It doesn't much matter what I say about the new Nora Roberts novel, Black Hills; most of the adult female population of the planet is going to read it anyway. It's a staggering understatement to say that Roberts is review-proof. There are more than 300 million copies of her books in print, and she's written 160 bestsellers, 39 of which have debuted at No. 1.
I'm going to say what I think straight out: Black Hills is synthetic mind candy. It's not even very satisfying synthetic mind candy, like, for instance, Patricia Wentworth's soothing Maud Silver mysteries. Roberts could probably do better than a novel that, chapter by chapter, feeds her readers the top 100 female fantasies: (1) a rock 'em/sock 'em romantic partner who also takes out the garbage the minute he's asked; (2) a French lover; (3) lustrous hair that keeps its shape even when a serial killer is looking to scalp its owner; (4) a rollicking shopping spree with the girls, followed by a spa day the following week; (5) a fierce wild animal (in this case, a cougar) that, inexplicably, forms a loving bond with the heroine. Need I continue?
In addition to cougars, there are horses, hapless hikers and a serial killer in this latest bodice-ripper. Because that's essentially what Roberts writes: romances with a soft patina of suspense.
To give Roberts her due, she keeps this fluff aloft for hundreds of pages (partly by repeating the same sex scene every other chapter or so).
Black Hills isn't much of a suspense story, and the romance is so silly that it isn't even good fantasy fodder, but none of Roberts' fans will give a hoot.
For beyond any of the fantasies her individual novels heat up and serve, it's the tale of Roberts herself — her transformation from an average mom to a Dickensian lean-and-mean writing machine who maintains her down-to-earth, saucy persona in the face of stupendous success — that offers the most satisfying fantasy of all. That's a tale that Roberts' fans, as well as her critics, can agree to applaud.