Mystery Man is the first in Kristen Ashley's "Dream Man" series. It stars
Hawk and Gwen. Wait! What was that? Did I just say Ranger? Yes. Yes, I did.
And if you don't know who Ranger is ... I'm surprised ... but he's a character from Janet Evonavich's Stephanie Plum series and he has a humongous fan base.
Why do I say Hawk is Ranger? Here's why (putting it in spoiler tags to save space):-->Ranger is nicknamed for his former job in the Army. Hawk is nicknamed for flying Black Hawks, his former job in the Army.
-->Ranger owns a high-level security company that may or may not do some shady business even as they are consistently the good guys. Hawk owns a high-level security company that may or may not do some shady business even as they are consistently the good guys.
-->Ranger is a health nut. Hawk is a health nut.
-->Ranger puts human and electronic surveillance all over Stephanie's environment and she doesn't get as pissed off as she should. Hawk puts human and electronic surveillance all over Gwen's environment and while she gets more pissed off than Stephanie does, she lets it go pretty easily.
-->Ranger sneaks into Stephanie's house and she can't figure out how he does it. Hawk sneaks into Gwen's house and she can't figure out how he does it.
-->Ranger and Hawk are similar ethnicity.
-->Ranger and Hawk have a love/hate relationship with the police.
-->Ranger and Hawk both refer to the lead female of the book as "babe", often as a one-word response which turns it into a punchline.
Gwen has some similarities with Stephanie, too. Mainly her addiction to junk food and her wry, funny take on things. But she's not nearly as stupid, selfish and unlikable as Stephanie Plum. And the biggest bonus is that Hawk is not constantly nagging her about what she eats, he actually stocks his fridge with her faves, unlike Ranger.
This isn't a bad story, in fact it's really pretty good once you get past the insanity of what Hawk and Gwen have been doing for the past year and a half. But there are times when I felt Gwen let him off the hook too easily -- like the surveillance issue for one -- and the Rangerbabe fanfic feeling of the piece was pretty distracting. Especially since I loathe Ranger and Stephanie and that whole series at this point, those striking similarities were a bit of a drawback.
Still, Ashley overcame my hatred of those other
Hawk has much more depth, if not nuance, than Ranger has. His back story is poignant and difficult and makes some of his behavior much easier to take. He's much more layered and likable, IMO. Gwen is not an idiot but she does make some mistakes and, as I said, she sometimes lets him off the hook too easily. She is also someone who draws men like flies. There are at least three hot men interested in her at all times, which is another similarity to *gags* Stephanie Plum, only this time it's a lot more believable and makes more sense.
Which brings me to Tack, a featured character in this story (and one of Gwen's suitors) who becomes the lead in the superiorly crafted Motorcycle Man. He just kind of disappears at the end, and that was a bummer. His relationship with both Hawk and Gwen is complicated enough that I felt he should have been more present in the finale.
This is the second book I've read by Kristen Ashley. I started with Motorcycle Man, which is the 4th and final book in the Dream Man series. So many of my friends adore this author I was very nervous to give her a try. What if I didn't like her? That didn't turn out to be a problem, I do like her. I like her quirky heroines and her bossy, hunky heroes. I like that the females could be completely squished out by the males, but they retain their individuality and strength without taking anything away from the heroes. I am now reading the second in the series -- Wild Man -- and I'm pleased to see it doesn't seem to be following the same template as Mystery Man and Motorcycle Man. Her villains and their nefarious plots could stand a little more specificity, but the key for me is the romance and Ashley has a real gift for that, I think.
And I especially like that she's, until recently, a self-published author who's made good. Ashley is a competent, engaging writer in a sea of self-indulgent, story-challenged dilettantes. She has a huge backlist so there are plenty of options to try and I'm looking forward to getting to them.
If you're a frustrated Rangerbabe, this may be the HEA you've been dreaming of. It's certainly a much more satisfying tale than the tower of refuse the Plum series has become, so consider giving it a try if you haven't already.