Aleksey and Nikolai have escaped the zealotry of Aleksey’s uncles in Hesse-Davia and established themselves in the beautiful and terrible New World. Whatever their new situation lacks in courtly intrigue, kingly duties, and other such trappings, it more than makes up for by merely providing a chance for these two men to love each other openly and freely—at least within the confines of their own so-called kingdom.
Yet all is not perfect…Aleksey ventures to a nearby colony and being the sociable, utterly likable man that he is, befriends several of the soldiers and other colonists. This causes no small amount of angst for Nikolai who comes to fear that perhaps he alone is not enough to satisfy his younger lover. Things quickly head south when Aleksey volunteers the pair of them to accompany a small band of colonists to investigate a inexplicably deserted colony just a day’s ride north of the ad hoc boundary to Aleksey and Nikolai’s parcel of land.
The small group is a motley crew, including a pair of trappers who seemingly know nothing about their professed trade and a mother and son who weave near perfect scenarios meant to entrap their fellow travelers in compromising positions. The group, combined with an almost tangible sense of dread upon arrival at the eerily deserted colony, all work to unsettle Aleksey and Nikolai. Strange occurrences begin happening and the suspicion slowly grows into something more sinister. Together, Aleksey and Nikolai must find a way to work through their own insecurities to focus on the real dangers…and as the bodies begin to pile up, they understand time is critical and there are no guarantees.
All told, I thought this was an excellent follow-up to the first story, A Royal Affair. Given the setting and the time-frame (and the fact that I’m an American), I found this story more relatable even though Nikolai makes a decided shift away from being a man of science into a man of certain faith. Our main characters continue to interact with that delightful spark of snarky sarcasm laced with quiet admissions of their true emotions.
For your reading pleasure, here is an example of Nikolai and Aleksey’s continued chemistry (Reminder: Stephen is Aleksey’s nephew, whom he made heir to the throne; Nikolai served as a colonel for Aleksey in the first book):
“I cannot believe that you think the only reason I do not return to Hesse-Davia is because I am afraid of hurting Stephen’s feelings. Are you really so stupid, Niko?” He hit me. “Niko? Are you?” His questions were always rhetorical; I had not realized I was actually supposed to answer this one.
“What? No. Yes? Sorry, what was the question?”
“Oh, you are—I could return to Hesse-Davia whenever I want, Nikolai. My uncles are dead. Stephen would release the throne to me willingly. I do not return because of you! Hesse-Davia is no longer my life—you are. Is this really news to you? Seriously, tell me that you had worked this out by now, being the great doctor and man of science and reasoning I once thought you were.”
“Yes! I know that!” I paused and added in a low voice, “You would make it clearer, of course, by occasionally sitting with me at meal times.”
“Oh, did my poor colonel have to open his mouth and join in some conversation?”
While I do enjoy seeing them making just these kinds of exchanges, it sometimes did turn me off a bit…like their connection is defined by their snark and tempered by sex and that’s about the sum total of it. Yet even as I say that, there is a wonderful set-up before the main action starts that address Aleksey’s dedication to Nikolai. Better still, there are threads picked up throughout the story that follow-up on their emotional short-comings and at least one scene where they face the lack of touchy-feely emotional closeness head-on and come out the better for it, I’d say. And that’s in spite of how often these two bump uglies—so just working on that emotional aspect of their relationship really does not inhibit their libido. I guess it’s the best of both worlds; I’m just glad we got to see them—to paraphrase Nikolai—pay attention to their hearts and not just their dicks.
The big departure for this story is how much it reads like a murder mystery thriller. At first blush, it reminded me of a sexed up (and m/m) version of something by Christopher Pike or R.L. Stein—you know, how there’s obviously something afoul going on and you’re trying to put the pieces together. It’s worth mentioning that this story is narrated exactly the same as A Royal Affair was narrated—as a written account created by Nikolai. Despite the narrator (Nikolai) obviously having the benefit of hindsight as he wrote the account, the words on the page leave you entirely with the mystery so you’re not going to figure anything out until Nikolai does on-page. (That is, unless you’re good at solving puzzles with key pieces missing or know of some true story that might be similar?)
I really enjoyed watching the relationship between Aleksey and Nikolai grow and deepen despite the atrocious situations they encounter. I enjoyed hating on the characters you’re obviously supposed to hate (that insidious mother and her wicked child!)—and yet Nikolai realized that we are all products of our environments, leaving him to wonder, wonder, wonder about that woman and her circumstances. The set-up for the main plot about investigating the suddenly deserted/abandoned colony was perfect; I thought Wiltshire did a great job starting that off as simply a fancy Aleksey had to pursue some adventure that grew into a great rope to ensnare character and reader alike. The ending wraps things up in such a way that gave me great relief. Although Nikolai definitely leaves behind any intimations of being a man of science (coming instead to favor a Great Spirit type of spirituality), the ending satisfactorily explained just what unfolded at the deserted colony.
There was just one thing that irked me and it was more writing style than actual content of the story/portrayal of the characters. Time after time after time after time we are given these blunt-as-a-butter-knife snippets of foreshadowing. One or two well-placed “…and if I’d know that BEFORE…” can be an effective way to bate the reader. I felt like every break in prose (not even just ends of chapters, but those scene-breaks or whatever within chapters) ended with these clunky allusions to future actions. I found them distracting and exasperating and thankfully, they dropped off once we got into the thick of the action.
That said, if you liked the first story, you’re sure to enjoy this second one just as much. I thought it was great that the change in setting gave us a change in style (again, more of a mystery thriller set up). The main characters are just a deliciously involved with one another (yeah, they have sex about three times per page in some chapters). The main supporting cast (i.e. that woman and her hellspawn) are trope-y but memorable; the others are much less-so, but then I’m not reading this book to find out about them so I was okay with that. All in all, this is a highly entertaining read.