Rating: 4 stars
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Six Degrees of Separation picks us up right where Donovan’s Six Degrees of Lust left off. Samuel Shaughnessy and Machlan O’Bannon are still working things out in what isn’t supposed to be a relationship, but has somehow turned into one anyway. After a horrible divorce and years of guilt over the death of his daughter, Sam is determined to never have anything serious again. But even after setting up clear rules for interaction with Mac designed to keep things casual, he finds himself continuously slipping as he falls for the man despite himself. And Mac is coming to learn just how to play things to keep his relationship going with Sam without scaring away the skittish FBI agent. With Mac getting ready to open a nightclub in New York, he is back and forth from Houston more often, and slowly the men become more serious, even as Sam tries his best to keep Mac at arm’s length.
At the same time, the investigation into the Leviticus serial killer continues. Lev is killing gay men he is picking up in clubs and leaving their bodies all over the tri-state area. It is also becoming clear that similar killings in Houston may be linked and that they could be looking at the same man. Sam and his team are desperately trying to figure out who is behind the murders, and their suspicious begin to turn to a man who has close connections with some of Mac’s friends. As they investigate further, slowly the links that connect Sam, Mac, and their circle of friends begin to become apparent. And as they do, it becomes increasingly clear that the danger from the killer is all around them. It also becomes clear that the men need to open up to each other about their lives and their pasts before they collide. But in order to do that, Sam must accept that he truly wants to be with Mac and allow himself to put the past behind him and move toward a future together.
So as I said, this story is the follow up to Six Degrees of Lust, and it essentially is a continuation of the same story. Which means that they really read like one long book and you must read the first one for this to make any sense. Part of that is due to the storyline the connects the books, and part of it is because of the unique set up of these books in that they are really full ensemble stories with deeply interconnected characters. Although Mac and Sam are our MCs and romantic leads, the books feature easily another 10-15 characters of varying levels of significance, many of whom get not only page time, but also POVs. What Donovan does here is quite interesting in that she really plays with the whole “six degrees” idea and we find most of our characters have connections to others, often that they don’t even realize. The first book spins this out in more of a sense of revelation than we find here as we are getting to know everyone, but still we are looking at a tangle of people here that creates a really interesting butterfly effect as actions in one place affect things in others.
In some ways I think this interconnection really works. As I said, it allows us to see all of these characters intermingle and how their actions affect one another. It also gives us an interesting investigation as Sam’s team also works as a group. Where most stories featuring law enforcement thrillers typically have a lone hero or pair of heroes investigating, here we get a whole team and it makes following the case very unique. But in other ways, I did find myself at times buried under the weight of all these folks because it is just a LOT of people to keep track of. And not just remember, but figure out who knows who and how. Again, it was a little harder in the first book as these folks were being introduced, but even here it required some concentration to remember whether two characters know each other (and if other people know they know each other, etc). Just to give you some examples, it turns out that Mac and his friends are also friends with Sam’s ex-wife Gabi, but don’t realize who she is to Sam. And the young boy that Sam’s co-worker Logan befriends from the LGBT Center also knows Ryan, one of the killer’s attempted victims, AND also knows Mac’s friend Chris independently from that. So like I said, fascinating, but also confusing at times.
The other issue that arises from all these characters is that with them getting so much page time, this is quite a long book. Almost 400 pages, and the two books together so far are just about 800. For the first 25% or so of this book, we are mostly just checking in on everyone. And even when things start to move, there are just a lot of people to keep tabs on. But I think on top of that, this story just felt too long and involved for me at times. These guys are sort of in the slow part of the murder investigation, the paperwork and the theorizing, and as a result, not much action happens to keep the momentum. We barely see or interact with the killer at all here. Sam and Mac are similarly stalled (more on that in a minute), and so there just wasn’t enough happening here to keep the energy up throughout such a long book. My favorite parts by far dealt with the investigation. I loved watching the team work and seeing them unravel the pieces of the mystery. And I found the last quarter of the book exciting and fast paced as things pick up speed with the case and the relationship. But I will say that when I realized the case still wasn’t wrapping up at the end of this one, it did make me wonder just how much more this plot can sustain. That said, I will admit I am hooked and will definitely be picking up the next book in the series.
Ok, a few more thoughts. First off, I really like Sam in FBI agent mode. He is smart and a good leader, as well as a good friend. I didn’t always like him in “I am NOT your boyfriend” mode. I get he has baggage. We see his past issues pretty clearly as the story goes on, so I see how he has closed himself off. But we are 10 years later, it seems like way past time to move on. But worse, he is frequently a total ass to Mac. And so skittish as to be almost absurd. He wants rules for every interaction, and even when moving past that, he freaks out at even the tiniest hint that he might actually like Mac, or want to spend time with him, or even just feel more than casual indifference. At one point Sam sends Mac a text that says “Miss me yet?” and the two of them act like he just proposed. Like near hyperventilation at that level of intimacy, which to me was a totally benign comment. I just began to lose patience with him after so long with all this fretting and hand wringing. And while I found Mac much more likable and relatable, I am not sure I always agreed with his “managing” Sam and his emotions. Now as the story continues, things much improve and we get lots of yummy goodness from these guys. But it takes a really long time, and again, I think things could definitely have been pared down here to keep the story tighter.
Another issue is that for all the really fascinating side characters — Sam’s co-worker Logan, Gabi’s best friend Chris, Mac’s friend Remy — we also have many truly awful people in the mix. So much so that at times I felt just overwhelmed with the hostility and unpleasantness that is roiling around. Sam’s ex Gabi is totally awful. On one hand she is supposed to be this fun, friendly woman, but she comes across as terribly selfish and self-absorbed. And while she has a gay bestie in Chris, she is also shockingly hostile to anyone who, like Sam, identifies as bisexual. Then we have Mac’s former best friend (and mother of his kids) Amy, who manipulates him and threatens to take away his children, and is also homophobic (and in cahoots with his homophobic mom). And Sam’s sister Sandy who sells her son out to stay in the good graces of her abusive husband (and is ALSO homophobic, or at least acts like it at times). It was almost surreal how horrible so many of these characters are and I felt a bit drained by it all, as well as frequently surprised by how much Sam and Mac (and others) tolerated from these awful people.
So a lot to say about this one, but as I said, it is a very long story, so I guess that makes sense. This was one where my rating seemed to go up and down throughout the book. At first I felt things were too slow, then they picked up and it got quite exciting, and then I felt a little let down that we still weren’t getting a resolution to the case. So here is my bottom line: the murder investigation was the best part and very exciting when we are in the thick of things, but maybe too much time is spent away from the action; Sam was frustrating for a lot of the book but the ending between him and Mac is great; some likable characters, some awful characters; and a lot to keep track of but also an interesting plot device. So overall I like this one enough to keep my interest peaked for the continuation of the series, despite some frustrations at times. I am excited to see Mac and Sam in their happy place, and look forward to finally finding out who is behind the murders.
P.S. As I mentioned a couple times, these two books are quite closely linked and not only do you need to read book one to understand this one, you really need to have it fresh in your mind. I got a crib sheet from Donovan since I read the first one a while back, but you probably are going to want to reread or read them back-to-back. Donovan also offered to share her recap with readers if you email her for a copy.