I enjoyed Layla Reyne’s Agents Irish and Whiskey romantic suspense novels, and was delighted when the author announced she would be writing a spin-off series featuring two of the prominent secondary characters from those books, Assistant US Attorney (and former Navy SEAL) Dominic Price, and Special Agent Cameron Byrne, one of the FBI’s top kidnap and rescue specialists. I’ve been looking forward to Imperial Stout (book one in the Trouble Brewing series) for some time, so I really wanted to love it… but sadly, I didn’t. Many of the things that worked so well in the previous books are absent here; the principals and their backstories are underdeveloped, and while Nic and Cam have chemistry in spades, there’s no emotional connection or sense of a relationship developing between them. Add to that the large suspensions of disbelief required by the sometimes frenetically paced plot, and I came away from the book feeling disappointed.
Imperial Stout opens in media res as we find Nic and Cam in the middle of an operation to apprehend a gang intending to steal a number of priceless Serbian artefacts from recently arrived dignitary Stefan Kristić and his wife. But something goes wrong, Anica Kristić is killed, and most of the gang gets away – but not before someone starts shooting at the van containing Nic and the surveillance team. Nic gets to show his badass ex-SEAL side by taking out the shooter, but it’s too late to save the operation, which has gone badly sideways. When their informant is kidnapped and Nic’s boss – an all-round pompous git and complete idiot – manages to screw up their scheme to rescue her (I had to ask myself how the hell such a stupid man had managed to keep such a high-powered job), they are left with only one option. The exhibition featuring the Serbian artefacts is only days away from opening, and if Cam and Nic are to apprehend the gang, rescue their informant and bring Anica Kristić’s murderer to justice, they need to put someone on the inside; and Cam, whose murky past seems to have prepared him for such a role, is the best choice. It’s not going to be easy, and Cam has reasons of his own for being apprehensive, but it’s him or no one and time is running out.
Running alongside this storyline is the one that looks set to run throughout the series, in which Nic discovers that his father, real estate magnate Curtis Price, is up to his eyeballs in debt to some not-very-nice people. Nic and his father haven’t spoken a word to each other in twenty-seven years – ever since Nic came out – but the man to whom Price owes a small fortune isn’t interested in that. If he can’t use Nic as leverage against his father, then he’ll force Nic to pay what his father owes.
Imperial Stout had a lot of potential, but very little (if any) of it is fulfilled, and it seems that character development has been sacrificed for the sake of the plot which, it has to be said, is rather superficial. While Nic and Cam featured in the previous series, they were secondary characters, so I’d hoped Ms. Reyne would be starting afresh as it were, re- introducing them to readers as leads and allowing us to get to know them at the same time as the suspense plot gradually unfolded and brought them together. Instead, we’re told they shared a passionate kiss a few weeks earlier (at Aidan and Jamie’s wedding), and from both their PoVs, we know they want more; but lots of mental lusting is no substitute for watching two people forge a strong emotional connection as they get to know and invest in one another.
I said earlier that a rather large suspension of disbelief is required when reading Imperial Stout, and I found myself frequently taken out of the story as I came across something that seemed completely implausible. For example – I confess I’m not all that up on how the American law-enforcement and justice systems work, but is it usual for an Assistant US Attorney to be present (and armed) during a take-down? And then for him to take an active role in the investigation? Isn’t his job to gather facts and evidence and build a case and present it in the courtroom after the operation is concluded? I know the lawyer-as-investigator is a common character in police procedurals, which contributed to the overall feeling I had that I was reading something akin to a TV cop show, with its almost break-neck pacing and action-fuelled set pieces. Cam infiltrates a supposedly dangerous criminal gang with ease in a matter of hours; he’s up on all the latest ways to crack safes, pick locks and hack electronic security, and his fear that he risks crossing a line he hasn’t crossed in twenty years seems melodramatic and highly unlikely.
Much as it pains me to say it, I can’t really recommend Imperial Stout to fans of m/m romantic suspense, although I’ll probably read the next book because I’m intrigued by Nic’s storyline and want to see how it plays out. I’ll cross my fingers and hope that Craft Brew – due out this October – marks a return to form for Ms. Reyne.