ROMAN (SAINTS AND SINNERS) by Kennedy Streath is a teen romance of sorts but not one for the fainthearted. This raises teen angst to an entirely new level and adds a large dose of supernatural malevolence and mystery.
The heroine, Teresa Jane, or TJ as she is known for short, is an athletic sixteen-year-old whose life has just been severely disrupted by the death of her mother. She is uprooted from the privileged but loveless life she knew to live with a father she doesn't know (Benedict Nowak) in the poor, mining community of Montville. When she meets Roman, a seventeen-year-old delinquent her father is watching over, she is not scared by his dark intensity and feels inexplicably drawn to him. Providing a suitably sinister backdrop to all this are strange occurrences at the mine, that seem linked to events involving Roman that occurred four years ago, and untold, arcane secrets held by Benedict's cousin, Father Tomaso Marcus.
TJ was asked to choose which parent to stay with when she was only 5 years old and that choice has haunted both her and her father ever since. She regrets staying with a mother (Eleanore) who was only ever interested in herself and her own status, but it doesn't mean that she can immediately relate to a father who also feels awkward about the way events have suddenly thrust them together. The only person that she loves and trusts is her brother, Anton (Tony) but he is a soldier and has to rejoin his unit, frustrated that he cannot protect her from "the harsh realities she would face in a town torn apart by fear and poverty." She has to come to terms with an alien environment and a new school that doesn't cater for her athletic ability. Some relief comes in the form of Marsha, her brother's girlfriend, who is facially scarred from her own experience as a soldier, and who befriends her and tries to help her settle in.
TJ also gets some flattering attention from a group of boys at school, headed up by a handsome but shy Latino boy called Manny. However, though her brother warned her to stay away from Roman and she knows it would be better for her to start a more acceptable relationship, they share a visceral, almost unearthly, connection.
The first thing that struck me about this story, was some of the unusual language the author uses. The first chapter read almost like poetry in places. For example,
TJ considered how fitting that the same ugliness that inflicted those who paved her road to glory would lay her low.
I have to admit that this was a little disconcerting and I would have preferred the starting chapter and some other sections of the book to be more direct and coherent. However, I did come to like the unconventional nature of the writing and there were many parts of the story where the author's use of metaphor was extremely effective. For example, I was immediately captured by the description of Roman "with piercing coal black eyes, the glint of evil and the promise of heaven warring across the planes of his arrogant face".
Though she is only sixteen, TJ is a strong character who adapts remarkably well to her new situation and I admired the way she didn't complain, like most teenagers would, and the way she stands up to Roman, despite the air of violence and menace oozing from him. I also liked the way the author voiced the reader's questions through her. For example, Roman's taciturnity and strange way of staring at TJ would seem odd to anyone and TJ describes him as a "perv" and declares "If he wanted a staring match, then a staring match he would have."
The dynamic between TJ and her father is done very well and very believably. The author shows how the love is there to be tapped but how difficult it is for Ben to exert his influence over TJ and believe himself as a father when he knows he has not been there for her. They have to tread carefully with each other and I liked the way this is done from TJ thinking that "he hadn't earned the right to care" to Ben wanting "to grab his shotgun and roar out of the house, bellowing his rage."
The author makes Marsha an appealing character. She helps to ease the tension between TJ and her father and makes TJ feel very welcome, even introducing her to martial arts in order to appease her competitive spirit. The author also paints a lovely picture of Marsha's relationship with her rescuer, Tony, as an example of how powerful and transcending love can be.
Roman himself is the ultimate dark, brooding almost anti-hero. When we learn what he really is, he captures the reader's imagination even more. I was disappointed that he doesn't speak more and that we are never given any clear insight into his real origins or mission. This is really the only aspect of the story where I felt the author failed. The author intrigues us with all this allusion to Father Marcus's research, Eleanore's strategizing, the evil within the mountain and Roman's role as "protector" and then none of this is properly explained. I felt the ending was also rushed and unsatisfactory in this regard.
ROMAN (SAINTS AND SINNERS) by Kennedy Streath is a story that doesn't immediately hook you but works on you inexorably like a slow-acting drug. The narrative can be a little obscure but the style is very original and often very eloquent. The characters are strongly drawn and the plot, though quite grim, is fascinating rather than depressing. It is not a lighthearted, sexy romance but will appeal to those who like something a bit more dangerous. I do hope there is a sequel.