Narrator: Paul Morey
Length: 8 hours, 47 minutes
Alex Taylor is one half of a bonded Guardsman pair. He is a Protector, the dog shifter portion of the pair, and his bond mate and Handler was human Theo Taylor. Three years ago, Theo was shot and killed. Everyone expected Alex to die immediately; that is what happens to Protectors when their Handler dies. Yet somehow, Alex defied all the rules everyone knows about Guardsman pairs and lived on. The Guardsman’s Institute of the Americas has studied him extensively and continues to bring him in for monthly tests, but no one can figure out how Alex is still alive without Theo. For his part, Alex wishes he had died with Theo, as he is still devastated at the loss of the man who was his other half and doesn’t know how to function as a Protector left alone.
Marcus Stephanek is an unbonded Handler. He has been waiting since his teens when he first manifested as a Guardsman to find his bond mate. In the meantime, Marcus has become a search-and-rescue expert and a respected teacher at the Institute. But at 26, it is long past the time Marcus should have bonded, and he is facing the very real possibility that he may never bond, an idea that devastates him.
When Marcus and Alex encounter each other at the Institute, the unthinkable happens and the two men realize they are bond mates. It is unheard of, both because Alex shouldn’t even be alive and because no Protector has ever bonded to a second Handler. Marcus is wary, knowing Alex’s past with Theo, but he is also thrilled to finally have found his partner. But Alex is destroyed at the idea of bonding with someone other than Theo. Although biology kicks in and forces the men to solidify their bond, Alex wants nothing else to do with Marcus. It is just too painful for him to put aside Theo and partner with someone else. After years of waiting and fears he would never bond, the idea of Alex’s rejection is devastating for Marcus. The two men end up fighting and can barely be around one another, so far apart emotionally and with no real hope for compromise.
Despite their feelings, the men have bonded and they have no real choice other than to be physically close together; Guardsman biology won’t allow them to survive being apart. They fluctuate between fighting and an uneasy truce, but a true, loving bond seems so far away. When trouble comes their way, however, Marcus and Alex begin to realize how much they truly care for one another. They are no longer able to deny the bond between them and the feelings that have been growing. Now that they finally have accepted their connection to one another, however, they must find a way to survive someone who is out there to do them harm.
Ok, I’ll admit it. After I read Kris’ glowing review of The Protector I was dying to read it. So when I saw that it was out in audiobook, I snatched it right up. And let me tell you, the story definitely lived up to her enthusiastic review. The creativity and the world building in this book are just amazing and elevate what could be a typical shifter/mating bond book into something really special.
So first off, the world building here is amazing and so creative. Obviously bonded mates are nothing new in the paranormal genre, but West really takes things in exciting new directions here. First off, I loved the human/shifter pairing here and the whole dynamic with the Guardsman. From the way these pairs bond, to the how they work together, to the connections between them, it was all just fascinating. There is so much rich detail here, so much time taken to develop the world in which these Guardsman exist, that it just makes the story totally engrossing. I also loved the way West plays with the Protectors as both humans and dogs. We see the different ways Alex thinks and behaves in dog form. His animal is really the other side of him, and I loved the details like how he senses much more in animal form, but has more trouble with things like processing complex instructions. I really have to say that the world West has created here is among the most fascinating I have read in a shifter story and I think this book is worth reading for that aspect alone.
The story also picks up one of my favorite tropes, enemies to lovers. Poor Alex and Marcus, my heart just broke for both of them. Alex is still struggling just to get by after Theo’s death. It is not just that his love has died, but that as a Protector, the idea that he would outlive Theo was just impossible. It has never happened before. So everyone, Alex included, has pretty much just been waiting for him to die, and in the meantime, testing him nonstop to figure out just why is still alive. So Alex has never really been able to get past Theo’s death as he lives with it, and his own surprising survival, as a constant part of his life. When Alex bonds to Marcus, he is devastated and sees it as a betrayal of his life with Theo. He just can’t accept Marcus and wants nothing to do with him. While we can understand Alex’s feelings, our hearts break for Marcus too. He has been waiting his whole life for a Protector, has despaired of it ever happening, and when it finally does, it is with a man who doesn’t want him. Marcus is heartbroken and angry and doesn’t know how to handle the situation. So these guys fight and argue and try to deny the bond that draws them together, despite how they both feel. West does a nice job here making us really understand and empathize with both these men as they are stuck in this situation that looks to have no solution.
One thing I particularly liked about this dynamic is that the story pushes beyond the traditional fated mates element. Yes, these men are drawn together by a biological mating bond that seals them as a pair whether they want it or not. But there is definitely no instalove here, or a sense that just because a pair bonds they will be a perfect match. We see that Marcus and Alex have to work for the emotional connection and that their romantic partnership does not come easily, despite their bond, something I really appreciated. On the downside, I did feel like the conflict between them draws out a little longer than necessary. The men spend most of the book at odds, and only really come together emotionally in the last quarter of the book. I wished we had more time to see them together and working as a Guardsman pair, happily bonded. Instead we get a lot of fighting and a lot of time with the two of them at odds.
What pulls these guys together, ultimately, is the threat that comes their way. They face shootings and kidnappings and other dangers from someone who seeks to do them harm. I don’t want to spoil things by getting into too many details about what is going on here, because this mystery/suspense element plays out really nicely throughout the book and I found it added a lot to the story. I also really enjoyed the connection between Marcus and Alex and their friends John and Sam, another bonded pair. Along with Alex’s friend Ryan, these side characters really enhanced the book. Ryan gives us kind of an outsiders view on the Guardsman world and John and Sam give us the perspective of a happily bonded pair. These three were all nicely developed and great additions to the story.
I listened to this story in audiobook by Paul Morey, one of my favorite narrators. Morey does an excellent job with this story, with great pacing and tone. He carries the voices off well for these gruff men and even does a nice job with the women, something that is not always easy. He also is great at the sexy scenes, another common challenge for narrators. There were a few times I felt like Marcus and Alex were not distinct enough from one another and I would get them confused in conversation, but for the most part the voices are clear and unique with lots of variation to the side characters. My only real trouble spot was Ryan, who came across really nasal and whiny and didn’t sound natural in comparison with the other characters. But overall I thought the narration was excellent here and the story works really nicely in audio format.
So I thought The Protector was really excellent. Like I said, I think the book is worth reading for West’s amazing world building alone. I would be thrilled to get another story set in this world and the creativity and detail really kept me captivated from the start. I loved Marcus and Alex and found myself rooting for these poor guys to find a way to make it work together. So a great story and one that I would definitely recommend in written or audio form.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.