Auggie Lopez and Theo Stratford made a few cameo appearances in the most recent Hazard and Somerset series (Arrows in the Hand), but it’s been a while since we’ve read about them in their own series, (to be fair, Mr. Ashe has published a dozen other books in the gap!) so I was delighted to learn that The First Quarto series would be completed this year.
Note: There are spoilers for the previous books in the series in this review.
The Fairest Show opens in the same way as the other books in the series, with Auggie arriving in Wahredua for the start of a new academic year. This year, though, things are different. Not only is he living off campus (he’s renting an appartment with friends) but he and Theo are… sort of together now. After spending most of Yet a Stranger trying to convince themselves they weren’t in love with each other and trying to make relationships work with other people (in Auggie’s case, with an abusive arsehole), Theo finally told Auggie he loves him, and although things were left open-ended, there was – at last – an understanding that they were going to try to move forward together. Readers already know theirs isn’t going to be an easy road to happiness, though. Theo had been bingeing on booze and painkillers in the attempt to numb himself to the guilt he carries over not being able to protect/save the people he loves – his brother Luke, his late husband, his daughter – and Auggie, who ended up in hospital during their last investigation. He’s got a lot of work to do on himself – on his addiction and his PTSD – and by the beginning of The Fairest Show, he’s attending NA meetings, but he’s still ignoring the unaddressed trauma that lies deep within, focused instead on keeping Auggie from being dragged down by all his baggage and determined to keep him safe at all costs.
No sooner has Theo sat at his desk on his first day back than he receives a visit from the college’s assistant athletics director, Maria Maldonado who, having heard how Theo has previously had success in finding missing people, wants him to find the school’s missing football coach Harvey Gilmore. Behind her veneer of jolly bonhomie, Maldonado is forceful and intimidating, but Theo tells her ‘no’ anyway. Unfortuantely, however, she has anticipated this, and in a totally unethical move basically threatens to put obstacles in the way of Theo finishing his PhD unless he does what she wants. Accepting defeat, Theo agrees to do what he can. But his biggest problem now is this: how is he going to do that while keeping Auggie out of it and out of harm’s way?
Well, of course, he can’t because Auggie’s bullshit-o-meter is finely tuned and he instantly knows something is up when Theo starts avoiding him. Hurt and angry, Auggie calls Theo on his behaviour and Theo reluctantly fills him in, at the same time telling Auggie he’s going it alone because he can’t handle the idea of something bad happening to Auggie again. But Auggie isn’t going to be wrapped up and put in a box and insists on helping to find Gilmore – and of course, it’s not long before our intrepid duo find, once again, that they’ve become tangled up in something far more complex and dangerous than they’d bargained for. Someone isn’t happy they’re asking questions about Gilmore, which leads them into a violent confrontation with a local sheriff, and later, as the hunt for a missing man becomes a hunt for a murderer, and with Auggie a possible target, they uncover a truly vile web of depravity and corruption (Mr. Ashe is so good at creating horrible, believable villains) that threatens to destroy everything they’ve been building between them. If, of course, they survive at all.
If you’ve got this far in the series, then you’re likely not new to the author’s work, so it will come as no surprise when I say that he doesn’t pull his punches. Theo and Auggie never walk away from an investigation unscathed – physically or mentally – and there are some violent and unsettling scenes here as the twists and turns of the case take them down some very dark paths.
The investigation and the further development of the central relationship in Mr. Ashe’s books tend to be so inextricably bound together that neither element would work on its own, and that’s especially true in The Fairest Show, where the main conflict in the relationship is based around Theo’s obsessive need to protect Auggie – from danger, and even from himself – and Auggie’s very reasonable position that he’s an adult and capable of making his own decisions. The investigation puts their fledgling relationship under even more strain than it was already under (a result of Theo’s attempt to protect himself from getting hurt again by not letting Auggie all the way into his life), but even when they’re fighting, there’s never any doubt about their love for each other; it’s just a case of whether they can be good for each other, be what the other needs.
On the other hand, when they’re being ‘them’, Theo and Auggie, goofing around, bouncing ideas off each other, bantering, joking, perfectly attuned and working together, it’s like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. This is where their absolute right-ness for each other absolutely hits home; we can see how well they understand each other even when they’re at odds, but these more carefree moments of affection and humour show them at their best and serve to remind us that yes, they really are perfect together.
This is probably the steamiest novel Gregory Ashe has produced yet. He’s brilliant at creating sexual tension and stretching it so tautly that you’re on the edge of your seat waiting for it to snap, and the sex scenes in his books are always there because they’re an important part of the story and/or relationship development. Here, they’re very much tied into Theo and Auggie’s growing understanding of how they are as a couple, combined with an awareness of self that having sex brings to them individually. Auggie doesn’t have a lot of experience, and most of what he does have is unfortunately tainted because of his relationship with an emotionally abusive tosser who tried to rape him (Yet a Stranger). He’s trying to come to terms with that, but he’s also got certain – unuhelpful – preconceived ideas that trip him up. Theo is very mindful of what Auggie has been through and takes great care of him (he’s totally Auggie’s “sex professor”!), taking cues from him, realising what Auggie needs before Auggie does a lot of the time and helping him to understand there’s no right or wrong way in their bedroom. He’s exactly what Auggie needs in that way, but he’s still in the mindset that’s telling him he has to hold back, that he can’t afford to get in too deep with Auggie because one day soon, Auggie will wake up and realise he shouldn’t be wasting his life on a broken fuck-up ten years his senior.
Oh, Theo. So clever, yet so dumb…
An intricate, skilfully executed mystery combined with some fantastic relationship development, moments of heartbreak (oh, so much heartbreak!) amazing insight, humour, tenderness and affection all add up to another compelling must-read from Gregory Ashe and a very welcome return for Theo and Auggie (or, as Ashe fans have labelled them, #Thuggie). While the book ends on a solid HFN, they clearly still have a way to go and a lot to sort out between them, and I’ll be back to see how it all works out in the final instalment in the series (A Fault Against the Dead) when it’s released later this year.
Note: This story includes use of date-rape drugs, references to incest and non-consensual sex, and a scene of sexual assault.
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