Riley is a freelance artist who works as a nude model at the local art school to help pay the bills his boyfriend tells him he doesn’t need to help pay. After all, Nick, who owns his own law firm, is hardly hurting for money, but Riley has his pride. The few hundred dollars he manages to put towards the mortgage isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but it keeps Riley from feeling like he’s dependent on Nick. There’s enough going wrong in their relationship already without money coming in to it.
Riley’s is art teacher, Mr. Tobias, introduces him to the infamous artist, Coliaro, who has requested him as a nude model for a private painting. Riley might well be the only person who hasn’t heard of the scandal; Coliaro’s paintings, the Oscuro Bello collection — poignant, masterful, nude paintings of a variety of men — were vandalized, the subjects’ hands painted into bleeding stumps and their chests gashed to bloody maws with missing hearts. On the heels of that, murders rocked the art world as thirteen pairs of men’s hands and hearts were found; the bodies were never discovered, and some of the victims were never able to be identified. Ever since, the artist has chosen to remain out of the public eye, until now.
While mulling over this chance for a large paycheck (because the artist is willing to pay very well), Riley is accosted by a man who calls himself Westwood, who warns Riley to stay away. Imagine Riley’s surprise when the man doesn’t use the scandal or the murders to scare him away. No, he tells Riley that Coliaro is a monster. An undead, immortal monster. He tells stories of magical paintings that changed themselves to mark the murders and speaks of a cult of followers performing rituals to keep the painter alive, and tells Riley to stay far, far away.
As tempting as it is to listen the words of a raving lunatic, the money and possible connections are too important, and while he doesn’t like the way Coliaro touches him or looks at him, the man doesn’t act like he’s a vampire or anything. Eager to put the whole drama behind him, Riley says his farewells once the painting is done and returns back to his normal life. Until the murders start again and the stories don’t seem so crazy. Riley’s painting is defaced and he gets to stare at a vision of himself, hands and heart removed, his face a painted death mask. Before anyone can find out who changed the painting, it’s stolen, leaving Riley with only more questions …
There is so much story to this story, and my review will give as little of it away as I can manage. This is a book that I honestly think is best entered in to blind. If you’re into Gothic romances, paranormal world building, broken heroes, pathos, dry humor, twists and turns, and a new sort of paranormal that is neither vampire nor werewolf, but something uniquely its own … you’ll find something in this book for you. While there are the standard beats of a young man entering into an unknown world of secrets and danger, it’s the way it’s done, with a character whose motivations feel so real and understandable, that make this a compelling read and character study.
Riley is a young man who knows he’s broken, who knows he’s probably depressed, but doesn’t have the resources or the energy to do anything about it. His brother hung himself from a tree in their backyard when Riley was 16, and Riley was the one to find him. The guilt and pain he feels at that, the responsibility for not being able to be there and to be the person his brother needed, eats at him, even now, ten years later. It’s also something he’s never shared with his boyfriend, even in the four years they’ve been together.
His relationship with Nick is a mess, to be honest. There are intimacy issues as Riley doesn’t feel comfortable with penetrative sex, at least not with Nick. It was fine when he had a brief affair with his professor while he and Nick were doing a long-distance relationship early on, but Nick forgave him and they’ve been moving past it, though Riley still has to deal with Nick’s jealousy and his own guilt. Riley can’t quite bring himself to allow Nick to fuck him. There are so many other ways to have sex, but… it just isn’t working for them. And it’s been four years. Four years of pressure, expectation, and let down. It’s a giant wedge in their relationship, along with the jealousy, feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and shame. Nick hasn’t even introduced Riley to his family.
Nick, as a boyfriend, is — at least he tries to be — everything patient and understanding. He loves Riley. It shows in all the small gestures, but the moments with Coliaro that bring out the lying, the long nights when Riley is away, leaving Nick wondering where he is; the new men in Riley’s life that Riley won’t either introduce him to or give him a straight answer about, it’s taking a toll on them. Through all of this Nick keeps trying, he keeps hanging onto the relationship.
Westwood, the dark horse in the race, is unstable, dangerous, and violent. He is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good person. He’s more … an anti-hero than a hero, and not just in the dark brooding bits. He has done some reprehensible things, and will continue to do them. If it weren’t for his own fascination with Riley, his own strange, emotional reaction to him, he might well have assaulted Riley rather than letting him go. Even so, when he does go after him, it’s aggressive, with some very dubcon moments. However, those scenes are all written from Riley’s POV and it’s clear to us what his thoughts and feelings are in that moment.
While this book has dark, heavy moments, it also has moments of honest dry humor. My favorite passage was this one:
“We’re not like zombies,” Westwood spat. “We’re like people. But much, much stronger.”
“Except you’re dead,” Riley said.
“So you’re dead, but if someone wants to, they can kill you again?”
“That’s right.” Riley wished he’d taken Coliaro up on his offer of cabernet[sic].[….]
Riley rubbed his head. “All right, I’ve had enough. Which of you is alive enough to drive me back home?”
In so many paranormal stories, the protagonist is a kickass with a gun or a sword or some magical power that makes them able to take on the danger. In this story, we have Riley. He’s not all that clever, he’s not all that smart, and he’s very aware that he’s a human in a world of monsters. He knows how easily he can be hurt and he’s so very scared at times. I really enjoyed both his bravery and his cowardice in almost equal measure as he tried to not only keep himself alive, but others, as well. His friendships felt real, and while there are some nitpicks I could point to (such as where were the police during all these murders?), they didn’t detract from my absolute enjoyment of this book.
This is the first book I’ve read by this author, but I promise you, it won’t be the last. Mostly because this is book one in a series, and then there’s the fact that I intend to read everything this author writes. The writing is excellent, the characterization — especially of Riley — is strong and so very human; the world building, the careful drips and drops of hints and exposition kept me guessing, and while I was right about some parts, I was also wrong about others (which, for the record, I love). There’s not a lot of sex in this book, but when it does show up, it’s done with a raw physicality. This book may not be to everyone’s taste, but it certainly was to mine, and I loved it.
Note: This title was originally published under an alternate pen name. This second edition has been re-edited and significantly updated.
This review is part of our Reading Challenge Month for New-to-Me Author Week! Leave a relevant comment below and you will be entered to win a bundle of fabulous books donated by Carina Press! Commenters will also be entered to win one of our three amazing Grand Prize book bundles. You can get more information on our Challenge Month here (including all the contest rules) and more details on New-to-Me Author Week here, including a list of all the books in this week’s prize.
A review copy of this book was provided by DSP Publications.