Jamal Zumati long ago decided he was going to serve his country as a payback for the care that they provided him as a child. He’s going to do whatever they ask of him, including going through the activation process to become a Hamra—a super soldier with heightened senses and abilities. But Jamal’s activation doesn’t go according to plan, and after becoming a Hamask he goes into a fury goes into a fury, also known as berserker. He’s put into hibernation and the military writes him off. After all, no one has ever come out of a hibernation and survived.
Lieutenant Ryan Walker, called Rum, has never done things by the book. His activation nearly ten years ago had him becoming a Vargr—the other half of a Hamra pair. His intelligence and mental acuity has him on a whole other level. Together with a Hamask, they become a complete pair, two halves of a whole. But Rum’s unpaired, and his unorthodox methods see him demoted and teaching prospective service members who are entering the HAVOC program. They may one day choose activation, and Rum uses his skills to manipulate the class so that they get all the information they need without breaking any direct commands.
But the general has Rum’s number, and he has more that he wants. He needs Rum paired and bonded so that he can have Rum for his Valhalla program, because it’s only as part of a bonded pair that Hamask and Vargr can be fully mentally stable. Using some well-known research, he convinces Rum that Rum can not only bring Jamal out of his coma, but he can calm the fury and bond with the man. Rum is so desperate to make a difference, and to have someone to bond to, that he’s more than willing to try. It’s successful, and immediately the two men find a connection.
As they begin to navigate their partnership, Rum is very conscious of not adhering to the social norms. He feels that a lot of what the military pushes about bonds and the Hamra is mostly down to tradition, not fact. And he and Jamal are proving it every day as they finally bond and take their partnership to the next level. They are together in every sense of the word, and are partners at work and at home. But Jamal is not without triggers, especially due to his botched activation, and they realize they have limitations as a pair. They have to work together to figure things out, and to find their future together. But if they can find that, they just might change the world.
Describing this book is not easy, and that’s because there is so much going on. And most of it works really well, giving a great and compelling story. The author did a good job here with the world building. While in the very beginning I felt just a little bit lost, I soon realized that the information I needed was being revealed a little at a time, doled out exactly as it should be. And it was easy to follow along in this military world of bonded pairs, of a Christian extremist group bent on terrorism, and of a military who is caught on tradition and not fully understanding what they have created with the Hamra. I liked the way Norse mythology was woven in and adapted, and thought that the whole thing had a unique and interesting feel. This kind of pair bonding is not really seen much, and I liked the different take on “mates.” Though it’s set in a futuristic world, it’s definitely familiar and believable. It’s less than 100 years in the future, and the technology is what really gives it away. It makes complete sense that the technology would actually be what Smith has created.
The characters, however, were where this book really shined. The secondary characters all worked really well, and were individual and distinct, which is always awesome to see. But the MCs were exceptionally well done, and I really loved these guys. Jamal, from the very moment I met him, grabbed my attention and held it fast. He’s got a determination, a solidness to him that I really liked seeing. Watching things go badly at first had my heart pounding a little because even though I barely knew him, I already wanted him to be the hero he was in his heart. Rum was a different kind of guy, irreverent a bit, but so stalwart and true. This guy has morals, and he will not be swayed. Yes, he’s an officer in the military, but he doesn’t play by the rules. Not if it means that it goes against his moral compass. It’s why he was demoted, and the conviction he carries is really great to see.
But then these guys meet, Rum goes in to wake Jamal up, and from the very first moment, their chemistry just explodes. I think that the reason I liked this book so much is truly down to these two characters. The connection was palpable, the way Jamal reacted to Rum had me glued to the pages. I loved the way his instinct came through, and how Rum immediately understood him. These guys connected on a base level, and watching them as they navigated the early stages, as they got to know one another while trying to form their partnership while being so closely monitored, was riveting. Each step they took closer to each other, the insecurities warring with confidence, was a lovely dance. Even as they struggled to find their feet, there was never any doubt that Rum and Jamal were not only going to find their way, but they were going to be something amazing once they got there. And still, the beauty of their relationship was the simplicity of it. Underneath it all, they were just two guys falling in love.
There are other things going on in this story. And to be honest, I have some mixed feelings about the side plots. There was another character who I would say was a third MC, and we got several passages in his POV as he explained—through journal entries, so it was in first person, present tense—about how he found his Hamask. While I was interested in this story line as well, and how it paralleled Rum and Jamal’s story, and gave the reader background to how pairings work, I found the structure a little jarring. Only because just as I was getting invested in one storyline, it would move to another. And then it wouldn’t return to this B plot for quite a while. This is down to personal preference, but the bouncing narrative hindered my enjoyment a bit.
The plot as a whole worked well, but I was a little confused at times, or wishing for more explanation. Especially after the story was done, I found myself wanting more from the military plot lines. I think I just didn’t understand fully exactly what was going on and why they were going on certain missions. Ultimately, it mostly tied together at the end. It was definitely cohesive. But I found it slightly lacking, and I needed just a bit more explanation.
Overall, though, I really enjoyed this story. In particular, the MCs were truly well done and I would read this book again for that fact alone. I can suggest this book to anyone who is looking for a different twist on bonded pairs, and for the military fans out there. It’s not your average book, and with stellar characters, the small quibbles are easily overlooked. Recommended.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.