Story Rating: 3.25 stars
Audio Rating: 3.25 stars
Narrator: Tristan James
Length: 10 hours, 4 minutes
Two years after the death of his husband, Sawyer Key is looking to start over. After being forced out of the county sheriff’s office by his boss’ homophobia, Sawyer is hoping to find a better atmosphere and experience as a detective in the Savannah PD. That hope starts to crack when he’s offered warnings and “good lucks” from everyone he comes across before even meeting his new partner, Royce Locke, and it almost completely shatters when Locke tells Sawyer in no uncertain terms that he is an unwanted nuisance Locke will only tolerate while on the clock.
However, Sawyer is determined to stay positive and keep his emotions (and his unwanted attraction to the arrogant Locke) under wraps. This is easier said than done as Locke’s hot and cold behavior and the glimpses of hurt and vulnerability Sawyer sees in his partner pull Sawyer in deeper. Soon, neither man can deny their chemistry, but Sawyer’s rawness over the death of his husband and the subsequent fear of loss, as well as Locke’s own demons, conspire to keep them apart.
As a fan of romantic suspense/cop-on-cop action and narrator Tristan James, I was really looking forward to Ground Zero; unfortunately, both the story and the narration are a mixed bag for me. Elements such as uneven pacing, the first-person POV with minimum insight into the other MC, and one of James’ weaker narrations left me feeling like the story was…fine—an adequate series starter with equally adequate narration.
Ground Zero’s pacing in both its narrative and character/relationship development is a bit bumpy and works against it. The story manages to simultaneously feel extremely long and also like too much happened in too short a time period, which kinda broke my brain. At the beginning, the narrative slogs along like your basic police procedural, with Sawyer mentally narrating his cop logic during various interviews and exchanges (except for the one time I needed him to explain since his actions were NOT what a seasoned detective would do in that scenario). But then I guess, there wouldn’t be the ensuing scene full of dramatics, confessions, pants-pissing, an ill-advised escape attempt, and another Locke “the d!ck” Show. However, the second half of the book drops the cop show vibe to jump into “Fugitive/Bad Boys” territory, at least in regards to the plot action.
This imbalance is also present in the character progression. For example, within three days of becoming partners, Sawyer and Locke snag two huge cases (one of which is solved in under 24hrs) and Locke swings from a straight(ish?)/only sleeping with the ladies type dude, with serious I-hate-the-very-air-you-breath levels of antagonism towards Sawyer, to ‘hey, big-boy come shower with me/I wish I was the man of your dreams’ levels of feels by day three. I don’t mind quick enemies-to-lovers transitions, but they need to be earned to engage me, and there just aren’t enough meaningful bonding interactions between Sawyer and Locke, nor enough Locke character development to get me there. You can’t have Day 1 Locke say:
I didn’t want a new partner; I will never want a different partner than Marcus. I might always resent your presence in my life. I won’t invite you over for cookouts, and I won’t accept an offer from you if you were to extend one. I don’t want to know your favorite food, music, books, or movies. I do not want to be your friend today, tomorrow, or maybe even ever.
Only for him to start asking Sawyer personal questions the very next day without some context, and since the narrative is in Sawyer’s POV, the only constant obsessing emotional insight we get is from Sawyer, who is jonesing for Locke within minutes of meeting because he “can’t resist rescuing wounded things.”
The solo POV also affected the pacing of the narrative in that Sawyer covers the same emotional ground of ‘I want this wounded meany/but I must be imaging things/oh, I’m not—well I still can’t have him because he’s not good for me’ ground many, many times while Locke swings hot and cold—which was most of the book. The lack of a counterbalance/reprieve via Locke’s thoughts, or at least a difference in his behavior, for so long in the story makes it seem unnecessarily long and redundant in places. I understand not having Locke’s POV and keeping him mysterious, but it’s hard to develop a character’s personality with consistency and make him feel real when they only seem to switch back and forth between two states of being. To be fair, I’m not saying there’s nothing in the text to give the reader an idea of who Locke is besides angry a-hole, there’s just feew opportunity to invest in the “real” Locke until the last scene of the book. And it’s not his requisite hearts ‘n’ flowers monologue that gets me, it’s his first few lines with Sawyer. Locke is cranky, concerned, sarcastic, and arrogantly charming. It’s the first time I really felt like I could see Locke—he wasn’t reduced to being “the wounded one” or “the angry, secretive guy.”
Usually, even when I’m having trouble connecting with a character, I can still glean something from a narrator’s performance—some nuances or emotions I may have missed that their interpretation of the characters and story may convey. Sadly, that wasn’t my experience with this audio version. Having listened to much of Tristan James’ work, I’m sorry to say that this is not one of his best showings. Sawyer’s voice is fine (James’ standard MC voice), but his Locke is…something—a cross between his Sam Kage/Ian Doyle voices (Marshals series) dialed up to maximum growl. I couldn’t help wincing at points and worrying about his vocal cords.
Beyond James’s somewhat static portrayal of Locke, the voices for several secondary characters either have fluctuating Southern accents or are simply nasally/weirdly annoying. I don’t know if this is because he was having a hard time doing a consistent, broad Southern accent and wanted to differentiate the characters in other ways, but I was not feeling it. Most importantly (to me, anyway) is that large portions of the narrative lacked the aforementioned nuances and emotional heft—all the inflections and vocal “mannerisms” that bring characters and situations to life. He nailed pissy/sarcastic Locke easily, but there are times of vulnerability or subtleties that I felt should be present, but weren’t. I mean for some of the sex scenes, I was more focused on James’ almost clinical recitation than on the smexy times. Not to say James’s delivery is dry, detached, or monotonous, just that, at times, it felt like he was simply reading a book out loud, unlike performances of his where I felt his connection to the characters and the story. Overall, Ground Zero is a decent series opener and James gives a competent narration, but if you’re a big fan of Tristan James, you might be better off choosing the text copy over the audio this time.