Desert Isle Keeper
Note: There are spoilers for earlier Borealis Investigations books in this review.
I suppose I should have expected, after the relatively light-hearted comedic zany-ness of Indirection, that Gregory Ashe would immediately turn around and pull the rug out from under my feet… which is exactly what he does in this second book in his Borealis: Without a Compass series. If you’re familiar with his work, you’ll already know that not only is he the master of the slow-burn romance, he’s also without parallel in his ability to write relationships that rip his readers’ hearts into little shreds and stomp on them before slowly putting them back together and rebuilding said relationships so that they’re even stronger than before. This process can be tough to read however, and I confess that even my high tolerance for angst and emotional torment was sorely tested in Misdirection. I mean that in a good way; not many authors can provoke such visceral reactions, and it’s a testament to how much I’ve come to care for these characters that when the home truths that have been hovering just on the edge of our peripheral vision finally hit – it hurt. A lot.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. When we rejoin the Borealis Boys, things are going along pretty much as usual – which right now seems to mean North doing all the work and Shaw doing… well, being his usual quirky self – when an unusual job presents itself to them. A state senator wants them to escort her seventeen-year-old son to and from his mandated drug testing appointments (because he made “a mistake”) – and when the try to explain to her that it’s not really their bag, she yells and then threatens to make sure their PI licences aren’t renewed when the time comes. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, they take the job. But their problems really begin when they arrive to collect Flip from his prestigious private school – which is, incidentally, the same one Shaw attended – to find that the door to his room has been kicked in, the room tossed and Flip is nowhere to be found.
While North and Shaw attempt to find out what happened to him and are getting the runaround from the staff and students at the school, they’re also working on one of their open cases from Aldrich Acquisitions – an attempted break-in at the Nonavie lab which seems to have been targeted at certain proprietary technology – and North’s dodgy not-Uncle Ronnie shows up again, this time demanding North and Shaw’s help locating a guy who might be in trouble. They’re immediately suspicious of Ronnie’s motives of course, but given what he’s holding over North’s head, they don’t have much choice but to agree to try to find him, too.
There’s a lot going on in this book in terms of the plot, but the author juggles his various plot-threads incredibly skilfully, and in fact, I felt it all hung together better than the storylines in the previous book. As always, the mysteries are complex and gritty, with lots of clever twists and unexpected turns, and never has a book title been more appropriate, because Misdirection is rife in just about every aspect of this story, from the mystery surrounding Flip’s disappearance, to Ronnie’s machinations, to the relationship between North and Shaw, which has been a little… on edge for a while now. In fact, there’s been a slowly escalating sense of underlying tension – and not the good kind – between them since the last book, and it finally hits with full force in this one.
It’s been obvious since Orientation that while North and Shaw know each other incredibly well – and they’ve practically lived in each other’s pockets for years – they’re very, very different in some really fundamental ways, and this book brings that fact to the fore. Shaw is loaded – the only child of extremely wealthy parents; North comes from a blue-collar family and had to work hard for everything he has. Shaw’s parents have always accepted and loved him (even though they’re clearly disappointed in his choices and are trying to steer him in a direction he doesn’t want to go) where North’s Dad is hardly a loving parent. And for North, dealing with all the young, privileged kids at the school, with their fucked-up, first-world problems brings the difference between his and Shaw’s backgrounds into sharp relief and forces him to face up to them – really face up to them – for probably the first time. And it’s a lot.
Then there’s the fact that both men have been through a lot of emotional trauma. The previous series mostly focused on what Shaw went through when he almost lost his life at the hands of a serial killer (and was then almost killed by a manipulative client), but little has been made – so far – of North’s situation, of the fact that he was (still is – they’re not divorced yet!) married to a man who abused him, physically and emotionally – although that’s mostly because North obviously isn’t ready to admit to how it’s affected him or deal with it. But the cracks have been showing for a while – in the sometimes bitter edge to their banter or North’s not-quite-so-affectionate exasperation – and it’s been painful to watch these two men, who obviously love each other deeply, hurting each other.
And… much as I love Shaw – he’s funny, kind and endearing, and his sartorial choices are a hoot – I have to say that I’ve begun to get impatient with him. I like how, though outwardly something of a snowflake, he’s fiercely intelligent with a mind like a steel trap – but that side of him seems to have been downplayed in favour of the annoyingly quirky hippie-type who’s always complaining about North’s food choices and talking him into things he doesn’t really want to do. In Indirection it struck me that in their working partnership, North was doing all the work while Shaw was treating Borealis like a vanity project; which, as North pointed out even then, he could afford to. I appreciated the look at Shaw’s family situation here, and could even understand, to an extent, why he does what he does – or rather, doesn’t do – but that doesn’t excuse it or make it any less unforgiveable.
While the cases are wrapped up, the relationship between North and Shaw reaches a crossroads – which I think had to happen if they’re going to make it as a couple in the long run. It wouldn’t be a Gregory Ashe book without some sort of relationship angst, but while Misdirection more than delivers on that score, it’s never angst for angst’s sake; the relationship problems these two are now facing have been well-established in previous books, and they arise organically out of who these people are, their life experience and their shared history. So although Misdirection is a tough read at times, I’m really excited to see where Mr. Ashe is going to take us next, and I’m anticipating some serious personal growth for the Borealis Boys in the next couple of books that will make all the heartache worth it. Thankfully, there’s only a few weeks to go until the release of book three, Redirection, and if the teaser at the back of this book is anything to go by, it’s going to be one helluva bumpy ride.