Desert Isle Keeper
Note: There are spoilers for the previous Borealis books in this review.
Well. Here we are at the concluding instalment of Gregory Ashe’s Borealis: Without a Compass series, and what a ride it’s been! We’ve watched North and Shaw solve crimes of course, but these books are so much more than well-written and suspenseful mysteries, and our two protagonists have also gone through heartbreak and serious soul-searching while facing incredible danger at the hands of some truly despicable individuals, but at last, and after all the horrible things they’ve been through – and inflicted on each other – they’re back where they belong (i.e. together) and are making a determined effort to move forward as a committed couple.
In the months since the events of Redirection, North and Shaw have bought a house together, and we rejoin them on the day of their housewarming party – which ends abruptly when local reporter Belia Lopez arrives and opens a massive can of worms by telling North that Tucker (from whom he is now, thankfully, divorced) is claiming he was framed for his assault on Shaw, and that North, David McKinney, Borealis and Shaw’s family are all mixed up in a criminal syndicate operating in the city. Needless to say, North is not impressed and tells her – in his own inimitable fashion -to get lost.
Shortly after they’ve got rid of Belia, they’re interrupted by another unexpected visitor hammering on their door and demanding their help. We met Nikshay (Nik) in Indirection; he’s a teenager living (and working) on the streets whom Shaw spoke to while he and North were trying to track down a suspect, and although Shaw told Nik he should come to them if he needed help, he never did. Until now. He’s worried about his friend Malorie, who has gone missing, and he wants North and Shaw to find out what’s happened to her. As it so often goes with these two, Shaw is keen to help while North is more sceptical; the difference is that they’re now both trying hard to see the other’s point of view and to compromise… but of course they end up agreeing to see what they can do.
Gregory Ashe writes some of the most compelling and clever mysteries in the genre and he isn’t afraid to take them to some dark and gritty places. In this story, North and Shaw start out by going to the shelter for homeless teens where Nik and Malorie met, and soon find themselves coming face to face with the harsh reality of the dangers faced by so many kids living on the streets, and the half-hearted, ineffectual efforts made to try to protect them. Their search leads to a trail of blackmail, embezzlement and murder, to the exposure of the exploitation of some of society’s most vulnerable individuals at the hands of pimps, dealers and cheap labour networks… and worst of all, by those who are supposed to be looking out for them.
Meanwhile, that scumbag Ronnie is still out for revenge on North for engineering his arrest (at the end of Misdirection) – and after his attempt to get at North through Tucker failed, Ronnie has now turned his attention to North’s dad. Desperate to get Ronnie out of their lives for good, North considers a Faustian bargain – the full implications of which are not yet clear.
North and Shaw have been through a lot in this series – and I’m not just talking about the injuries they’ve sustained! There were potential pitfalls and fault-lines in their relationship back at the end of the first Borealis series, and many of those came home to roost in this one. Both men are carrying a lot of emotional baggage – North’s relationship with his obnoxious father is seriously messed up, and he’s a survivor of domestic abuse; Shaw was traumatised by an attack that nearly killed him, and he struggles under the weight of his family’s expectations – and their long-suppressed feelings for each other perhaps gave them unrealistic expectations of what being a couple would be like. In this series, they’ve been forced to face up to the fact that their relationship wasn’t working (and why) – and it’s made for some pretty tough reading.
By the time Codirection begins, they’re in a much better place personally than they have been for quite some time, and while things are far from perfect, they’ve decided they want to make a life together and have recognised that they each have work to do if they’re going to make that happen. But there’s still a sense that they’re not quite on the same page when it comes to the way they think of and approach their relationship, and that translates to an underlying sense of unease at times, a disconnect that it seems they haven’t really acknowledged or understood. Then comes an incredibly simple but profoundly insightful ‘lightbulb moment’ – a single piece of dialogue, really – when everything falls into place, and it’s masterful.
Mr. Ashe has interwoven the mysteries and the character and relationship development in these books with incredible skill, pulling readers with him through a real gamut of emotions with his unique mix of razor-sharp insight and the ridiculous humour and banter that characterise the way North and Shaw interact with each other. He also gifts fans of his work with a wonderful cameo appearance by Wahredua’s favourite PI – and Shaw’s best, best friend (well, in Shaw’s mind anyway) – that is simply priceless.
The conclusion to the long-running Ronnie storyline is both satisfying and shocking (my Goodreads update reads – “Well. I didn’t see THAT coming!”) and I can’t help but think there’s some future fallout to come as a result of what happens. Because, yes, I’m reliably informed this isn’t the last we’re going to see of North and Shaw :)
Codirection is another must-read from Gregory Ashe, a superbly plotted, high-stakes mystery with twists and turns a-plenty and more intricately crafted red herrings than you can shake a stick at. Borealis: Without a Compass has been one wild ride, and while it’s been hard to watch “these dumb boys” (as North and Shaw are affectionately known by Ashe fans!) do dumb things, it’s also been a delight to spend time with them again.