Story Rating: 4.25 stars
Audio Rating: 3.75 stars
Narrator: Tristan James
Length: 8 hours, 34 minutes
After 15 years in the FBI (ten of them as an instructor at Quantico), Special Agent Lincoln Monroe is confident in his intelligence, skills as a forensic genealogist, and aptitude as an instructor, so when the serial killer known as Dr. Fear reemerges after a 12 year hiatus, Lincoln’s personal connection with the most recent victims and his past research on the killer makes him itch to offer his assistance. When his former mentor’s daughter and fiancé are taken by Dr. Fear, Lincoln is finally tapped to join the hunt and sent to meet another agent in the college town, Apex, Virginia to follow up on a lead. Dubious of the lead to begin with, Lincoln is even less thrilled to find his partner is Special Agent Carter Warren, the cocksure classroom menace who “still haunted [Lincoln’s] nightmares (and occasional fantasy).”
When Carter’s past brings him to Apex and he stumbles upon a connection between the town and Dr. Fear’s victims, he can’t think of a more informed agent to help him than Lincoln. The fact that Dr. Fear targets couples, and Carter can’t imagine another agent he’d rather play house/bait with either, is simply a bonus. Even after 8 years, the impact Lincoln makes on Carter is as strong as ever, as is Carter’s effect on Lincoln. However, where Carter desires the prickly instructor’s attention and positive regard, Lincoln is quick to view Carter as the same too cocky troublemaker from years ago and second guesses him at every turn.
Despite his initial misgivings, Lincoln is forced to reevaluate his ideas of Carter when the younger agent shows how sharp-witted, reliable, and restrained he can be and illustrates his mettle as an experienced field agent. A good thing, as with less than two days to find the victims, a possible copycat killer in play, and personal tensions and fears rising to the fore, both men will have to reach deep to trust each other in order survive.
Variable Onset is an entertaining romantic suspense, particularly with its relatively believable science/procedures (barring the extremely fortuitous setup) and the killer’s motivations. The primary focus of the story is unmasking the serial killer; thus, the relationship takes a backseat and the burn is sloooow. Personally, I liked this approach because as a picker of nits, it drives me crazy when the MCs manage to cram 96 hours of sexcapades into a 48-hour case window. Here, Lincoln and Carter are believably cockblocked by check-ins, updates, and time-sensitive issues. It also works for who the characters are, as Carter needs time to earn Lincoln’s respect as a colleague— a monumental task as Lincoln and Carter met when Lincoln’s stage-fright was still too prevalent for him to capably handle a too smart, too handsome, and too flirtatious trainee. Moreover, separating the “real” from the cover makes them both hesitant.
The super slow burn also worked for me because Lincoln is a lot, so watching him thaw as he learns how competent, genuine, and mature Carter is, is delightful and helps make the relationship development more plausible. Lincoln’s description as “prickly” is being nice; “pissy housecat” is definitely closer to the mark as he’s quick-tempered, sulky, and waspish. It’s a good thing that Reyne establishes early on that he’s a terrible field agent whose strengths lie elsewhere because yikes. For all Carter’s sophomoric trainee behavior, he’s the levelheaded and dependable one. Don’t get me wrong, Lincoln is great in his lane, but his emotions and neuroses have too much sway. Part of it may be the pressure of the case and the rest attributable to his almost phobia levels of anxiety when dealing with people, but even one-on-one he’s usually less than pleasant. Conversely, Carter is patient, understanding, and does his best to respect Lincoln’s boundaries, ease his anxiety, and support him. To be fair though, Lincoln’s anxiety issues make him slightly envious of Carter’s easy charm and confidence; plus, Carter is cocky and likes to rile Lincoln up.
Tristan James does a serviceable job conveying this dynamic through most of the story, but this isn’t one of his stronger performances. Carter’s voice in particular poses a problem as the character’s undercover work requires multiple accents, and James seems to struggle a bit when trying to convey certain accents Carter uses. The Georgia accent for Carter’s cover is pretty solid, but Carter’s “neutral” voice is a bit too similar to Lincoln’s and at times it is difficult to follow who is saying/feeling what. And that New Jersey accent? Fuhgeddaboudit. There are also moments when character voices noticeably blend into one another. However, overall James’ voices fit the characters; his pacing is good; and his ability to deliver asides, cheeky banter, and emotional intensity is still prevalent.
If you’re in the market for an enjoyable listen and a procedural whose killer shares an MO with The Scarecrow™ (an underappreciated villain) and pairs an atychiphobic agent with the pyrophoric professor of his dreams then you may enjoy the Variable Onset audiobook.
And if you need more of Apex’s gossipy charm, you can read Sweater Weather, a short story offered during the Winter Wonderland story giveaway and now on Reyne’s website. It takes place 3 years after the events of Variable Onset and delivers amateur sleuthing and an HEA for the very sexually frustrated grad student who was bitterly disappointed to learn the new guys in town were married to each other.