Salain Dusari is the medical examiner at the Westerli station. He’s grumpy and sullen and very much a loner. But he does his job well, and takes pride in it. When one of the bodies in his lab is taken out, displayed, and painted on, Salain immediately calls for an investigation. And then he realizes that the painting on the victim’s body is actually a maze, and that the Maze Killer has returned. And that means Salain has to call in detectives from his old station, the ones that tracked the Maze Killer before, and with whom he has a history.
Arman Omisto is as jovial and happy to see Salain as always, but Salain is more focused on Jevette Tunalti. As the detectives take over, Salain feels Jevette’s animosity. When the killer strikes again, it rocks Salain to the core. The investigation goes even more sideways when yet another body is found, in a place it shouldn’t be. While looking into that second murder, Jevette and Salain are forced to flee for their lives.
Trapped in the unrelenting sands of the desert, they struggle to survive. And in the process, they not only rekindle their attraction, but also stumble on the clue that breaks the case wide open. Finally, they seemingly catch the Maze Killer and begin to put the case to rest. But nothing is as it seems, and Jevette and Salain’s burgeoning relationship is the catalyst that sets their worst nightmare in motion. And they might not make it out alive.
I was immediately drawn into this story by the author’s ability to set a sense of place. It’s a world covered in sand, an unrelenting desert that colors every aspect of the characters’ lives. I was right there in the middle of the blazing heat, practically feeling the grit of sand. Which is definitely a bonus, since my real world was just buried in two feet of snow. But while it had a great sense of place, I felt a lack of world building here. It was a weird mix of contemporary and foreign land, and I never could quite get my bearings. There were guns and swords, but no way to communicate with others if you weren’t speaking to them directly. The paint was special to the region, and could allow a person to step inside a painting and experience it, but it was hardly explained. While an interesting aspect for sure, I felt it was used as an easy way to explain and experience certain plot points. I needed a little more world building here to feel solidly in the story, despite being able to clearly picture the actual world I was reading about.
What really worked for me were the characters. Told in first person from Salain’s point of view, I really enjoyed his narrative. He’s the kind of character I love, grumpy and rude, but with solid reasons behind it. He was wickedly clever and put pieces together quickly. Every aspect of his motivation was startling clear, and I liked watching him open up and reveal himself to the reader as the story progressed. I could understand easily why Jevette was the man he wanted, and I could see how they worked together.
Jevette was a more complex character in a way, and while I definitely got a lot of what drove him, there were a few things that didn’t quite track. He has a deep sense of morality and loyalty, which I really enjoyed. And his protectiveness was perfectly balanced with his ability to let Salain do what he needed to do. However, I would have liked more explanation as to why he let Arman dictate some of his actions. And I never quite understood what drew him to Salain. Don’t get me wrong, these guys worked on every level, and their chemistry together was great. But I didn’t know why he would want to be with Salain in the first place. They had a brief affair two years ago, but the reader was left to just accept it, not to understand what brought them together in the beginning.
As for the mystery of the murder, I had a harder time with it. One of the plot points there was painfully clear, and I figured it out very early on. The characters, though, took longer to get there, which didn’t exactly track with how intelligent they were. I couldn’t quite believe no one had thought to find that particular connection before. And as for who the killer ultimately was? Not a surprise to me when it was revealed. I fully expected it to be who it was. However, it wasn’t because there were clues laid out, but rather because it’s been done too many times before This was a bit of a disappointment, as there wasn’t enough explanation, either before or after.
So this story was kind of a mixed bag for me. I definitely enjoy some parts, and the characters really worked. But I found the mystery a little lacking, and would have liked to see something a little different or more surprising. In the end, I would cautiously recommend this book to anyone who likes law enforcement stories with a bit of fantasy thrown in.