I’m a Santino Hassell fan, and though I don’t read much paranormal romance, I confidently opened Insight assuming I would love it. Yet while the book is compelling and entertaining, the balance of romance/paranormal/thriller didn’t thrill me. The first half of the book is a teasing, slow-burn road-trip romance between Nate and Trent, one of Mr. Hassell’s signature, dynamic romantic pairings. They have terrific chemistry and the love story is sexy and steamy, but this is relegated to the background in the second half, which becomes taken up with the mystery surrounding the death of Nate’s estranged brother, Theo. Yes, the latter half is complex, the supernatural community is fascinating, and new characters get a chance to shine… but unfortunately, it’s too many people and too many big ideas in too few pages. The resolution of the central mystery at the heart of Insight – why and how Theo died – also gets a bit lost as Mr. Hassell sets the scene for future books in the Community series.
Insight opens in the PoV of a depressed, lonely and sweaty Nate Black. In the secretive psychic community, the Black family is infamous, and though Nate has his own talents (he’s an empath and can sense emotions/feelings through touch), he’s never been formally trained, and his gift has proved to be mostly a curse. But Nate has a host of other problems. He’s a gay man living in a tiny homophobic Texas town, his family is supremely dysfunctional and he works at a dead end job with no change in sight. Oh, and his car’s been stolen. Nate’s life sucks.
Faced with a former bully at the liquor store where he works, Nate tries and fails to conceal his distress. When a handsome stranger ‘encourages’ the bully to leave, and then strikes up a conversation with Nate, sparks fly. Nate avoids contact with people he doesn’t know, but after accidentally grazing hands with his rescuer, his empathic response is like nothing he’s felt before. The man exudes warmth, sunshine and a sense of peace, and Nate finds himself daydreaming about him as the day progresses. But following that encounter, the day goes badly downhill. In short order, Nate learns of the suicide of his estranged brother, Theo, and then receives a surprise vision of Theo’s last living moments. Nate doesn’t know how or why he sees it, but he’s convinced his brother didn’t intend to kill himself. With nothing to lose, Nate sets off to find out what happened.
Since his car was stolen and his resources are limited, Nate decides to hitchhike. Lo and behold, he’s picked up by the same handsome stranger from the liquor store. Trent Castille is returning home from grad school in California when he spots Nate hitchhiking. Despite Nate’s vague answers about where he’s going (NYC), Trent offers him a ride (wink, wink, smirk), and the two set-off. From the moment they meet, the chemistry between them is off the charts hot, and the air is soon fraught with suppressed longing on both sides. Nate has secrets, Trent’s never been in a relationship with a man, and they’re strangers. None of those things matter in the face of their lust. After an argument and Nate’s confession of his empathic ability, they succumb to the attraction between them, and their relationship rapidly progresses from friends-with-benefits to lovers. Their physical connection is intense, but Nate’s unanticipated empathic response (he simultaneously feels both his and Trent’s sexual pleasure) elevates these intimate scenes. The sex scenes between Nate and Trent are scorchingly hot. So sexy, so steamy. When they reach New York and Trent reluctantly drops him off, Nate knows he’s fallen hard, though he isn’t convinced they have a future together. He promises to stay in touch, and takes off to find out what happened to Theo.
Nate has continued to receive visions of Theo’s last moments, and remains convinced his brother didn’t commit suicide. He doesn’t know much about Theo’s life after he left Texas, though he knows he was in a band. Tracking the band leads him to a nightclub – but this one is special. The clubs’ customers and staff are mostly psychic queers, like Nate. To his surprise, Nate is spotted and recognized by the club’s bouncer, Chase, the moment he approaches the door. Despite his welcome, Nate doesn’t know who he can or should trust – except Trent. It’s challenging to discuss the second half of Insight without spoilers, so I’ll just say that Nate is smart to remain wary of the seemingly altruistic Community. He wants to know what happened to Theo and to learn more about the cult-like Community who seem eager to bring him (Nate) into their fold – but no one is eager to talk to him.
Secondary characters gain significance as Nate’s investigation continues. There’s Chase, a gifted empath with multiple, powerful psychic abilities who doesn’t seem to like Nate; Elijah, Chase’s partner (maybe?), a sweet and helpful psych who was rescued by the Community; Holden, who owns and runs the nightclub, and whose father founded the Community; and Beck, who tries to show Nate all the good the Community does in the queer psych world, and babysits Holden. We quickly learn that things in the Community aren’t quite as they appear, and dark forces may be manipulating it for their own nefarious reasons. Nate surmises Theo discovered something he shouldn’t have, and was killed as a result. It’s all very creepy and difficult to sort the bad guys from the good – or the less bad guys from the sort of good guys. We do get some answers after we finally learn what happened to Theo, but Mr. Hassell sets his hook deep – what’s really going on in the Community? Who are these people? A phone call near the end of a (too short) sweet epilogue featuring Trent and Nate leaves us with a cliffhanger ending.
I wish Mr. Hassell spent more time developing Trent’s character. We get glimpses of his awesomeness – he’s good to and for Nate, and his love and affection are a healing balm to Nate’s tortured soul. Unfortunately, post-road trip, though Trent is Nate’s lover and quickly becomes his confidant and fiercest protector, the romance is secondary to world-building and the mystery. The Community, its members, the slowly emerging Black family history, a sinister and mysterious hidden player in the psych community… all of them also vie for the reader’s attention.
Told entirely from Nate’s point of view, Insight starts off in small town Texas, where his worldview is shaped by his dysfunctional family (you have no idea) and sad, lonely existence. Happiness and contentment arrive in the form of sweet, kind and patient Trent. His life takes an eerie, frightening turn once he arrives in New York – but the epilogue hints at a happily ever after. When finished, I spent a good amount sorting out Insight’s puzzles, wishing the epilogue was longer, and curious about the stories to come.
I may not have loved this story, but I was definitely left wanting more.