At around age twenty and tied down by exactly zero commitments, Jayden thinks this is the right time to track down his absent father figure. He just doesn’t expect to end up having to hitchhike along the eastern coast of Australia to do that. But his car has given up the ghost, leaving Jayden no choice but to walk or hop a ride with random truck drivers. When one suggests how Jayden can pay for the lift, he immediately disembarks, right in the middle of virtually nowhere. With limited funds, Jayden’s best option is weekly lodging at a tiny cabin at the River Bend Caravan Park and Tourist Resort. And “best” simply means he isn’t left out in the interminable rain. Still, Jayden wants to make the best of the situation; he gets his personal details straightened out at a local government assistance office and thinks he might stay a season to earn money picking bananas.
Then Jayden meets Hapi. The man looks equal parts gorgeous and dangerous—or maybe it is a touch of the sinister. Jayden is undeniably, yet puzzlingly drawn to Hapi. Every time their paths cross, Jayden feels a strange mix of desire and fear freeze him in place. It echoes in the way his subconscious offers up steamy, strangely disquieting dreams about Hapi. But Jayden gets caught up in a freak accident during a driving storm and he finds himself in Hapi’s questionably tender care. Hapi, who insists Jayden did not survive the storm and it’s only a matter of time before Hapi and his brothers perform a ritual to send Jayden to the underworld. Whatever dark forces Jayden encounters while in Hapi’s presence, they pale in comparison to the abject horror he feels when he learns the gruesome details of that ritual: evisceration. Trapped in a strange limbo where his doom is surely only a month, a week, a day away, Jayden must grapple with what his deepening connection to Hapi means—and if it can somehow translate into evading death.
Hapi is part of the Malicious Gods: Egypt collection, which is a set of four books by four different authors. Each story is set in the present day and, as indicated by the series title, features Egyptian gods/theology in the plot. Hapi is Cari Waites’ contribution to the set; her book is set in Australia and focuses on a very small cast: Jayden, the hero; Hapi, the anti-hero; Barry the resort owner; and short appearances from several of Hapi’s family members. Waites creates a world that is palpably monotonous, thanks to the interminable rain and dampness. This sets a mood where any activity feels welcome, even disaster. I liked how the literal grayness of the setting reflects the gray area that Jayden comes to exist in, and the gray area that is the book’s divine theme.
As a character, Hapi is a delightfully dark puzzle. Clearly, he presents himself as a god. The power he seems to hold over Jayden, the way he insists he’ll be part of the ritual that will ferry Jayden into the realm of the dead, and a possible allusion to him having an animal form all reinforce the idea that Hapi could literally be an earthly incarnation of an Egyptian god. On the other hand, Jayden grapples with the question of why any god would choose an Australian backwater as the base for their operations. Jayden makes compelling arguments about serial killers and perfectly slots into my idea of what Stockholm syndrome would look like. Of course, that trope touches on another aspect I enjoyed in the book: how much of what Jayden comes to feel is driven by his survival instinct and how much is driven by true attraction. Let alone the question of whether and to what extent the two can be separated.
For sensitive readers, I feel like the intimacy is very firmly planted in the dub-con category. Personally, I liked that Jayden at least acknowledges an instant physical attraction to Hapi before their paths truly become intertwined. This detail allowed me to hope that some of what Jayden felt was real and/or would help him cope with how his feelings towards Hapi intensify once he takes Jayden captive. It’s also worth noting that even with Jayden’s death ritual constantly on the horizon, I would classify the ending as (at least) a happily-for-now one. The whole possibility for a happy ending comes about in a way that, as a translator, tickled me.
Overall, I thought this was a great story. Knowing that the book is darker by design helped me manage my expectations where the romance was concerned. Yet Waites still delivers a steamy relationship that might get started as a dub-con situation, but develops into something that is potentially more. Readers who like a lot of tension in romantic/sexual relationships will also like the interplay between Hapi and Jayden. I always wanted to believe what they had would be “real” in the sense of “one true love,” but I also didn’t really expect such saccharine sentiments. I think Waites splits the difference in a way that really works for the characters and their situation.