Over many years, RJ planned his “vengeance tour” against the corrupt individuals responsible for ruining lives, including those of his family members. For two years, he has brought low those who thought themselves above the law and is now closing in on the finish line. Despite his success, RJ’s achievements feel hollow. The only thing he looks forward to is escaping to some island and maybe starting over, until he makes an unexpected connection with a tall, sexy stranger he meets in a bar.
As an agent for the Tennessee Bureau of Supernatural Investigation, Bart is a firm believer in justice. However, he knows firsthand that power, money, and influence can preclude the law from providing accountability, so more…creative solutions to achieving justice must be taken. When he’s sent to Memphis to take over a case for a dead TBSI agent, Bart becomes acquainted with Ghost Boy, the elusive criminal his predecessor was chasing. As he learns more about the case, he quickly begins to see Ghost Boy as less criminal and more crusader.
Unbeknownst to the two, the hunter and the hunted become entangled in their combustible energy and almost instant deep bond. When the truth comes out, they are faced with hard choices and consequences. However, RJ’s revenge doesn’t leave him unscathed, and if he and Bart can’t find a way to stop a curse, they may lose any hope for a future for the two of them.
Roustabout is part of the Carnival of Mysteries multi-author standalone series. It is an uneven story with a character I loved, an appreciation for carnivals that shows up in some very good scenes (especially in the series’ eponymous carnival), and a so-so execution. RJ is a great character who I really commiserated with. He lost his family through other people’s avarice and indifference and only found care and compassion again when he ran away from his abusive foster home and joined the carnival life. Throughout the years, he accumulated a wealth of skills and knowledge that he honed to bring down those who prey on the weak and have enough money and social capitol to get away with it. He’s clever, meticulous, and lonely, but determined to see his mission through. Meeting Bart makes RJ aware of the connection he’s been missing, leading him to crave a future he’s convinced he can’t have. While Bart isn’t as interesting to me as RJ, he’s a good fit for him. He’s smart, compassionate, and understands RJ’s motives and secretly applauds him. Before he even knows Ghost Boy is the man he’s fallen for, Bart’s willing to go to bat for someone who is a criminal, but obviously has superb investigative skills and a code of honor. I also enjoyed the Carnival and its mysterious, but giving, denizens. However, neither the MCs on their own, nor the briefly seen secondary characters, engaged me enough to ignore the elements I found distracting or convenient.
I went into Roustabout with high hopes. I was instantly attracted by the blurb’s “game of cat and mouse” premise and the book even mentions one of my favorites of this concept, “To Catch a Thief”. Thus, I was disappointed to find that the story is less cat and mouse, and more mouse goes on a vengeance quest to steal cheese from people who are crushing others and accomplishes his mission before the cat even gets familiar with the case. There is also no “adversaries-to-lovers” tension—something else I was looking forward to that didn’t materialize. The men are lovers and in love after three meetings and before they know they are the pursued and pursuer. As I was too invested in an actual game of wits and daring between the MCs, this colored my enjoyment.
I also couldn’t get a firm sense of how the paranormal works in this world. When RJ is talking to “regular folks,” it’s implied that no one knows about the paranormal/supernatural as more than folk tales. However, there’s a government agency, which isn’t a secret as its normie counterpart, the TBI, knows about it, as does the FBI and other agencies. So is only the government aware? Have the supernaturals slowly come out True Blood style, but it’s early enough in the process for there to still be non-believers? Brice loves the show Supernatural, so maybe like in that world, most people don’t believe until they experience it, but that doesn’t work as well when there are government agencies (with websites) for supernatural crime. The world building is just a bit slipshod and more muddled than I expect from Brice and adds to the rushed and sometimes uneven feeling of the story. Bart and RJ fall in love after two sexual encounters (the first being a handsy in a barroom bathroom stall), a brief accidental meeting, and one dinner date. This is explained by an innate psychic connection made tenuously believable in that RJ experiences a sense of safety he hasn’t experienced since he was a child, while Bart’s invokes emotions only felt with his deceased fiancé. This is just too fast for me, since the narrative says that when they do talk (with more than innuendos), it’s about the media and music they like; it’s made clear they don’t have any in-depth conversations.
Additionally, intuition seems to be a superpower in this world, and it made me wonder if Bart also has the ability to transform nothing into mental matter, as he somehow conjures an answer from thin air. Bart makes a couple investigative leaps that have little to no evidence, then a huge one in uncovering Ghost Boy’s identity. Bart connects Ghost Boy to RJ with absolutely nothing; he has no suspicions of RJ and no reason to believe his Jon is the same person in his file. Bart has nothing to make that connection, since the two know nothing about each other’s history or lives other than their media compatibility. In the words of Annie Wilkes, it felt like a cheat, and I didn’t like it. Then, after an intuitive leap that could cross the Grand Canyon, Bart doesn’t take the obvious one that would actually make sense and goes about finding RJ in the most time consuming way that sees him falling down a rabbit hole of carnival history and lore.
Had I not been expecting a different story from the description, it may have been easier to ignore the sloppier elements and just enjoy a story about a sympathetic, intelligent guy taking out some bad apples and his HEA with the man pursuing him. I think those who like stories with instalove, law enforcement, criminals with a heart of gold, and are fans of Brice’s Kings of the Mountains series (where these characters are introduced) will fare better than I did.