When I started reading Deception Island by Brynn Kelly, it seemed to follow the generic romance novel plot. Beautiful girl (Holly) gets kidnapped by dashing stranger (Rafe) who she can’t help but fall in love with, despite her better judgement. And, don’t get me wrong, that is definitely a main plot line in this book. In the beginning there are a suspicious number of instances where Holly has to be carried because of minor injuries, Rafe has to restrain her from running away, and Rafe has to forcefully kiss her to throw off possible rescuers. And despite the running commentary in Holly’s head where she admits that she should not be turned on by this, she falls in love with him. A lot of the moments are so tropey with sexist undertones that I couldn’t help but say “ugh” out loud. However, all the unnecessary touching that causes Rafe and Holly to inexplicably fall in love does at least set up the second half of the book which is far more entertaining and thought-provoking.
The second half is when we start to learn more about the characters. Holly has been subject to an abusive father and emotionally manipulative ex-lover who landed her in jail. Because of her past, she is afraid to open up again for fear it’s just another man who plans to take advantage of her. When Holly does get out of jail, she is offered a lucrative deal to be a body double for an heiress. Holly views this as her chance to finally be able to go her own way.
Rafe, on the other hand, was a child soldier who was saved in his early teens by aid workers. He suffers from PTSD which can cause him to flash back to his childhood and, in his case, lose control of his anger. He isolates himself from everyone, including his son, to save them from himself. However, when his son is kidnapped by the gang that once forced him to be a child soldier, Rafe does everything he can to get his son back. This includes kidnapping an assumed heiress (actually Holly) in order to maintain his son’s safety.
Eventually Rafe does find out Holly is not an heiress, and that he has no way now to ensure his son’s safety. Luckily by this point they’re already in love, so after a brief moment where he strangles her almost to death (like I said, “ugh”), they decide to work together to free Rafe’s son. This is when the story gets dark.
Holly is kidnapped (again) but this time directly by the gang that forced Rafe to do it the first time. These men have no concept of honor and view women as objects to be raped and sold. Holly is taken to a camp and kept with a group of Cambodian women who are to be sold into sex slavery. This is a very real, and very dark part of today’s world, that I was not expecting to find in a romance novel. It gives the story a sense of reality. Unlike what would happen in reality, though, it is of course only the white woman who comes out unscathed, while the Cambodian women are raped and murdered.
Without giving too much away, I will say that despite its many flaws this book has some small, feminist moments and goes further into dark topics than many romance novels would. There is still a fair amount of ridiculousness on the parts of both Holly and Rafe falling for each other. However, if you can get past that, the subplots shine through and make this book a decent read for someone looking for a romance novel that touches on weighty themes as well.