In honour of one of the principal characters in this book, I'm going to start this review with some statistics. Gregory Ashe’s The Same Breath is the fifth of his books reviewed in 2020 to get a DIK review (he’s received nine since February 2019). It’s also the eighth book he’s published this year so far, and the series it opens – The Lamb and the Lion - is the third series he’s written in this year. (Again, so far – he has another new series beginning in October). At the rate he’s going, I can easily imagine him having averaged one book per month by the end of 2020. I’m not complaining (unless it’s to protest that he’s putting out books so rapidly I feel like I’m running to keep up!) - and that’s because not only is he incredibly prolific, he’s also incredibly GOOD. Seriously, if you’re a fan of romantic suspense and gritty mysteries, snappy banter and sexual tension so intense it hits you like a slap in the face, and you’re NOT reading Gregory Ashe - you’re missing out BIG TIME.
Readers who may find the prospect of working their way through the eleven books in the author’s ‘signature’ Hazard and Somerset series a little daunting can easily jump in here to find out what all the fuss is about. All the elements of Mr. Ashe’s trademark style – complex, clever mysteries, flawed, but utterly compelling characters, deadpan humour and snark, and brilliantly constructed, deeply felt relationships – are to be found here, yet this story still manages to feel new and fresh and different from anything else of his I’ve read.
The Same Breath is book one (of three, I think) of a series set in Utah. Our two protagonists are Teancum (Tean) Leon – a wildlife veterinarian with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, and Jem Berger, a grifter who lives by his wits while also doing his best to look out for his brother Benny – who has a habit of finding trouble. Tean is smart and dedicated, with a penchant for trotting out the most unusual random facts and figures – the frequency of whale song, the likelihood of bear attacks, statistics about murder and McDonalds are just a few examples - that point to his being something of a ‘glass half empty’ kinda guy. He’s endearingly adorkable, but he’s also lonely and severely repressed. Involved in a toxic relationship with a deeply closeted guy (a cop with a wife and kids) he’s known since childhood and loved for almost as long, Tean has next to no self-esteem and often feels as though he’s out of step with the world around him.
Jem was bounced around the foster system and ended up in juvie after defending himself and Benny against their violent foster mother. Since he got out, he’s done what he’s had to do to survive; he’s charming, quick-witted, and utterly ruthless when he has to be - and makes good use of all those qualities as he runs a variety of different cons, from blackmailing a sleazebag wanting to buy child pornography to picking up guys in swanky hotel bars so he can get himself a decent meal and bed for the night.
Jem and Tean cross paths when Benny suddenly disappears. Benny is something of an environmental activist and has been showing up at Tean’s office on and off for years, ranting about things like poaching, sick Elk herds, fish being poisoned by sewage… and even though Benny’s initial presentation caused Tean’s colleagues to mark him down as a crazy conspiracy theorist, Tean has found his information to be remarkably accurate. He checks out Benny’s most recent claims that birds are being poisoned and does indeed find a number of dead gulls and shovelers exactly where Benny had claimed they’d be. On his way back to the DWR, Tean becomes uneasy when he notices a black SUV that seems to be following him – and remembers the weird phone calls he’s received lately and the death, a week earlier, of a colleague in suspicious circumstances. The death, the calls and now the tail? Tean finds it hard to believe it’s all coincidence.
The mystery is tight and incredibly well-constructed. The storylines that are so subtly laid out as part of our introduction to the characters gradually gain momentum until they converge when Tean and Jem meet, and are propelled inexorably forward until the pair realise that Benny’s conspiracy theories may not all have been theories, and that the death of Tean’s colleague may somehow be connected to whatever it was Benny had stumbled upon. It’s perfectly paced, the red herrings are masterfully employed, and even though the identity of the villain(s) might have been easy to work out, the reveal isn’t as important as the getting there; watching Tean and Jem work together to find the proof they need and to work out the killer’s motivations is the highlight of the book, their very different personalities and skill-sets meshing together like two snug-fitting puzzle pieces.
Once again, Gregory Ashe achieves a perfect balance between plot and relationship development, bringing together two individuals who are so fundamentally different that they shouldn’t work as friends or lovers – and yet they do. Tean and Jem are complicated, damaged men who find something in each other they’ve never found with anyone else, a sense that they really see one another for who they truly are. And even more importantly, they feel able to be who they truly are around one another. Their relationship is as complex as they are; there’s betrayal and anger, and emotion so raw that it hurts to read, but there’s genuine companionship and understanding, too, and it’s all right there on the page – there’s no telling-instead-of-showing here - in their actions and their lively banter and deeper, more intimate conversations.
“And I’ll probably die from grief. Not because I can’t live without you, so don’t get that big grin on your face, but because science has proven that grief can cause inflammation that can actually, literally kill you. And that would be my kind of luck.”
“I just want to give you credit,” Jem said, “for finding the bleakest and most depressing way I’ve ever heard of telling me that you like me.”
I loved watching Jem slowly getting under Tean’s skin, and seeing the depth of caring that so obviously lurks beneath his easy familiarity; and I loved equally Tean’s exasperated affection and gradual realisation that here is someone who can clearly see his insecurities and inhibitions – and likes him anyway.
The Same Breath is a superbly written mystery featuring likeable but flawed characters, fantastic dialogue and a sensual, slow-burn romance that promises to be something special. Gregory Ashe just gets better and better, and readers – fans and newbies alike - have a real treat awaiting them.
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