Of course, Elijah knew about crime lord, McIntyre, and how the man ruthlessly controlled the entire city of Deadwood. He also knew that a new crime lord, known simply as Shai, was methodically taking over part of McIntyre’s city. Despite the obvious risks, the lure of a quick buck was too much for Elijah to resist. After all, he had virtually nothing back home and every intention of only being a small-time drug pusher for a short while. But the best laid plans often go awry — and Elijah’s plan is far from the best. McIntyre’s men catch him in no time and Elijah finds himself as the human punching bag for the entire ring. His world narrows to beatings and pain. His loathing for that bitter existence makes him strong enough at least to reject McIntyre’s offer for escape. Not because Elijah doesn’t long for freedom, but because his stubborn pride is the only thing left of him and he refuses to give that up to kneel for a man like McIntyre. For all his efforts, Elijah is rewarded with a one-way trip to the river.
Instead of simply dying, however, Elijah wakes up to find himself in the most ostentatiously sumptuous home. If he thought his luck was bad running into McIntyre after just a few weeks of encroaching on the man’s turf, he was sorely mistaken. Left for dead at the bottom of the river, Elijah was rescued by none other than Shai’s men. All the stories of how mercurial, how vicious, how cold the man is pales in comparison to the reality of him. Shai is an expert at manipulating those around him to get what he wants and Elijah is no different. If Elijah hopes to survive being Shai’s captive, he’ll have to pay careful attention to Shai’s words and actions. That proves to be no small task given how unreadable the man is. Everything is a game or a test or both to Shai. One wrong step could have devastating–or just plain deadly–consequences and Shai makes sure Elijah knows exactly what is at stake. Elijah didn’t survive McIntyre to be killed in one of Shai’s machinations. But if he hopes to survive Shai himself, Elijah will have to sublimate the man he thought he was and remake himself anew.
Shai is the first book in H. L. Night’s Twisted Web series (this first book is also part of the Malicious Gods: Egypt multi-author collection). It takes place in the modern day and the narrative is told in first person, usually from Elijah’s POV, but there are several chapters told from Shai’s perspective. Given the provenance of the book, readers will surely know this is not a warm-fuzzy story, but one that explores the darker (darkest?) aspects of human nature. Major themes (triggers, if you will) in the book are well noted by the author and include: non-consensual sex, Stockholm Syndrome, and forced drug addiction, among others.
The Stockholm Syndrome elements were so well done. Early on, we learn that Elijah originally identifies as strictly cis het. Almost immediately upon meeting Shai for the first time, he finds himself in a position where he’d leverage anything to avoid a “test” from Shai; specifically, Elijah wants to avoid having to spend the night locked in a room with an extremely poisonous snake. It doesn’t take long for that desperation to lead Elijah into promising any sexual activity Shai desires. I was enthralled with the transformation Elijah undergoes throughout the book and Shai’s role in it. While there is so much that changes, I thought one of the big changes was how Elijah goes from engaging in sexual activity with his captor as a way to get that captor to leave him alone, to ultimately wondering if he actually likes sex with another man. With the help of an addiction to a drug that unleashes his libido, Elijah constantly craves the kind of sex Shai can offer. But the longer Elijah stays with Shai and the more they interact, the simple act of giving his body up for Shai’s pleasure takes on a different quality…even without the mind altering drugs. At the same time, Elijah is very aware Shai simply cannot be a real lover. And as much as Elijah comes to enjoy sex with Shai, the emotional waters are often muddied because he is never sure if Shai is just using him.
In fact, at the very end of the book, there is this subtle but significant realization for both Elijah and the reader of just how superbly manipulative Shai is…and has been. Elijah is put through test after test and Shai sticks by him. My inner hopeless romantic was on tenterhooks waiting to see if perhaps Shai might have an epiphany and realize that Elijah is the love of his life in just so many bland words. It would taste a lie to say things ever evolve into that level of fluff, though Shai does show Elijah a special kind of deferential treatment. Not only is Elijah (probably) Shai’s only sexual partner, it seems clear that Shai is far more patient in dealing with Elijah. And yet, there’s always the worry/fear/fact that whatever Shai is doing, he’s doing it for his own gain and not the benefit of anyone, even Elijah. So it’s not Shai who changes nearly so much as it is Elijah being reborn as a man worthy of the devious delights Shai can offer.
Even with all the dark elements, I found Elijah’s story compelling. Shai calls him a survivor and I think that it is this quality that appeals to Shai; it is absolutely what drives Elijah to fight against all odds. I found it exciting and rather satisfying reading about Elijah’s struggle to survive and his absolute determination not to let men more powerful than him win. Of course, Elijah is also full of doubt. He is often never quite sure if he’s about to find himself on Shai’s bad side. He can only accept that the relationship with Shai is potentially one-sided, where Elijah finds himself forming an emotional attachment to a man who cannot reciprocate in kind. And when Elijah finds himself in the worst possible situation, he can’t help but wonder if he was always nothing but an object to Shai.
For a book that focuses on dark and heavy themes, I found myself drawn to Elijah. I was eager to figure out how he would survive. I was desperate to know if there was any chance at him becoming more than a tool for Shai. And I really enjoyed how Elijah struggles, but copes with one impossible situation after the other. If any of the book’s themes pique your interest, if you like stories that lack the typical characterizations of good and evil, if you enjoy books where an MC undergoes a sort of journey and comes out utterly changed on the other side, then I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy about Shai.