Author: Steffanie Holmes
Genre: Paranormal, Fantasy, Romance, Erotica
Rating: 3 Stars
Alexandra Kline has landed her dream job – curating her first art exhibition at the prestigious Halt Institute in the small English village of Crookshollow. But the dream quickly turns into a nightmare when she’s forced to work with Ryan Raynard – the arrogant, reclusive artist who refuses to co-operate with her. When Ryan’s paintings don’t show up at the gallery on time, Alex heads out to his crumbling, gothic manor to give him a piece of her mind.
Billionaire artist Ryan Raynard hides a dark secret. He is a fox shifter, who shuns the company of humans and hunts alone at night in the forest surrounding his home. But the moment he laid eyes on Alex, he can’t help but be drawn to her. He can sense that she’s the descendent of a powerful shifter clan, and she is destined to become his mate. If only he was ready to fall in love again …
As Ryan and Alex are drawn together, they realise they are facing bigger problems than Ryan’s stone-cold heart. Crookshollow is being overrun with a different kind of shifter – ruthless and deadly, these shifters are killing humans indiscriminately for no apparent reason. And they are hot on Alex’s scent. Can Ryan keep Alex safe from harm, or will his need for her endanger them both?
WARNING – SPOILERS MAY ENSUE BEYOND THIS POINT – REVIEW BELOW
I had such high hopes for this book. Art of Cunning by Steffanie Holmes started with a bang. To be honest, I wasn’t aware of the page count of the book when I picked it up, and had I known, I probably wouldn’t have. I’m not a fan of short stories or novellas in general, and I try not to pick up books with less than 100 pages bare minimum… this book clocked in at about 95 pages. So, full disclosure: I didn’t know this was a short book, and some of my nitpicks about the pacing were made without that information.
The book started strong. I immediately fell in love with the main female lead of the story, James Alexandra Kline (or as she prefers to be called, Alex). She was witty, smart-mouthed, and strong willed. She was the type of woman who didn’t put up with a lot of BS, and she wasn’t afraid to take control of a situation when needed. I thought she was fantastically written from the very first page, and she was the major reason that I immediately became engrossed in the story.
The other characters, however, were not as strong. Outside of Ryan Raynard, the story’s main male lead, none of the other characters seemed fleshed out. Not one of them was explained past a cursory greeting. The characters were mostly 1-dimensional, with a little more filler for Alex’s roommate and Ryan’s mother. Even Ryan himself was a little 2-dimensional. My first impression of Ryan was standoffish and recluse, which quickly changed to domineering, and then… well…. flimsy. The man ran hot and cold with his personality and his decisions, and it was a bit hard to follow at times. One moment he was stiff as a board and trying to stay as far away from Alex as possible, the next he was trying to seduce her… and five minutes later he was back to trying to abandon her again.
As for the plot, well, it was good—but it could have been great. The story started strong with a lot of mystery and danger, but by halfway into the plotline, it all seemed incredibly rushed. It felt as if there was a lot more to the world building that could have been woven into the story—but because of the page count, most of the backstory and world building that we needed to understand the storyline was dumped onto the reader all at once in monologue-like tirades. As I read, I sincerely began to wish that the author had made this into a full fledged novel rather than a novella—because I think with a little more leeway with the pacing, this story could have been great.
Technically speaking, the writing was… dare I say it? Sloppy. There were a few typos and missing words—nothing too jarring—but the biggest problem with the quality of the writing was the amount of contradictions present in the character’s decisions as well as in the way the author handled the narrative. If you want to avoid spoilers, now is your time to look away. (Go ahead and skip the next two paragraphs).
From practically the moment Ryan met Alex he was trying to push her away. He acted disgusted with her—which, okay… I get it. She showed up in his life like a sudden shotgun blast to the groin, and he didn’t handle the situation well. The second time they meet, as he’s explaining to her that he’s a shapeshifter, he clearly states that he isn’t looking for a mate. He doesn’t want one in any way shape or form, and he’s certainly not interested in falling in love with anyone. His position on the matter is made very clear… but within the first hour after that he’s doing everything in his power to try and win her over. Whatever Ryan’s misgivings about having a mate, he seems to totally forget them in the blink of the eye. He spends the rest of the book being pushy and trying to weasel his way into a relationship with her. It felt, well… sleazy—as if the author had lied to me. I was expecting Ryan and Alex to fight their attraction to one another for a little while, but the conflict was lost because of Ryan’s about-face as far as the relationship was concerned. Alex didn’t fair much better. By the end of their second day together she was basically throwing herself at this guy she barely knew. I won’t even get into the amount of red-flags this set off.
That wasn’t the only plot hole though. Despite Ryan’s insistence that the shifter world be kept secret, he barely flinched before explaining everything to Alex’s roommate, and the next day the couple have a full-out conversation about shifter mates in front of a taxi cab driver—and this wasn’t even in the back seat of the cab… Ryan insisted in sitting up front next to the poor confused man. Not even the one-and-only sex scene was spared. Not long after Ryan puts on a condom (let’s not even stop to talk about the fact that he’s claiming his “fated mate” at the time—one I can only assume he’s planning to have cubs with… since that’s kind of the point—and so a condom seems kind of needless… but… whatever), the narrative goes on to say—and I quote—“Finally, Ryan’s own orgasm claimed him. He cried out and collapsed against me, pumping his seed deep within me.” You can argue with me over the semantics if you want to, but this isn’t a line you read in a sex scene usually when a condom is involved… that’s kind of what the condom is for.. to prevent the deep pumping of said seed.
(If you were waiting for the spoilers to end, you’re safe now.) Overall, the story was interesting. It started off strong, and I really liked Alex as a female lead. The plot was interesting, and the writing, though it had its flaws, flowed well. I do think the story could have benefitted from a slower pace, and I do think that there was an uncomfortable amount of contradictions in the story, but those problems didn’t keep me from enjoying most of the book.
If you’re looking for a solid paranormal romance, this probably isn’t going to meet your expectations. The characters personalities tended to be a little all over the place, and they made some pretty terrible decisions throughout the course of the story. If you’re looking for a steamy erotica… well, this might not meet expectations either. There is one sex scene. Yup, just one, and you have to wait until the very tail end of the book to get to it. There were undertones of BDSM involved, but it clearly didn’t stick to the safe practice thereof, and to be honest, the sex didn’t seem to fit the characters personalities. If you are looking for a fun, slightly naughty read that you can devour in an afternoon… this is going to be right up your alley. Though the book wasn’t perfect, it was an entertaining read, and overall, I did enjoy it. It was spectacular by any means, but it wasn’t something I’d turn my nose up at either.