Rating: 4.25 stars
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It has been 15 years since the second U.S. Civil War changed the world. Almost no one made it out unscathed and surviving is a challenge, with limited resources and danger always close at hand. After losing his wife, Van has settled with his girlfriend, Hadas, in a small town in Colorado. There he heads up Freshtown’s defense and leads the protection of the four local allied communities. Being responsible for so many lives is wearying on Van at times, both physically and emotionally. But he made a promise to his late wife to take over the mantle for her, and he means to honor his word.
Clark has found himself at loose ends and is looking to start over in Freshtown. After an injury to his leg left him in chronic pain and his relationship fell apart, Clark didn’t know what else to do but run, looking for something more. Clark is attracted to Van right away and is interested in some no strings fun. But things get intense more quickly than he imagined. Clark is not ready to open himself up to anyone yet and Van seems to want more than Clark can give. While Clark is happy in Freshtown, with his friendship with Hadas and connection with Van, he also finds himself shutting down and keeping them at arm’s length.
Life in their small towns isn’t easy and bandits are always looking to take what little they can acquire. When attacks escalate, Van and Hadas and the rest of the defense crew have to put their lives on the line to protect their friends. Clark is just starting to imagine what his life could be like with them in it, but knowing he could lose both Van and Hadas may be more than he can handle. Clark’s instinct is to flee once again, but maybe this time he can find a way to open himself up to the love and affection of those around him and find something special that can last.
I am a big fan of post-apocalyptic stories and the blurb for this one drew me in right away. I definitely enjoyed this story and found myself really caught up in the the journey. Despite the high stakes situation and the alternate world setting, at its heart, this book is about relationships. This is a true polyamorous story, with a variety of pairings, both casual connections, as well as long-term partnerships that develop over the course of the book. Van and Hadas are best friends and love one another fiercely. They have an emotional and sexual relationship, but not a romantic one, and both have various outside sexual partners. Hadas supports and encourages Van’s relationship with Clark, and in fact, plays a major role in helping the men to come together. She and Clark also grow to be close friends, but Hadas and Clark have no romantic or sexual relationship. I really enjoyed all these dynamics and this open style of love among all of them. These people live in a hard world and are often barely hanging on, and I loved seeing them figure out how to find happiness in whatever pairing or partnerships that worked for them. Hadas/Van and Clark/Van are definitely the primary relationships here, but like I said, there are others who come in and out.
A key focus of the story is Van and Clark each trying to figure themselves out as they build their relationship. Van has made a lot of emotional progress since the death of his wife, particularly since he has Hadas. But Van isn’t always good at talking and sharing his feelings, and since Clark is even worse, these guys really struggle at times. Clark is so emotionally reserved and he isolates himself so much, he really has to learn how to open up and share his thoughts and feelings. He is sort of lost and his default is to run or shut people out. So over the course of the book, Clark really grows and learns how to be a partner and how to communicate his fears and his feelings to make things work with Van. I wished we had seen these guys come a bit further, as most of the growth comes at the end and we don’t see much of the aftermath. But I enjoyed watching these guys get out of their own way and figure out how to make it work.
The world building is really well done here and definitely enhances the story. Freshtown is remote town with sort of a frontier feel. The people live fairly primitive lives, with little access to modern conveniences that used to be prevalent before the war. The country has been pretty much destroyed and while there is an occasional flash of technology, like an old phone, most of the time they have nothing but what they can scavenge or build themselves. It is a communal life, where everyone works for the betterment of the group and where there are few secrets or places to hide. The biggest threat, aside from merely surviving, is the outlaws who ambush their supply trucks and attack their villages. We know from early on that Van and Hadas will need to go out with a group and try to track the bandits down once and for all, so there is a lingering threat running throughout the book, particularly as we know many people were lost during the last big engagement. It also colors their relationship with Clark, as he worries he will lose them both just as he is opening himself up. One of the interesting elements for me is that some people, like Clark, are old enough to remember life when things were normal and others, like Van, have lived most of their lives during and after the war. Those different experiences have shaped both men and Kilaen explores that nicely in the story.
Despite some intense elements, particularly the battles at the end, this story really has a quiet tone for most of the book. It felt like we spent a lot of time sort of setting things up, but at the same time, I was totally engaged right through it. The story really picks up on that vibe of communal life, introducing us to the members of the town and letting us watch them interact and live and love together. I found myself very attached to them all, even those outside our main three characters. I enjoyed this one quite a lot and definitely recommend it for fans of post-apocalyptic stories and character-driven books, or those who want to experience a romance novel with some atypical relationship dynamics.
P.S. Since I know this matters to some folks, I’ll note that while Van and Clark have on-page sex, the other pairings do not and it is instead mostly mentioned in passing. However, it is clear that both men have other sexual relationships, both before and after meeting one another, and this is a true polyamorous story.
This sounds intriguing, Jay. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.