TIGER'S CURSE. By Colleen Houck. Splinter. 416 pages. $17.95.
Inter-species romance has become routine in young adult lit lately, especially between nubile young women who like their guys muscular and wolfen, at least for part of the day.
In the kickoff to a trilogy from debut author Colleen Houck, the object of affection this time is feline -- a big cat of regal bearing with azure eyes and a purr that rumbles like a train.
This tiger is, of course, a gorgeous young stud of a man. But alas, he is cursed -- forced to spend the majority of his day on all fours, sporting fur, waiting to be thrown chunks of meat. Thus the title of this new series: "Tiger's Curse."
The book begins as a sort of "Twilight" meets Ringling Bros. when Kelsey, a recent high school graduate, lands a temporary job with a family-run circus that is making a stop in her Oregon hometown. At 17 and living with foster parents, she is grateful for this sleep-away assignment that involves selling tickets and sweeping up animal droppings.
Kelsey is an orphan who lost her parents to a car crash and has no blood siblings, no close relationships. Yet she feels a connection to an Indian tiger the instant he pads into the big top and begins jumping hoops for the crowd. She swears the tiger is staring at her during the performance. She's intoxicated by the commingled fragrance of jasmine and sandalwood whenever he's around.
Though Kelsey gets along fine with the circus regulars, she prefers spending time in the tiger tent, reading poetry to Dhiren -- or Ren, as the star cat is known. Over a scant few weeks, their bond grows so strong that when a distinguished gentleman shows up to buy the tiger and transport him to a wildlife sanctuary in India, Kelsey is offered the job of taking care of it.
So begins Kelsey's real journey, at which point "Tiger's Curse" morphs into a mash-up of "Twilight" and the "Indiana Jones" movies. It isn't long after arriving in Mumbai that Kelsey learns her pet tiger is actually a man for 24 minutes of each 24-hour day ... and not just any kind of man. He's a dazzling prince with an even more bedazzled estate in the middle of nowhere who, like Edward in "Twilight," is one seriously old dude.
Although he appears to be in his early 20s, he was born in 1657 -- just a couple of years before fellow brother/tiger Kadam, Ren's rival for Kelsey's affections.
Demonstrating no hesitancy in taking enormous leaps of faith thus far, Kelsey does what any young woman -- at the mercy of a shape-shifting 500-pound tiger and 8,000 miles from home without knowing a lick of Hindi -- would do: She traipses through the jungle with him battling evil plants, and her own amorous feelings, attempting to undo the spell on her beloved.
"Tiger's Curse" is an alluring premise that opens with a bang and occasionally bogs down with extraneous detail. Though Houck's affection for Indian lore is apparent, and she has an excellent sense of story and paints a vivid picture, her writing is extraordinarily plainspoken. Still, it isn't Houck's lack of linguistic artistry that is the problem so much as her lack of editing.
It simply isn't necessary to include passage after passage detailing the granola bars Kelsey ate or other minutiae of daily life. It is mind-numbing to read that her "swimsuit, hung overnight, was dry now. I tossed it in my bag, included a towel for good measure, piled the rest of my things on top of that, and made my way downstairs." There are far too many of these lackluster meanderings in "Tiger's Curse."
Houck is at her best when her characters are engaged either in action or a romantic interlude, when she can let loose her imagination and play to readers' emotions. Rick Riordan, James Patterson or Stephenie Meyer she is not, but Houck has a great story here that will hopefully improve with the trilogy's remaining two books, both of which will be out before the end of this year.
-- Susan Carpenter
Los Angeles Times