with ease. Her rare moments of doubt serve to make her less perfect and more realistic.  The hero also becomes more well rounded upon further acquaintance. He seems almost happy to change his opinion on women, congratulating the heroine when she rallies the women to achieve great things and capitulating easily. He quickly comes to admire the heroine. The hero's qualities of courage and leadership make it easy understand why he is respected by the travelers as well as why the heroine falls for him. In, fact I think this widespread characteristic - the book's tendency to show the reader, rather than tell the reader - was one of its greatest strengths. There is the occasional bit of angst as the hero shows restrained affection for the heroine and she frets about creating her fake fiance to begin with. But her reasoning for not wanting to tell the hero until the end - she needs to continue with the wagon train until her destination - is sound, and the angst was sufficiently brief that it didn't become annoying. The author also handles the conflict and resolution nicely. Rather than using the cliche ending of anger and hurt followed by reconciliation, she creates a fresh approach that adds suspense without taking away from the joyful happy ending.

The clean and subtle romance of DeAnn Smallwood's Unconquerable Callie is a far cry from some of the darker and angst-driven novels that exist within the historical romance genre. Personally, I found that very refreshing. I enjoyed having a romance plot immersed in a realistic and entertaining historical adventure, enjoyed watching a gentle yet authentic relationship unfold without much nonsense. I half expected mediocrity at every turn - with the cardboard characters, the Oregon Trail adventure, the conflict resolution - and was quite impressed each time Smallwood far exceeded my expectations. It's a book I highly recommend.

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