salt and ironRating: 3.25 stars
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Length: Novel

James van Helsing is a member of the famous van Helsing monster-hunting family, dating back from before the days one of his ancestors famously fought Dracula. He and his family now run the Firm where they hunt witches and monsters and keep the world safe. James has a secret, however, one that he keeps hidden from his family and from his best friend Gabe, and that is that James has magical abilities. He can fix time, set a future, and even though he doesn’t mean to do it, he knows everyone would be horrified if they found out.

FE2LW badge copyOne day James, Gabe, and others at the Firm are called in for a seemingly routine arrest of some witches. Nothing is normal about this case however, and soon Gabe and James find themselves in the middle of a great evil that threatens Gabe’s life and exposes dangerous secrets that have long remained hidden. James is determined to fight for Gabe’s life, to help save the man he loves, but as more horrors are uncovered, the men will be lucky to escape with their lives.

So this story had some things that I think worked well, but some other areas that were problematic for me. I think the highlight of the story is the creative world building and the unique take MacNeil has on this monster-hunting family. It is inventive and kept me engaged and nothing about this story took me quite where I expected. I would say the story walks the line of paranormal and horror, and some of things that happen are quite evil, even to the good guys. So I think MacNeil succeeded here in creating something unique and interesting.

I will admit, however, I did find myself quite overwhelmed at times following along with all the intricacies of the plot and the world building. It could have easily been just me, but as I read I kind of felt like I was just barely hanging on much of the time, just barely grasping what was happening as I read. It took a lot of mental energy to sort things out and honestly, I don’t think I succeeded a lot of the time. For example, we learn that James can do divination, that he can “fix time” to a destiny, but I am still not sure I completely get what that means, despite the fact that it is major element of the book. They also use the expression “reading-in” and “reading-out,” which are again important issues in the story, and they went completely past me as we get virtually no explanation of what they mean. Other issues weren’t so much understanding terms, but just following the plot elements and understanding what exactly was happening in the story. I spent a lot of time vaguely confused. But as I said, that could easily have just been me, and I think the plot and story MacNeil has built here are still interesting despite my confusion.

I read this book for Friends & Enemies to Lovers Week, and I must say this area is a disappointment. I am not sure if I can even convey how undeveloped the relationship is between these two men. We know James is in love with Gabe because he tells us. Later Gabe tells us he loves James. That’s it. For the first third to half of the story, these guys barely interact at all, even as friends. They work together, so we see them on page together, but they seem at most to be casual friends. Nothing about them even says best friends, let alone romantic interests. Their feelings for one another are just not expressed at all. Again, I am not sure I am conveying this well enough, but there is just nothing there at all. Now as the story continues and Gabe is threatened, we see James step in to help. So we could interpret this as a sign that his feelings for Gabe are more than casual coworker. But again, NOTHING is expressed or shown on page beyond a couple of mentions that they love one another and then reading between the lines of James’ actions when Gabe is in trouble. So needless to say, the friends to lovers element was quite lacking here for me and the whole relationship just fell flat. I liked these guys, and I liked them together. But we just get no sense of how they feel about each other in any real way.

One last thing. The story is told in third person, present tense, which is not my favorite style but didn’t bother me here. MacNeil manages to avoid the common pitfall of present tense where stories can often sound like they are being narrated aloud as a series of actions. So things are written smoothly on that front. I did find it kind of odd the way the POVs are handled, however. We are in James’ POV exclusively for the first large chunk of the book, then suddenly we shift to Gabe’s for portions of the story. And later we get POVs from Rob (a coworker) and James’ mother and brother. To me these side character POVs seemed quite out of place and somewhat jarring. It almost felt like a device to let us see things that were happening when our MCs are not around and I found it threw me out of the story a bit to suddenly jump to their viewpoints.

So I was of mixed feelings here, as I said. Some of this worked nicely for me. The world building is interesting, the plot is creative, and it kept me interested throughout. The plot does go quite dark; I definitely wasn’t prepared for some of the more horrific moments and I think MacNeil just walks that line to keep things from totally going off the rails toward the end. But again, I think this is an unique story that kept my attention. I just wish more effort had been put into the relationship development between Gabe and James. It is just so lacking, so flat, that we just get no sense of these men as a couple, nor share in their feelings for one another as readers. Overall I think if you want a unique paranormal/horror story, this may be worth a try if you can handle the lack of relationship development between the men.

Note: This book is being offered as a prize in our Friends & Enemies to Lovers Week Giveaway, along with more than 100 other prizes!

A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.

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