Story Rating: 4 stars
Audio Rating: 4 stars
Narrator: Joel Leslie
Length: 11 hours, 18 minutes
Audiobook Buy Links: Amazon/Audible | iBooks
Book Buy Links: Amazon | iBooks
As a wildlife cameraman who has traveled the world, Jem Dawson is a daredevil adventurer who prizes his freedom. After an injury sidelines him from his typical assignments, he finds himself working as a cameraman for a ghost hunting team. While Jem doesn’t mind danger, he’s worried the team may have bitten off more than they can chew when it comes to the house haunting they’re currently investigating. Having met and befriended Blue Billings, a psychic with a powerful ability to see ghosts, Jem seeks him out for help. Who he gets instead is Blue’s best friend, Will Buchanan, the hot, tattooed, and kind man he’s been shamelessly flirting with for a year.
With a best friend who can see ghosts, Will isn’t skeptical about them, but having been left homeless and tossed away by people who claimed to love him twice as a teenager, he is skeptical about love and the people in his life wanting him around. While the attentions of the cheeky cameraman turn Will into a fumbling mess, given the nature of the man and his job, sharing a friend group, and Will’s decision to avoid one-nighters, starting something with Jem is a no-go. That doesn’t mean he won’t immediately volunteer when Jem needs help, incorporating himself into the team as their new “skeptic.” From the moment Will arrives at the house, he can tell something is wrong and is determined to watch Jem’s back. As the paranormal activity ratchets up, being in such intimate contact sees Will and Jem forming a deeper connection, and the increasingly violent entity may not be the only thing that has the pair running.
The Sceptic is the first story in Lily Morton’s Arcana Books series, a spin-off of the Black and Blue series, which follows Will’s best friend Blue. I really liked Will and was interested in Jem after his debut in The Quiet House, so I am happy that their journey into coupledom is equaling interesting. Jem is charming, charismatic, and fearless. He teases Will mercilessly and keeps him on his toes, yet is quick to defend Will if he thinks Will is being insulted or dismissed. Part of Jem’s skillset is being a keen observer and he sees how wonderful Will is and how much his friends adores him and it frustrates him that Will can’t see it.
Will is a gentle giant, peacekeeper, and protector who has had his heart and generosity stomped on, Even as for as long as he’s been BFFs with Blue and trusts in that friendship, he’s sure that now that Blue is settled into a new life that he will fade into the background. He believes he’s disposable to everyone and is convinced it’s definitely an inevitability with someone like Jem. Both men are commitment-phobes; for Jem, his utter joy in traveling the world and itch to leave again whenever he’s home means being tied down isn’t tenable (and the times he’s tried it ends badly), while for Will, he’s been shown that trusting someone to love him and stay will only leave him heartbroken and disillusioned. Thus, they both struggle with the fact that they are drawn to one another in a way they’ve never experienced before and that has their instincts screaming at them to run far and fast. Will doesn’t know what it is about Jem that puts him at ease and has him opening up in ways he’s only done with Blue. Similarly, Jem’s career is the most important thing in his life and nothing has ever tempted him to stay or invite someone along until Will.
As the pair have been dealing with their attraction for a year, the quick progression into a romantic relationship is believable, especially in such a heightened environment, and there’s a decent balance between them getting together, spooky shenanigans, and introducing characters who will probably receive their HEA later in the series. Morton also does a great job conveying the ease and comfort they have with one another and their laughter and banter is infectious. As someone who enjoys horror, take my assessment with a grain of salt, but Morton creates a tense, disquieting atmosphere without getting too scary. The one thing that bothers me (besides the “reasoning” behind certain choices) is the pacing, and this may be one of the few times that knowledge of the parent series may have hindered my enjoyment. The escalation of ghostly happenings at one point is intense and frightening enough to change the group makeup and dynamics, but then there’s another few rounds of ‘what is doing this/can someone in the group be doing this’ that doesn’t jibe with previous events or Will and Jem’s personalities; something that is compounded for me by what Will and Jem have experienced will Blue. I found it distracting and repetitious. However, this level of disbelief/dithering may have been incorporated to make the MCs’ reactions fall more in line as believable for readers who start with this book and may not bother others as much as it did me.
Although I enjoyed Joel Leslie’s performance as a narrator, to me this isn’t one of his strongest. The male characters in the group all sound similar, and the slight variation in Will and Jem’s accents aren’t held consistently. Additionally, between their POVs and bantering styles being similar, it is sometimes hard to differentiate who is speaking. Yet, Leslie still delivers in matching his tone to the story and the emotions, so overall this is an entertaining listen.