Everything I Didn't Know
Grade : A-

Nicky James takes a short break from her fabulous Valor and Doyle series with this new standalone romantic suspense title, Everything I Didn’t Know. I have to confess to something of a fascination with cults and how they operate, so the premise of this novel – a young man whose eyes have been opened to the corruption at the heart the community in which he lives and who longs to escape – appealed to me immediately and made this one of my most anticipated reads of the summer. And Ms. James doesn’t disappoint; it’s a cracking story full of creepy vibes and slowly building tension that had me hooked from beginning to end, and although the romance does take a bit of a back seat to the suspense plot, it works given the premise, and ends with a very solid HFN.

A couple of years before the story begins, Bowie and his best friend Collin dropped out of college after becoming involved with a group of environmental activists. Both of them were unhappy in their college programs and had no idea what they wanted to do with their futures; the group’s message, the addictive energy at the rallies, and the crazy exploits of the group members appealed to them, and offered them the opportunity to feel as though they were part of something important. For Bowie it went one better – the people began to feel like the family he’d never had, and at last, he felt like he belonged somewhere. A few months later, he and Collin were invited to join Oasis – a community dedicated to environmental protection and back-to-nature living – and to continue to fight the good fight to save Mother Earth from the plague that’s destroying her.

When the book opens a few months later, we learn that Collin is dead after being caught trying to leave. With the veil ripped from his eyes about the community he’s come to think of as home and about the man – Father Wilder – at its head, Bowie faces a stark choice. He can try to run, as Collin did, and risk the same fate, or he can stay, bide his time and earn the trust of Father Wilder and his inner circle… and then make his escape more easily. He opts for the latter.

A year later, and Bowie’s plan is working. He’s risen quickly through the ranks to become one of Father Wilder’s most trusted followers, has even been taken under his wing. As one of the Second Branch – one step away from the ND (the Natural Disaster, as Wilder’s most trusted associates are known) – Bowie is given the task of arranging the orientation of the newest group of Oasis members, assigning brethren to each person or couple to explain the rules and help them settle in. Among the newcomers is an engaged couple – a petite, auburn-haired woman and a tall, handsome man a few years older than Bowie, with a chiselled jaw, stylishly cut brown hair and a fit body that suggests time spent at the gym or playing sports. Bowie can’t help looking (and likes what he sees), but quickly squashes any inappropriate attraction; the man – Foster – is engaged to the woman – Paxton – at his side, and that’s that. Bowie must have imagined the slightly longer-than-warranted handshake and the flirty grin he’d been offered.

Over the next couple of weeks, Bowie – as directed – spends time with Foster and Paxton, and it doesn’t take him long to realise that something isn’t quite right. For one thing, their body language just doesn’t scream ‘couple’, and for another, Foster is downright flirty for a man who is supposed to be in love with someone else. Plus, he just doesn’t fit the Oasis mold. He’s asking too many awkward questions, and will soon start drawing attention to himself if he’s not careful – but he doesn’t seem to know how to tone it down. Sensing Paxton’s growing irritation with her fiancé’s behaviour, Bowie begins to suspect that joining Oasis was Paxton’s idea and Foster is only there because she wanted to join. If that’s true, Foster could face real danger once he realises Oasis isn’t for him – but maybe he could be a potential ally; maybe, if Bowie has guessed right, he might not remain alone in his quest to escape.

As Bowie and Foster try to figure each other out and their mutual attraction heats up, they realise that they’re going to have to trust each other if they’re going to make it out of Oasis alive. Secrets are shared and plans are hatched; Bowie has heard whispers about rising storms on the horizon, storms he knows are definitely not the meterological kind, and to find out more, he’ll have to convince Wilder of his devotion to the cause and become one of the NDs. It’s going to mean undertaking the equivalent of walking a tightrope over water filled with hungry crocodiles – but he knows he can do it. He has to.

One of the things Ms. James does incredibly well here is her exploration of Bowie’s inner conflict. She shows so clearly how people like Wilder operate, how they can make people believe things that go against even their own common sense. Bowie knows Wilder is not the loving, fatherly figure he appears to be; he knows he’s utterly ruthless and capable of immense cruelty, and yet there’s still something about the man that draws Bowie to him and what he can offer. It was so easy, at the beginning, for him to buy everything Oasis was selling – home, family, community, love – things Bowie wanted so desperately; and even now, even though he’s seen what Wilder is capable of and hates him for it, there are times he has to remind himself that it’s all fake. I’m no psychologist, but these thought processes feel very real, and the author expresses them brilliantly. I also appreciated that she opted not to write some kind of crazy religious cult but instead, a group whose aim – protecting the environment – is actually quite laudable and something we can all get behind, and whose members are mostly completely unaware of the corruption surrounding them.

Nicky James has become an auto-buy author for me over the last couple of years, and I know I can rely on her to deliver a thought-provoking, well-crafted story featuring interesting, well-developed characters who haven’t come straight out of central casting. The story is told from both Bowie’s and Foster’s perspectives, so we learn pretty quickly that Foster and Paxton are not what they seem, and why they’ve joined Oasis, and why Bowie’s mental alarm bells start ringing so quickly. Bowie is perhaps the more well-developed as a character of the two, but he’s been through a lot and is far more aware of what’s at stake than Foster, which makes him naturally more cautious. There’s a neat bit of role-reversal going on, too – Bowie is generally the more level-headed of the two of them, where Foster can be a bit overly impulsive and at times, I honestly wondered how on earth he’d come to be doing what he was doing! But he makes a good partner for Bowie; he’s supportive, he recognises and admires his strength of mind and determination, and doesn’t try to coddle him or insist that he’s too young (Bowie is twenty-three, Foster is thirty) and inexperienced to do what needs to be done. They’re a bit of an odd couple – not exactly grumpy/sunshine, but close to it – they have great chemistry and I enjoyed watching them becoming closer and learning to trust each other. Their romance is very much a slow burn, but that’s absolutely right for this story – they both acknowledge that their relationship has been forged under fire, so to speak, but that they want to explore it further, and we leave them in a good place.

Everything I Didn’t Know is a terrific blend of intense, atmospheric thriller and slow-burn romance, and with it, Nicky James chalks up another DIK.

Reviewed by Caz Owens

Grade: A-

Book Type: Romantic Suspense

Sensuality: Warm

Review Date : July 13, 2023

Publication Date: 07/2023

Recent Comments …

Caz Owens

I’m a musician, teacher and mother of two gorgeous young women who are without doubt, my finest achievement :)I’ve gravitated away from my first love – historical romance – over the last few years and now read mostly m/m romances in a variety of sub-genres. I’ve found many fantastic new authors to enjoy courtesy of audiobooks - I probably listen to as many books as I read these days – mostly through glomming favourite narrators and following them into different genres.And when I find books I LOVE, I want to shout about them from the (metaphorical) rooftops to help other readers and listeners to discover them, too.
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