Rating: 4.25 stars
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Ash Cooper and Jason McCarthy are Canadian law enforcement officers deployed to Afghanistan for nine months to help train the civilian police. When an IED destroys their convoy, Ash and Jason just barely escape with their lives and are given sanctuary by a group of Afghan civilians living deep in nearby caves. There they find another soldier, a nurse named Karen, who has been missing for a year and was also rescued by the same group. But they are in hostile territory and must remain hidden or risk attack by the insurgents. Their only hope of rescue is two broken satellite phones, and after weeks without a sign of the soldiers, the military declares Ash and Jason MIA.
Both men have left behind husbands in Canada. Ash is married to a nurse named Matthew. The men have been together for years and are now expecting their first baby via Matthew’s sister as surrogate. Matthew spent time in the military as well and understood Ash’s deep need to return to Afghanistan for this job training the civilian police. Jason is more recently married to David, a fellow small town police officer. The two started out as best friends, with Jason in the closet and David having been previously married to a woman. Now they are happily partnered, though David is only recently out to his family. The two are sharing parenting duties with David’s ex wife and got married right before Jason deployed. Boots on the Ground focuses on both of these relationships as Ash and Jason struggle for survival in the Afghan desert at the same time as their husbands try to have faith that their men will make it back to them.
When I read the blurb for this book, I was really intrigued by the idea of these guys being forced to hide out with Afghan civilians. Many books I read that feature military heroes tend to either be ex-soldiers or men on some super elite assignment. So I was interested to read a story that takes place in a war zone, but not featuring super powered heroes out there kicking ass on some mission. These are basically regular guys, men who felt strongly called to serve their country and to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Both lived happy, comfortable lives as law enforcement in Canada, but enlisted anyway to make a difference. We see almost no actually fighting in this book. Instead we see the aftermath of the attack as Ash and Jason struggle for survival and pray for rescue.
Stone gives us some great descriptions of life in the Afghan war zone, and especially life for these civilians living within the caves. I think most of us have heard about the cave systems, primarily in their role in sheltering Bin Laden. So I was really fascinated by the detail provided about how these people manage to live their lives essentially underground. We also get a lot of great detail about the vastly different social structure, primarily in the role of women. The nurse Karen has been forced to marry an Afghan man, as unmarried women are essentially community property to be owned and used by all. Ash and Jason are given complicated rules for interaction and behavior with women. I thought this part was really well done and quite fascinating.
One of the other things that I liked about this story is its somewhat unconventional structure. This isn’t your traditional man meets man, fall in love, face obstacles, live happily ever after story. The main characters, Jason and Ash, aren’t actually partnered or romantically involved with each other. So we are really getting three stories happening at once here: Ash and Jason in the present day trying to survive in Afghanistan (along with scenes of their partners at home), as well as the individual stories of Ash/Matthew and Jason/David told in flashbacks. I think it was a really interesting approach to give us these main characters who are not romantically involved and to weave all three of these stories together.
As well done as that is, I think this approach also led to some of the problems I had with the book. The first is that there is an awful lot going on here. We have one plot happening in present day (with scenes both in Afghanistan as well as with each husband at home), as well as two other plots happening in the past. So the book spends a lot of time jumping back and forth in time, as well as between characters. I actually think Stone does a nice job with this in that I rarely had trouble orienting myself or keeping track of “where” I was. But I do think that so much time focused on the flashbacks to their lives before the war took away from a lot of the immediacy and urgency of Jason and Ash’s situation in Afghanistan. They are truly in constant peril and their chances of rescue incredibly small. But it was hard to feel that intensity because we spend relatively little time with them in the present day. Even though they are not the romantic leads, I wish we had spent more time with Ash and Jason so we could really feel more emotionally involved in their dangerous situation.
The other problem I had, also stemming from the book format, is that there are an awful lot of characters to keep track of here. Essentially we have four main characters, along with a ton of side characters, including Karen, David’s ex wife, assorted coworkers, and large numbers of family members, all of whom get page time. Especially early on in the story, I had to really focus to keep track of each of the four men and with whom they were partnered, as well as basic details of their personalities. David and Jason’s extended families in particular play a big role in many of the flashbacks and keeping track of their many siblings and relatives was very difficult. Now I will say, this book is the second of the series and the first seems to have focused on David and Jason’s story. I have not read that one, and my guess is that if I had, I would have had a better handle on some of the other characters that appear in their story. I think this book stands alone fine in terms of keeping up with their backstory, but I think if I had read it I might have had an easier time following along with some of the side characters.
Along similar lines, we spend the majority of the flashbacks with Jason and David and their story definitely seems to be the primary one. I was actually really interested in Ash and Matthew and found them very likable characters so I was a bit disappointed to not see as much of them. Again, given that the previous book focused on David and Jason, and given where this one ends up (as well as the brief blurb for an upcoming book at the end), I am assuming that this was intentional. But I do wish we had gotten to spend more time with them.
I also want to mention that this story does contain two instances of cheating. Given the situation all these guys find themselves in, I think it is totally understandable and makes perfect sense to the story. In fact, I actually think it works well for the plot and the character development. So I was totally fine with it, but if you are a strict “no cheating in my romance novels” kind of person, this may not be the story for you.
So overall I really liked this one and enjoyed it quite a lot. I think it has an interesting approach to the story telling and really likable characters. I definitely will be interested in continuing on with the series and seeing where Stone takes it in the future.
P.S. There is a brief m/f sex scene in this book as well. I think it totally makes sense with the plot, but just wanted to mention there are some brief girl parts here for those of you that are bothered by that.