Kai just barely escaped his life in the city of Asylum, finding a mostly safe haven for himself and his sister in a neighboring city. It hasn’t been easy going, as his past affiliation with the Chromes means getting a decent job is almost impossible. What’s worse is that his sister has a benign tumor, but one that they can’t afford to treat. If Kai doesn’t get help for her soon, she will die. So when Kai is approached by the police who are looking to make a move on Sawyer and is offered treatment for his sister in exchange for Kai’s help, he knows he doesn’t have much choice. Kai returns to Sawyer and his gang, and manages to get a foothold back in the Chromes organization once again.
James can’t believe Kai has returned to Sawyer; if James had managed to break free of the abuse and the violent lifestyle, he would never come back. James is hurt over the way Kai left things between them, and doesn’t want to have anything to do with the man. Of course, this just encourages Sawyer to pair them together, and with time, a grudging friendship and attraction grows between the men. But life working for Sawyer is dangerous and violent and both men know they are always one step away from disaster. James hates Sawyer, but somehow can’t find a way to break free of the emotional hold the man has over him. Kai is there doing a job, and one wrong move could see him dead. He must keep Sawyer believing he is on his side.
When the men finally find a way free of life with the Chromes, it looks like they could have happiness together. But first, there is more danger to deal with before they can rest. And James must be able to take a leap and believe in the love and affection Kai has for him. If the guys can make it out with their lives and take a chance with their hearts, they may find their way to happiness.
The Traitor and the Fighter is the second book in Alice Winters Seeking Asylum series. While the relationship between Kai and James mostly stands alone, this book overlaps in timeline with the first book for the majority of the story. It gives us a chance to see a lot of events from a new POV, and we get a lot of great insight that helps illuminate things that have been going on. But reading this book first will definitely spoil some key elements of The Sinner and the Liar, so I’d only start here if you don’t plan to read the first book.
This series is definitely darker than Winters’ usual work and there is a nice gritty intensity the story. It is filled with violence and we see and hear about a lot of awful things that go on. James, in particular, has really suffered, and it is hard for him to see any of his own self worth. He is chained to Sawyer emotionally, and while part of him wants to kill the man, he is unable to break free. James is definitely a bad guy in the first story, so I loved how Winters gave us insight into the man here. We can easily understand how he became the man he is; years of abuse have scarred him both physically and emotionally. But we also see that there is more to James than we realized, which helps humanize him from the first book. I loved seeing James slowly come to realize that he can have happiness, that he can actually have someone important to him in his life. It takes a lot of work from Kai to show James how much he cares, and it is rewarding to see how far these guys come.
Despite the more intense tone to this story, there is still a nice overlay of humor that helps keep things from becoming too dark. The banter between James and Kai is fun and endearing. Poor James just can’t admit that he cares about Kai (or believe Kai cares in return), so there is a lot of insulting as a cover for true affection. Kai is a bit of a brat and loves to push James’ buttons. It is nice to see the men having some fun, even in the midst of all the danger.
The story has a lot of excitement, both early on as we relive some key events from the first book from James and Kai’s POVs, as well as later as the danger heats up again with new bad guys. But I think the middle here could have used some tightening. We seemed to spend a lot of time watching Sawyer treating James and Kai like trash, and them going out on awful jobs where they have to do horrible things. I think these events help to show first how terrible Sawyer is, as well as to give the relationship between the men a chance to grow. But I think this portion of the book could have been cut back and still developed these issues.
I also continue to think this series has a missed opportunity for a post-apocalyptic world. Aside from rampant lawlessness and walls around the cities, this could be modern day. We learn so little about what happened to the world, what regions still exist, or what is going on with the government that it seemed like it could be set almost anywhere at any time. At one point, someone mentions New York and I was like, wait, there is still a New York? And then it is just never mentioned again. So I think the world building here could use some more development. I also wish we learned more about what happened between Kai and James when Kai left the first time. It is referenced as if Kai did something to hurt James and it affects their later relationship when Kai returns, but we never learn what. It doesn’t seem they had any kind of prior relationship, so I am not clear what Kai did that hurt James. So I kept waiting for an explanation that never came.
Despite these issues, this was still a really solid, exciting story. Winters does a great job pulling in threads from the first book and giving us an engaging new perspective in this story. But even with the timeline overlap, this book still goes in some really interesting directions and there is lots of excitement. But the real stars here are James and Kai and I loved watching these two troubled men find happiness together.
P.S. Oh, and because it wouldn’t be a Winters’ book without some sort of crazy pet situation, shout out to Cerberus!