Desert Isle Keeper
Wayward, book four in the Hazard and Somerset: A Union of Swords series, takes place five weeks after the events of the previous book, Transactional Dynamics. As anyone who has read our reviews of these books/this series will know, none of them really works as a standalone; each Hazard and Somerset novel features a complicated, densely plotted standalone mystery that ties into an overarching suspense plot. That plot gains momentum as the series progresses and keeps the reader on edge looking for villainous behavior from every secondary character in the story. Hazard and Somers are flawed, compelling principal characters you can’t help but love and root for, even as they struggle with many of the mundane, everyday relationship problems we all do; each book is chock full of sly humor, intrigue, smart, sharp dialogue, and clever storytelling. Ashe gets nearly everything right in every single book. Wayward isn’t my favorite in the series, but it’s still tremendously good.
Note: There are spoilers for earlier books in this review.
In Transactional Dynamics, Emery Hazard and John-Henry Somerset were newly engaged, living together, and raising their daughter Evie (along with John’s ex-wife Cora). But shortly after that story began, the surprise arrival of Billy Rolker, Hazard’s emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend, revealed cracks beneath the surface. Somers was struggling with his work/life balance and drinking to deal with it; Hazard’s PTSD (and resistance to therapy) and past history with Billy wreaked havoc on his emotional well-being, and the Keeper of Bees has made a creepy reappearance. Fortunately, by the end of the novel, Hazard and Somers are recommitted to the relationship and each other (le sigh) – honestly, no one does soul-satisfying, highly romantic, emotionally authentic end-of-book chapters like Ashe – Somers is newly sober and Hazard is mostly free of the demons of his past relationships (although his unresolved PTSD is still a problem).
Wayward picks up with Hazard frustrated over wedding planning (big surprise), and secretly enjoying spending time with their small, but steadily growing group of friends – neighbors Noah and Rebeca, Dulac and his on-again boyfriend Darnell, Wesley (the local pastor) and his girlfriend, Nico, and Mitchell, the lone survivor of the Keeper of Bees (IS IT ONE OF THEM???!!). Somers is sober and content with his chore list (wink, wink) and work/life balance. But their happy bubble is burst when Glenn Somerset, John’s father, shows up at their home. Running for mayor in a tight race, Glenn decides to call in favors from Somers and Hazard. He asks Hazard to help him with a blackmailer – although he won’t tell them why he’s being blackmailed – and Somers to move-out (for two weeks) as part of a last minute, public relations stunt. Hazard reluctantly agrees to investigate the blackmail and Somers mistakenly assumes it’s okay for him to agree to his favor, too. Somers, as readers well know, longs for a better relationship with his parents and doesn’t immediately recognize the repercussions of his apparently easy acquiescence. Hazard, shocked and deeply hurt by John’s decision – what he believes is a rejection of him, their relationship, and his sexuality – rejects Somers attempts to explain, and after an angry exchange, he confirms Somers is actually leaving and then heads out to cool off.
Bewildered by Emery’s reaction and oblivious to his betrayal, John relocates to a local inn; the move triggers rumors (most likely spread by John’s father) that they’ve split up and that Somers is reuniting with his ex-wife. Hazard, predictably, lashes out and refuses to talk to Somers; Somers maintains his sobriety – barely – and grows quietly desperate with the knowledge of how deeply he’s hurt the love of his life, knowing he’s made a terrible mistake.
When a vaguely familiar stranger walks into his office the next day, Hazard is tempted to tell her to leave. Courtney Vega wants Hazard to find her missing sister Donna May Plenge (Savanna Twilight in Police Brutality). After regular disappearing acts, it finally seemed like she was ready to settle down in Wahredua and raise her young daughter Dolly, and maybe reconcile with Dolly’s father, Joshua Dobb. But she’s been missing for more than a month; yesterday, the police (Somers and Dulac!) – acting on a new custody order – came and took Dolly to live with Josh. Dolly is gone, Donna is missing, and the Vegas are devastated.
Hazard suspects Courtney isn’t telling him the whole truth, but takes the case for the paycheck; he’s convinced Somers agreed to move out because of money he borrowed from his father to launch Hazard’s detective agency. But trying to track Donna’s last movements proves impossible. She isn’t in any of her usual haunts and the people who saw her last – Courtney, Josh, her therapist Melissa, and Daniel Minor, Josh’s best friend – all have motives to kill her. After canvassing the trailer park where she lived with her parents, he realizes the Dobb estate is within walking distance. He sneaks into Josh’s home – which appears empty but isn’t – so he makes a hasty exit and walks down to the boathouse. There, Hazard discovers Donna’s decomposing body hidden under a tarp. When the police arrive on the scene, Somers and Dulac are drawn into the murder investigation, too.
While finding Donna May’s killer makes for a nicely nasty mystery, it’s the fractured relationship between Emery and John that steals your attention. Somers is thrilled to be working alongside Hazard again, but Hazard isn’t ready to move on. Somers knows it was a mistake to move out; unfortunately, Hazard doesn’t want to talk about it… or confess he knows that the decision wasn’t actually about him – but about Somers’ need for his father’s approval. Their relationship continues to fracture, until Hazard’s fraught relationship with his own dying father forces him to re-examine what it means to be a family. Somers, who’s done some soul searching of his own, is there to offer comfort and solace and the rift between them finally begins to heal.
Wayward is more than the sum of its parts. Yes, it features a clever murder mystery, but it’s also a sobering look at what it means to be a family. Wayward children, wayward friends, wayward partners… Ashe drives his theme home at every level and in every relationship. He immediately sets his principal characters at odds and quickly introduces the suspense plot, and just when it seems like Hazard and Somers can’t ever find their way back to each other, he slowly – meticulously – merges these two seemingly disparate threads. Family – blood and found – tears them apart, but also brings them back together. Ashe doesn’t flinch from difficult personal relationships – between Emery and John; Dulac and Somers; fathers and sons – and his unsparing depiction of these difficult dynamics – the good, the bad, the pleasure, the pain – elevates this novel to a DIK.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started an H&S novel, puzzling over how the pieces fit, only to sigh with satisfaction as Ashe slowly, inexorably pieces it all together. While I hated the hurt and distance between Emery and John for so much of this story, I’m blown away by Ashe’s storytelling. From that opening sequence showing Hazard and Somers with their new found family, to the examination of their own father/son dynamic, to that lovely closing sequence wherein they choose each other all over again, Ashe fleshes out what it means to be part of a family. It’s poignant and moving, and masterfully done.
Reader: WHO DO YOU THINK IS THE KEEPER OF BEES????!!!