I knew that I wanted to read this book as soon as I saw the line in the blurb that mentions how Athena, our heroine, is too tall and too awkward for any man to appreciate. After all, Brienne of Tarth is pretty much the only character whose fate I still care passionately about in Game of Thrones. As soon as the ARC landed on my Kindle, I dove in, hoping an adventurous romance with an amazon of a heroine would be as delightful as it sounded.
Unfortunately, I am disappointed. I suspect that a great deal of why I failed to connect with Once a Soldier has to do with that ever-elusive chemistry between book and reader. It isn’t a bad book. It just left me kind of underwhelmed.
The book starts out strong, if a bit cheesy, when Will Masterson finds himself in a French prison about to be executed, along with several other supposed English spies. As the men chat, they talk about how there are things they would all do over again if they survived the night. And, thanks to a deus ex machina miracle, they do.
Before he can retire back to merry old England, Will is tasked with visiting the tiny nation of San Gabriel, which has suffered from marauding French soldiers. When he arrives in San Gabriel, though, it’s to meet the awesome amazon that is Athena Markham, who is serving as a companion to the crown princess, Sofia, who is now basically ruling the country because her father and brother were kidnapped by the French during said marauding. Naturally, both Will and Athena are drawn to each other, and soon they find themselves opening up about their lives. But their happiness is threatened by Athena’s past and by more French marauders.
There are several things that work well here. I enjoyed how this is a Regency that doesn’t take place in England. There are parties, but no balls and very few lavish descriptions of clothing. There is also a lot of space devoted to the fact that the innocent bystanders are often affected in horrible ways by the depredations of war. A lot of the book is spent with Will and Athena rebuilding San Gabriel, and it’s clear that Ms. Putney did her research into details like winemaking and 19th century engineering. Both the leads are also competent and very likable, and there’s a lovely secondary romance that could have ended on an eye-rolling deus ex machina but didn’t.
That said, I’m terribly moved by any of it. I wanted to feel the unresolved sexual tension between Will and Athena, and I didn’t. I wanted to understand exactly what drew them to each other, and I didn’t get a sense of that. Even their initial forays into friendship felt rote. Athena has some qualms about her past–she was the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman and a somewhat wild courtesan–but these turn out to be no big deal in the end because Will’s friends, many of whom I suspect appear in Mary Jo Putney titles I have not read, are just so darn welcoming.
Since Ms. Putney has been writing for decades, I expected something with a bit more sizzle. But if I want a good story about an amazon heroine and her smitten swain, I’ll probably reread Grace Burrowes’s The Laird, which at least will give me a few more scenes of over-the-top cheesy cuddling.
As heir to a title and great wealth, Will Masterson should have stayed home and tended his responsibilities. Instead he went to war. Now, after perilous
years fighting the French, he intends his current mission to be his last. But all his plans are forgotten when he arrives in the small mountain stronghold
of San Gabriel and meets her.
Knowing herself to be too tall, strong, and unconventional to appeal to a man, Athena Markham has always gloried in her independence. But for the first
time in her life, she finds a man who might be her match.
Two of a kind, too brave for their own good, Athena and Will vow to do whatever it takes to vanquish San Gabriel’s enemies. For neither will back down
from death, and only together can they find happiness and a love deeper than any they’d dared imagine. . .