The Italian army is all Daniele has until a mission gone wrong puts him out of commission. Fresh from the hospital and suffering seizures and a case of seriously wounded pride, Daniele is informed that he’s got one more mission before he’s official decommissioned: help an elite member of a U.S. military group complete an undercover mission in Italy. He’s not excited about it, but Daniele doesn’t have much of a choice.
Steven is the best of the best and he’s got the battle scars to prove it. Now, he’s got his sights on taking out the kingpin of an international group of bad guys. While the case should be pretty open-and-shut, it still requires that he go undercover. That’s where Daniele comes in, providing Steven with a “cousin” to explain his presence in Italy. Yet the longer Steven works the case, the more he notices little differences. The skittish guy at the gas station, the way the commanding officer’s secretary goes outside formal lines of communication, and most of all, the consuming attraction he feels for Daniele.
The beginning of the end is when Steven suspects someone Daniele knows of playing for the wrong team. He is distracted going into the final confrontation with his target, trying to figure out if and how this person fits into the puzzle. That spells disaster for Steven and only time will tell if Daniele can pull it out of the bag to save the hulking American who’s carved a place out in his heart for himself. More to the point, what happens to them both when the mission comes to an end?
This story is not an ideal read for a blustery winter day where you’re bored out of your gourd and need something exciting and thrilling to read. Rather, this book would make a beach read where you’re only half paying attention anyway. Part of the problem is the lack of background in the story. From start to finish, Belt’s prose (all first person narrative, but it flip-flops between Steven and Daniele) clearly indicates these two characters have massive, individual Histories with a capital H. With Daniele, we get a scant smattering of references to his pre-military life and a few of the “fall out” he had with the military. They lacked the detail to give any real substance to Daniele’s ensuing emotional shortcomings. Throughout the book, he constantly talks himself out of pursuing anything with Steven expressly because of these two events that go, for all intents and purposes, unexplained and unexplored on-page.
It’s even worse for Steven. For one thing, Belt flip-flops between calling him a Marine and a SEAL. I disliked the characters and their situations enough that I didn’t notice personally, but it MAY be purely on Daniele’s side—and I say that because Daniele intentionally referring to Steven by the wrong branch of the military is EXACTLY the kind of douche canoe Daniele is. In the story, Steven’s military job serves these purposes: explain his hulking, muscular mass and provide a convenient way to add life-threatening drama through undercover ops. The portrayal of Steven AS a military man, however, felt flimsy at best and outright make-believe at worst; the weirdest thing was Steven owning a Jaguar and having it shipped to Italy for a mission that seems to take less than one week.
I found Daniele to be insufferable. He is brash, rude, and a complete dick—and that’s when he LIKES you. He loathes the pet name his best friend gives him, but then insists on doing the same thing to Steven. If he actually made the choices IRL he makes in the books, he’s probably get dishonorably discharged (threatening a doctor, interfering with another country’s mission (he had to save his one twue wuve), accessing military personnel/vehicles/etc. without so much as a by-your-leave).
On the topic of intimate relationships, this book is a huge flaming disappointment. First and foremost, Daniele and Steven cannot have an adult conversation about penetration. They seem to assume sex = penetration AND they both verbally/mentally equate penetration with weakness or “being the woman” or being passive. There is even a comment in there where Steven jokes that all the female nurses are hot for him…except one, about which he says, “She must be a lesbian.” I am not sorry to say I cannot stomach a book that seems to not just feature characters with toxic masculinity, but revels in that toxic masculinity. Perhaps its extreme, but I think trivializing this type of behavior just tacitly reinforces the “softer” aspects of rape culture…and this is nowhere near the caliber of book to address this social construct.
For me, Daniele is a total dumpster fire. And Steven, helpful sap that he is, is the fodder that flings himself into the inferno. Like Daniele, Steven is probably wholly unfit for the situation into which he’s been placed. He’s got serious PTSD…except it doesn’t really come out until the latter parts of the book. I cannot fathom why he gets an instaboner for Daniele because Daniele treats Steven like shit, but Steven keeps eating it up. This mysterious mission that takes Steven to Italy is never really explained beyond “top secret undercover mission to take out an international cell of…bad…guys.” On page, the book uses this mission to close one chapter “…and then Steven went to the warehouse to meet his contact…” and open the next, “…once he left the warehouse, he went straight back to Daniele’s apartment…” I have no idea what this mission is about, but it plays a huge part in the angst ramp-up at the end.
I don’t know. On the one hand, Daniele and Steven are practically made for each other. One guy can’t stop dishing out utter garbage and the other one is a garbage collector. Perfectly matched in their dysfunction.
ALL that said…I can’t help but wonder if all this might not be exacerbated by a poor translation. I am a translator (Japanese/English) and I’m currently working on a master’s degree in translation/interpreting. What I can tell you is that the quality of writing is fine if you only look at the grammar aspect of things. Subject/verb agreement is fine, the pronouns match the gender of the person with whom they are associated. Verbs in passive sentences are conjugated correctly. At first, I didn’t immediately know I was reading a translation. However, as I read more of the book there were numerous unnatural turns of phrase that I found distracting…and that, as far as I’m concerned, is a translation failure. Some examples:
1) Steven describing Daniele’s physique:
His shoulders are just as muscled, two vigorous hills hanging from his neck. And yet he isn’t sharp, not a bundle of nerves, stomach defined but soft, hips full of sweet meat.
2) Steven commenting about how wretched Daniele looks following an epileptic seizure, emphasis mine:
There’s [a bucket] in the bathroom and I empty it before bringing it over, watching Doria a bit worriedly as he wraps himself around it like a koala on a stalk of baobab.
(While there may be a relationship between baobab (those big fat-trunked trees in Madagascar…also a short-lived flavor of Pepsi), koalas eat eucalyptus. Again, this kind of mistake screams translation problem where the Italian word was just plugged into a dictionary and the first translation that popped out made it into the book.)
3) Steven after getting roughed up by a bad guy, emphasis mine:
Ignoring the pain I must all the strength I have and kick his legs out from under him…
(It should be “muster.”)
4) Daniele when he meets the traitor who will soon begin torturing him, emphasis mine:
The noob soldier now had a perfect asshole face, accurately ironed pants and shirt.
(“Accurately ironed” is a translation mistake, probably because the way an Italian would say “precisely ironed” or “crisply ironed” literally translates as “accurate.”)
5) Daniele’s best friend commenting on how exhausted Steven looks after having spend 24/7 by Daniele’s side while Daniele was hospitalized after being tortured, emphasis mine:
“Stevie look a little out of shape.”
(Out of shape means physically unfit; but nary a chapter goes by without Daniele panting after Steven’s Marine/SEAL body)
6) Steven putting the moves on Danielle (who, let me remind you, suffered being in the blast radius of some bomb days before the on-page action starts and a day of torture that left him with three broken ribs, gunshot wounds, and bruises all over his body), emphasis mine:
I hurl myself against him, pressing him against the stove. I kiss him passionate, hands stuck in his hair.
(You “run your hands” through someone’s hair or “card your hands” through someone’s hair.)
On the whole, I actively disliked the basic nuts and bolts of this book. The characters were annoying in their extreme melodrama. Basic “life facts” in the plot were blatantly un-researched, like if Steven was a SEAL or a Marine and the medical aspects of the drama prone Daniele. Not even the sexy times were fun because the discussion around them had what I considered to be strong overtones of toxic masculinity/rape culture. This book was a hard pass for me.