Top positive review
Meet Karen Witemeyer's Best Pair Yet in a Book that Commands You to Keep Reading
Reviewed in the United States on June 29, 2020
Karen Witemeyer returns with the debut of a brand new series that looks like her usual Western, but has some new elements and twists I thoroughly enjoyed. This time, she pairs proper but unconventional town doctor Josephine Burkett with ex-military captain Matt Hanger--who also happens to be the leader of Hanger's Horsemen. With that setup, I knew I was in for a different kind of romance and was not at all disappointed.
The first thing I loved about At Love's Command was our lead couple. They play off each other well and make a great couple. By turns, their interactions are sweet and romantic, spiced with banter, or filled with the adventure of a couple doing battle for each other and those they love. However, they stand alone as multifaceted characters, too. I could identify with Jo and her "ten-dollar words"; I've often been accused of using those, and like her, I tend to use education or vocabulary as a defense mechanism when I know or feel I'm being condescended to, underestimated, or just plain treated like dirt. I also respected Matt's commitment to the Horsemen and his military experience, but enjoyed watching him grow into a more nuanced, compassionate, and thoughtful person.
That's not to say Matt isn't manly, though. Actually, if this guy got any manlier, I don't know what I'd compare him to--an Avengers hero? He's absolutely swoon-worthy at many points in the book and might in fact get my vote for Swooniest Hero of 2020. During the last half of the book, I found myself wishing and praying for a faithful man who would fight for me the way Matt fights for Jo. But part of that, again, comes from the fact that Jo is the antithesis of a damsel in distress. She carries a lot of traits I try to emulate, such as always being calm, in control, and mistress of herself, as Elinor Dashwood would put it. But I appreciate how she also needs to learn to be still, to forgive, and to give up control, because I've been there, too.
The secondary characters, too, were absolute pleasures. I loved getting to know Mark, Luke (Preach) and Jonah, and am looking forward to their novels (please, Karen, I don't mind novellas, but don't cheat me)! I'm most intrigued by Jonah, but all three Horsemen kept my attention. Additionally, I enjoyed characters who didn't get a lot of page time but made their presence known quickly and memorably, such as Jo's father and housekeeper Darla. I even enjoyed Charlie, because he turned out to be a deeper character than I expected. That is, I thought I was dealing with a typical, empty-headed, spoiled rich boy--until he pulled a fast one. Then I expected him to be a fairly serious antagonist, until his journey took a realistic but surprising turn again.
The plot moves along at a great clip and kept me guessing. Specifically, Charlie's rescue takes place about halfway through, so I wondered, "Okay, what are we doing for the other half?" I thought Karen might shortchange me, but wow, was I wrong! The book went in a different direction than I would ever have guessed, but again, nothing came out of left field. Karen balances plot threads with a careful but creative hand here. In addition, I appreciate that while she touched on some common historical issues, such as Jo being underestimated as a female physician, these were not the focus of the entire plot. That would've made the book too trope-heavy in my opinion and taken away from some well-developed, unique characters.
The spiritual threads here are, again, a well-balanced mix of subtle and organic, and central to the plot and genre. It sounds hokey, but my favorite example was when Josie's introspection leads her to remember, even hardened outlaws were kids once. She comes to that realization in an organic way, so her spiritual growth and that of others around her feels natural. I also liked Karen's twist on the prodigal son story, since Charlie is not your typical repentant prodigal, and Josephine, the faithful daughter, is the one who actually ends up in trouble. But, both Burkett children end up in desperate need of a father's love, and Karen brought that arc back around to a satisfying conclusion.
Karen sprinkles in some little things that add unique flavor to At Love's Command as well, such as brief but informative discussions of horses, breeding, and ranch life. There are some brief but well-placed interactions too, such as Matt's meeting with Johnny Spafford and Josephine's discussion with Arnold Watson. Overall, this first installment is a triumph and I can't wait for the next one.