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Rogue Angel 1: Destiny2.5 stars

You know something? I’m totally cool with junk food entertainment. I’m even cooler with hot chicks swinging swords. I know, I know! I are a kritik. I’m not allowed to say these things 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 Pop Secret, and spend the evening wasting your brain cells on enjoyable trash? Nothing whatsoever. There’s room for both trash and treasure in one’s reading diet.

Thing is, even trash ought 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” imprint 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 is more a Product™ than a novel, from 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 stuff — just gets in the way of entertainment. You could point to so much work on the SFF racks right now to belie that misbegotten notion, books that blow the doors off Rogue Angel as entertainment by doing effortlessly what this book tries to do with great effort, only to fall short when set against superior creativity. 

Hackwork in fantasy fiction always comes up wanting, because in this genre, it’s from a writer’s creativity and imagination that hallowed entertainment flows. I’ll never grok why many folks allow themselves to be satisfied with bland, mass-produced media tie-ins and Product™ like Rogue Angel when they could be enjoying the good stuff. But then, look at me. Here I am, drawn like a moth to a flame, despite all my hoity-toity artistic pretensions. Obviously, I am in no position to consider myself above it all!

Alex Archer is the house pseudonym shared, at the onset of this series (more authors will later be brought in), by 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 knew they were doing hackwork and came to terms with it, who are we to criticize? The maiden volume, Destiny, appears to be an Odom offering, as he is thanked on the copyright page for “his contribution to this work,” which involved writing it in its entirety.

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 mammaries. But then we’re back to Lara, so why live a lie?

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 understandably 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 a law of cartoon physics or something, like 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, because of course she can.

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. 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. The sword prefers the company of Annja, who can summon it by pure will from some other plane 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 seriously fucked over. 

Is this enjoyable? Sure it is. It’s all about Eurotrash bad guys, ancient secrets, bloody fight scenes, and a babe 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, “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. 

Followed by Solomon’s Jar. Also included in Renaissance, an omnibus collecting the series’ first three books.