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The Ultimatum by Karen Robards
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Thief. Manipulator. Con artist. Call it what you will—Bianca St. Ives is the best in the business.
Growing up, Bianca St. Ives knew she was different from all her friends. Instead of playing hopscotch or combing her dolls' hair, she studied martial arts with sensei masters and dismantled explosives with special-ops retirees. Her father prepped her well to carry on the family business. Now a striking beauty with fierce skills, the prodigy has surpassed the master.
She's known as the Guardian. Running a multinational firm with her father, she makes a living swindling con men out of money they stole—and she's damn good at it. She does things on her own terms. But her latest gig had a little hiccup—if you count two hundred million dollars and top secret government documents going missing as little. Her father also died on the mission. The thing is, the US government doesn't believe he's really dead. They'll stop at nothing to capture Richard St. Ives, a high-value target and someone who has been on most-wanted lists all over the world for over two decades, and they mean to use Bianca as bait. With only a fellow criminal for backup and her life on the line, it's up to Bianca to uncover the terrifying truth behind what really happened…and set it right, before it's too late. ( )
  treehousereader | Aug 8, 2017 |
Romantic suspense master Robards delivers an intrigue-laced, edge-of-your-seat thriller, but the HEA is delayed. Whelan keeps the adrenaline flowing from the prologue where a four-year-old's family is assassinated. The intensity rackets higher as the now adult “Bianca St. Ives”, trained as an elite thief capable of slipping in and out of numerous personas, attempts to escape a failed heist that leaves most of her team dead. Whelan uses the following interlude where Bianca sets up a legit security firm to display her vulnerability, protective instincts, and desire for close personal ties. However, to save an innocent child, Bianca dives back into danger. Whelan conveys the full range of confusing emotions as Bianca unravels her past and the truth about the man she has always called father. Her fleeting encounters with the equally chameleon-esque operative "Mickey" ring with humor and potent chemistry. The sequel can’t come quick enough! ( )
  ktoonen | Jul 17, 2017 |
4.5 "Super Soldier Heroine" Stars for the story and 5 stars for the narration.

What an engaging listen! I absolutely loved the suspense and powerful, super talented heroine who can give most superheroes a run for their money (think of her as a feminine version of MacGyver--the late 1980s and early 1990s hit TV show--or Sidney Bristow from the 2000s hit TV show, Alias). Amazingly, as many books as I have read or listened to by Ms. Robards, she never ceases to surprise me with her creativity and ability to pen completely different stories with no mold.

If you love suspense this is a must listen. However, as Ms. Robards is known for her romantic suspense titles, I must caution listeners that this is not a traditional romantic suspense title. While there are threads of romantic elements weaved in--it seems like those threads are primarily intended for future installments--as no real romance occurs in this book.

Bianca St. Ives, whose nickname is the "Guardian", has never lived a conventional life. As a small child she was taught what can best be described as spy skills rather be allowed to play normal children's games. As an adult she, along with her father, and a group of others run an organization where they help recover money and priceless objects from thieves. The more complicated and dangerous an operation the better.

On one such mission, however, Bianca's life is turned upside down when she believes her father is killed by an explosive. Unfortunately, however, the US government is convinced this is another one of her father's tricks and they are blackmailing Bianca to determine his whereabouts. On this fateful mission Bianca also meets an agent who she shares an intimate moment with before she turns it around to her advantage. Nonetheless there is the beginnings of something more there and their subsequent meetings are equally charged--however, the agent is also under the impression that her father is still alive, and wants her cooperation to turn him in.

What will Bianca do? Just what is the truth?

Julia Whelan delivers a marvelous narration. Her voice is perfectly suited to bring the calculated and unshakable Bianca to life. Moreover, Ms. Whelan is able to deliver equally believable male characters by deepening her voice. In fact, she gives each character their own unique sound--with older characters sounding older and even being able to deliver a convincing young girls voice. She also produces genuine American and English accents and shifts back and forth seamlessly between the two.

I also really enjoyed Ms. Whelan's ability to pace her delivery for optimal enjoyment. Adding an edge of danger to the suspense scenes, and generally timing her delivery so that the listener can just sit back and enjoy the story.

All in all, suspense lovers will be both intrigued and entertained by The Ultimatum. Please note though that this book ends in a slight cliffhanger, so you will definitely want to pick up book 2, The Moscow Deception), which will continue Bianca's story and is scheduled to be released in 2018.

Source: Review copy provided for review purposes. ( )
  B.J.O. | Jul 16, 2017 |
I hadn't read anything by Karen Robards before but the premise of The Ultimatum sounded fun so I picked up a copy in exchange for a review. The summary introduces us to Bianca St. Ives, a woman who grew up being trained by her father in covert skills to help her in the family business of high profile grifting and theft. The summary continues to explain that their latest job "has a little hiccup" and she is set on a path to try and uncover the truth "behind what really happened."

I'll avoid spoilers in this review but I will say that this book plays an interesting balancing act between focusing on the present time and the history that lead Bianca and her father to the life they are currently involved in. The book begins in Bianca's childhood with an explosively traumatic event that goes largely unexplained for hundreds of pages while still hanging on the periphery as a suspicious influence on the action of the book. When the prologue of the book eventually connects to the main plot, the effect is surprising in a disconnected sort of way. It's an unpredictable twist which is normally fine except that it felt so disconnected from everything else that it left me confused as to what the book was trying to do beyond being 300+ pages of developing Bianca's character to be used in future books. As a side note on Bianca's character, the book summary (and the series subtitle of the book) says "She's known as the Guardian" but nowhere in the book did I notice any reference to her being called the Guardian or any reason why she would be called the Guardian (her role in the jobs she did with her father weren't really "guardian" roles).

The structure of the book struck me as a little odd to read. This is an adventure novel....a thriller. And yet it is a surprisingly slow paced. The first ~100 pages are spent in painstaking detail of the first mission of the book (the one that has the little "hiccup"). We spend multiple pages walking with Bianca across the ballroom floor, down the stairs, through the crowd, etc. We are privy to lengthy segments where Bianca analyzes the situation or where we're given a historical exposition on her relationship to a given character or event or location or whatever happened to cross her line of sight at the moment. This wealth of information is certainly interesting and it really helped me better know her as a character and understand the motivations and situations but the slow pace kept the suspense and thrills to a minimum. Not only was there a lot of detail but it often came in very lengthy sentences or paragraphs so much so that I sometimes had to re-read a segment to make sure I understood what was going on and at times when we finally returned to the main action I had been taken so far astray that the intensity of the situation had dissolved a bit in my mind. It's a difficult criticism for me to make because on the one hand I really enjoyed and appreciated the details and the commentary that's given but on the other hand I was a little frustrated that (for an action/thriller) it took so long for the story to progress in any meaningful way. In that sense, it felt more like a piece of 19th century literary fiction rather than 21st century action/suspense fiction.

There are three main story sequences in the book. There's the bungled mission mentioned in the summary, the mission of Bianca trying to deal with the government/crooks that are after her because of the bungled mission and then there's the overarching "truth behind what really happened" story that begins with the prologue and finally comes back to light in the final few chapters. The main two story arcs felt natural and fun even if (as mentioned above) I often felt like they moved too slowly for what they were doing. The "truth" story arc felt like an odd addition and I felt like it was the main culprit in the slower pace of the main story because those other story elements had to do the heavy lifting of providing details to allow the overarching plot device to finally be revealed at the end. And since the main purpose of that plot line was to set up a series of novels featuring this character, I was a little let down by the way things turned out.

As a couple of random caveats for those wondering about family friendliness I will acknowledge that the book did have swearing but it is minimal. It also includes some awkward moments of "romantic" tension. Mostly it has scenes where Bianca uses her feminine charms and/or slinky dresses (or in one instance, her loss of her dress and thus just her underwear) to try and put her male counterparts off-guard. In a scene involving a strategic kiss there is some language around inconvenient arousal. Mostly I feel like the book would warrant a PG rating (though some of the "arousal" details may make a parent a little wary and push PG-13 for some).

Overall this was an enjoyable read with some interesting story elements. The twist at the end to set up a unique character for a new series is intriguing but I'm debating whether or not the whole package is compelling enough to make me want to seek out another book with this character. I wonder if subsequent books will be allowed tighter pacing because they don't have to try as hard to seed the plot with little secrets or if it will maintain this slower pace throughout. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy slower paced stories and I liked the details and information provided in this book but it was not what I was anticipating with this book and as a result I was let down when I didn't find a faster paced adrenaline riddled book.

It's a fun story with good writing and while the writing style felt a little disconnected from the nature of the story, I don't regret reading this book. If you're interested in a thoughtful adventure/suspense story with some intriguing twists, go ahead and check it out.

***
3 out of 5 stars ( )
  theokester | Jul 14, 2017 |
Bianca St. Ives grew up learning the skills that have transformed her into the Guardian. She’s good at what she does, and she does it on her own terms. But everything has gone wrong on her latest mission.
Now she needs to uncover the truth about what really happened that disastrous night, the night her father, Richard St. Ives, died.

Or did he?

Readers will find much to enjoy in this fast-paced, suspense-filled adventure. With believable, likable characters, an interesting premise, and enough action to keep the pages turning, readers won’t be disappointed. The quasi-cliffhanger ending perfectly ties up the plotlines in the story and, at the same time, segues into the next book in the series.

Highly recommended. ( )
  jfe16 | Jun 22, 2017 |
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