Heart of Fire is the perfect summer read if you like movies like Indiana Jones, Romancing the Stone, or Six Days Seven Nights. Linda Howard takes us deep into the Brazilian rainforest on an exhilarating adventure up the Amazon River, as an archaeologist on a mission and a guide with no attachments butt heads while leading an expedition in search of a lost civilization and ancient treasure. It has a very cinematic feel that would make for a great movie, with the lush setting, perilous adventure, and steamy romance. It not only brings the jungle alive, it makes you want to pack up and go!
Archaeologist Jillian Sherwood is determined to redeem her family’s professional name by finding the legendary city of the Anzar, a mythical ancient tribe of female warriors said to possess a magical red jewel called the Heart of the Empress. Her father died in the Amazon trying to prove the Anzar were real after the archaeological community laughed at his theories and branded him a crackpot, but when Jillian looks through his old papers she knows that her dad wasn’t just chasing after fairy tales. She heads off with a coded treasure map to Manaus, Brazil, to find the Anzar’s fabled “city of stone under the sea of green.” She’s accompanied by her resentful stepbrother Rick and his shady friend Kates, whom Jillian reluctantly accepts as a financial backer.
Their party hires Ben Lewis, an expat Southern boy living the easy life in Manaus by working as a river guide, who recognizes Kates as a criminal and at first wants nothing to do with the job. When Kates insists on bringing a murderous thug along as an extra guide, Jillian and Ben realize that the stakes are no longer just archaeological but involve their very lives, and Ben’s sense of honor won’t let him abandon a woman to the dangers of greedy villains and the jungle without going along as protection. Forced to depend on each other in order to survive against their treacherous associates, Ben and Jillian find themselves striking sparks as their initial dislike develops into an attraction neither can deny.
For a book written over 20 years ago (it was published in 1993), Heart of Fire more than holds its own against modern romantic suspense, and reads much like something you’d find on the shelf today. Since technology is a moot point in the jungle, there’s a timeless feel and I expect it’ll hold up well for quite a while. Howard’s writing is evocative and sensual, painting a vivid picture of both the rainforest and the sexual tension. Although there’s not an overabundance of humor, several exchanges of dialogue made me laugh out loud, and Ben and Jillian’s sexy banter always sparkles.
Jillian is a strong heroine, refreshingly smart and capable, while Ben is a charming devil with hidden depths past his brash surface. I like that Jillian is too pragmatic to ever be a damsel in distress, and that any too-stupid-to-live moments are all Ben’s (he has several doozies.) Ben is a typical alpha male hero: cocky, rugged, and dead sexy. He knows it, too, and is surprised by Jillian’s lack of enthusiasm about falling into bed with him immediately. Sometimes his arrogance is a bit much, but it’s fun seeing Jillian take him down a peg by challenging his sexism head-on and then his helplessness as he becomes increasingly obsessed with this scholarly female who’s not his usual type. My one complaint is that we learn only the sketchiest of details regarding Ben’s past, so while he is certainly sexy, he doesn’t have a lot of clear motivations the reader can use to understand his character, and I found I didn’t have as clear a picture of him after I closed the book. I would have liked a bit more back story and a chance to see how the couple end up a few years down the road. (I guess I’m the target demographic who enjoys the Babylogue so common to romance, because I like some sense of closure even if I don’t require children.)
The audio is narrated by Tanya Eby Sirois, and this was my first exposure to her. Her character voices, especially Jillian’s calm intelligent tones, are good, and her acting talent a good fit for contemporary romantic suspense. It remained rather workmanlike for me, though, and nothing about her voice really wowed me, so while I wouldn’t be opposed to listening to Eby Sirois again I don’t feel the need to track down all her audiobooks like other favorite narrators such as Rosalyn Landor or Susan Ericksen.
Linda Howard is an author of diverse talents; her books run the gamut from romantic suspense to western historicals and change in tone from intense to humorous. Despite her popularity as a romantic suspense legend, this is actually the first book I’ve read by her, but it definitely won’t be the last. The exotic locale gives it a unique flavor among romance novels, and the adventurous plot is pure page-turning fun. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys romance and craves some armchair traveling escapism!