I’m a big fan of Kelley Armstrong’s down-to-earth voice and deep point-of-view writing in her Women of the Otherworld series, and the Nadia Stafford series shares those qualities. Note that the Nadia Stafford series is for adults. While Armstrong's young adult books are highly successful, I confess to a YA allergy, so while I wanted to go there just so I could get more Armstrong, I had to admit defeat after a few pages on a couple of occasions.
In the Nadia Stafford series, Armstrong makes ‘unbelievable’ situations (such as the life of assassins) totally believable, without making them wholly mundane and boring. She peppers her narrative and dialogue with facts and research about guns and police work which, when so seamlessly woven in, add a hell of a lot of realism.
I also like the way she mixes the wry humour of her characters with heavy issues (crime and the ugly side of human nature) to achieve a nice contrast of light and dark, and I enjoy the way her stories are detailed and firmly anchored in settings.
Nadia Stafford is also my favourite kind of heroine — a tough, smart, funny, kickass broad who takes no bullshit as she goes about her business, and who needs no rescue from the male characters she often outshines. While Nadia is formidable, she also has flaws and doesn’t come across as a cardboard cut-out action hero.
Since Armstrong has been busy writing a lot of YA, it feels like I’d been waiting forever to get my third and final fix in the Nadia Stafford series.
But the wait was worth it. A romance between the world’s two most reticent and guarded people is a fun thing. It’s a bit like hiding in the bushes waiting for pandas to breed in captivity, or waiting for Scully and Mulder to bonk on X-files — you wait, and wait, and wait. Jack and Nadia certainly have all the reasons in the world to be guarded, both of them are assassins for hire, a profession which demands secrecy and discretion to survive long-term, but their reticence is also entrenched in their personalities and histories.
As one can imagine, as professional assassins, Nadia and Jack carry numerous war wounds, both physical and emotional. Jack’s aren’t explained in detail (he’s not the explaining type of guy) and Nadia’s are to do with her cousin being murdered as a young teenager after both were lured into a car by a predator. Part of the joy of reading this series (and remember it was a long wait between books two and three) was the steady unveiling of the inner worlds of these secretive characters and their hesitant relationship.
In the first book of the series, Exit Strategy, we see Nadia, a disgraced former cop, working as a contract killer for a small Mafia family in order to keep her holiday lodge business afloat. She has a professional mentor, Jack, who invites her to join him and a couple of other professional assassins in stopping a hit-man gone rogue and murdering innocent people. The other professionals are Quinn, a handsome young FBI agent whose contract killer name is ‘the boy scout’ because he only kills baddies, and Evelyn, a wise-cracking older Machiavellian type who lives to manipulate others and has plans for Nadia’s career.
In book two, Made to be Broken, Jack helps Nadia to find out who killed her teen employee and stole her baby. She also gets it on with Quinn, leaving readers in suspense as to how the love triangle between her, Quinn and Jack is going to pan out.
In book three, Jack brings Nadia a gift: the location and new identity of the predator who killed her cousin and disappeared after the case against him failed. But when she shows up to kill him, she finds him already dead and the search for more answers leads her to discover some very dark truths about her past, as well as her true feelings for Jack.
While all this waiting (two whole books) for two such shy pandas to mate would have been too frustrating to stomach on it’s own, there’s plenty of plot action going on in all three novels to support the romantic tension — everyone wants to kill Nadia and there’s all kinds of folk she’d like to reward with a dirt nap too. Plus, the love triangle angle (say that three times quickly) causes all kinds of delightful misunderstandings.
Armstrong handles some very dark subject matter skillfully in this book, but the themes mean that this book won’t be to everyone’s taste. If you need your reading world to be all puppies and sunshine, you’d be better off skipping this dark little number. Jack and Nadia also clearly fall into the morally dubious hero/heroine category since, yeah, they kill people for money. Readers with a binary code of morality (people and acts are either good or bad) may have trouble with these characters and actions, but I found the moral ambiguity of Nadia and Jack and the choices they faced enjoyable.
I highly recommend the whole series as a fast, action-packed read, with plenty of sexual tension and character development sprinkled in. However, I wouldn’t read this book without having read the other two first, otherwise you won’t fully understand the import of events and will spend half your time scratching your head trying to figure out who’s who.
So, if you’re a fan of the badass, kickass heroine and vigilante justice, consider Nadia Stafford your dream date.