Rating: 4.75 stars
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Length: Novel

 

Henry and Bastian have won. The killer empath is in custody, Major Valentine and Doctor Wright are behind bars where they will spend the rest of their lives, and Henry has been promoted to Major and given command of the Compound. Now he and Bastian — and Laurel, the plantspeaker who saved Bastian last year, and who was instrumental in finding the evidence that helped put down Valentine and Wright — have a chance to turn the Compound into what it was always supposed to be: A place for the psionically gifted to learn to control and use their powers safely.

It’s a lot of hard work. The assets have been tortured, experimented on, and many have had their memories tampered with so much they don’t even know who they are anymore. The new assets are justifiably wary, but thanks to Bastian’s presence as someone who endured the worst the Compound could throw at him and still managed to retain his humanity and humor, they’re willing to give it a try. Unfortunately, no one else is.

The Council in charge of the Compounds seems determined to find fault with everything Henry and Bastian are doing. They’ve sent Major Alexis, a man with his own compound, to look into how Henry is running things. Senator Donnigan has only vitriol and contempt for the whole thing, Senator Nunez is always vanishing, and someone’s trying to break in to the Compound’s computers. Two new assets arrive, one of whom is a child with shocking powers and no memory; the other is James, a firestarter from Laurel’s doomed and destroyed Compound. Laurel welcomes him with open arms, but Bastian, an empath, can sense no emotions from the other man.

And then there’s Bastian himself. His headaches are getting worse. Nosebleeds are a regular occurrence, and he refuses to talk to Henry about it. They both know he’s dying, that his power is killing him … but no one knows what to do about it. Well, that’s not quite true. There’s a voice in Bastian’s head telling him that there is a way … a voice Bastian can’t afford to listen to. Hope is a dangerous thing for a dying man to have, especially when his lover, his family, and his people are under attack.

I was somewhat hesitant to read this book considering my mixed reaction to the characters in Dark Empathy, the previous book in the Compound series. Happily, any issues I had were completely blown away by this story. This is not to say the first book in the series is bad, it’s just that this one has stronger writing and stronger characterization and humanization of those characters. And there are quite a few new intriguing characters in this book, as well as a better and more in-depth look at Henry and Bastian, which helped me connect with them and their story.

Bastian is a survivor, not a hero, but people keep confusing the two. The new assets treat him like he’s done something amazing by surviving Doctor Wright’s experiments. And it makes him uneasy. He wants to protect them, to keep anyone from having the power to hurt the assets ever again, but that doesn’t make him remarkable. It just makes him not an asshole. (So he thinks.) In part because of the looming specter of his death, Bastian is opening up to Henry and to Laurel. He’s saying the important words: I’m sorry. I love you. Thank you. And each time he does, he can feel how happy it makes them.

Henry is doing his best, having had his command less than two months. He’s trying to protect Bastian, to worry about Bastian, and not to be too obvious that he and Bastian are lovers … while trying to keep things running smoothly, balancing budgets, attending meetings, and not rocking the boat. Henry has always been a Good Boy, doing the Right Thing and obeying all the rules. He has been raised in the Compound schools, knowing the rules by heart and how to salute and nod and say nothing but “Yes, Sir.” Which makes it hard when he has to stand up and say “No.” or “Back off. Sir.”

There’s also the delicate knife edge he’s walking in hiding the fact that he, too, is an asset. One whose blood, like Bastian’s, has been drained from him. While Bastian’s was used to boost or enhance or alter the powers of other assets, Henry — as a Negator — can cancel out powers, and his blood has been used to make serums used to control other psionics. And the Council isn’t happy at loosing their two pet projects. Neither Henry nor Bastian know who they can trust and there are red herrings and false leads all over the place. Bastian doesn’t want to be a burden on Henry, or be the reason he fails. And Henry refuses to let Bastian suffer or die. As much as he feels the burden of responsibility for the other people in the Compound, he’d let them all go for Bastian.

The world building is so good in this book. Everything good in the last book is here amped up to 10. The various powers expand from the expected (electricity, water, wind, and plants) to shadows, memory erasing, memory altering, tracking — which I think is my favorite one; from finding the right book in a library to finding a path in the forest, or a path through uncertainty — or hacking. The Council and Compound become more fleshed out and more nefarious as the layers are peeled back to see how they can be corrupted by uncaring people. Even Bastian’s empathy takes a new turn as that power is explored more.

The writing is strong, the pacing is tight and focused, and the side characters are all of them intriguing. Major Alex all but raised Henry, being the one to oversee his training. And watching as he works on Henry, prying at every crack and fissure in his relationships, in the run of the compound, is honestly unsettling. Laurel’s reunion with James seems so sweet, but as time goes by, her own memories begin to fragment, making her wonder what is real and what isn’t … and every decision she makes feels very much a Laurel decision. This book was just plain fun. It held my attention from the first page to the last and I honestly can’t wait to see the next book in this series. While the first book in this series didn’t catch me, this one certainly did, and didn’t let go even once.

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