Heat Factor: The moments when they connect are really special, but it doesn’t happen often
Character Chemistry: Gennady’s a bit of a cynic, and Daniel just can’t help falling in love
Plot: Wise Spies – they both know very well the games their governments are playing, and that connection forges unexpectedly deep trusts that carry through years and separations
Overall: Oof. Wow. How can I read another book now?
Let me just start by saying that I have a sneaking suspicion that Gray thought, “I’m just going to put in what I want to read…” and so we get forearm porn, eyes over the reading glasses, forehead kisses, only one bed, finger combing hair, and so, so many of those other little swoon cues. It was a treasure trove amidst the stress of an almost insurmountable climb to Daniel and Gennady’s happy ending.
And I’ll be honest, I had moments of doubt. Yes, I have seen others gushing over this book, so I should have trusted that it was a capital-R Romance. But there were some mighty challenges to be overcome by a Soviet agent who was only ever in the US by the grace of his government and an FBI agent who was dealing with his own struggles. Honestly, it would have been easier to make this book into a romantic tragedy in which the two men were fated to find each other only to be torn apart again and again until it was just over. The more challenging option to this story was to give it a happy ending, considering that (for a long time) there was absolutely no way for that happy ending to happen unless both men forsook their entire lives for each other and ran off to, like, Mars? I don’t even know.
I’m 100% the audience for this book: I read M/M romance, I read historical romance (although I’ve been on a little hiatus from it lately, but HELLO MID-CENTURY ROMANCE, thank you for busting my slump), and I studied Russian and Russian history in college when people were like, “Why? The Cold War is over.” And I also studied the history of radical movements with a focus on Communism. And I used to really want to be an FBI agent in my tweens (X-Files, what can I say?). So. This was absolutely a win for me. But even if you do not have my background, I think this book could be a win for you, too. Let’s discuss.
Part One: The Road Trip
Yes, friends, Daniel and Gennady fall impossibly for each other while they are on a months-long road trip theoretically solving an attempted assassination case but secretly both assigned to get dirt on each other while simultaneously pulling the wool over each other’s eyes. It’s not terribly fast-paced, but it’s so sweet, this tender, tenuous friendship that they build. Daniel knows he’s bisexual (even though his last lover didn’t accept bisexuality as a valid identity), but Gennady thinks fooling around is just something that men might do when they’re drunk and in the mood. The moment that Gennady considers that the possibility of a man loving another man even exists – oof. The most cynical men fall the hardest, perhaps. For his part, Daniel seems to have a habit of falling in love, he’s hopelessly romantic, so it’s no surprise that he falls for the unexpectedly (and mostly unintentionally) charming Gennady.
Part Two: The Second Chance
There are really, actually three parts in the book, and Part One is really, actually a whole slow burn road trip. But once they’ve crossed the Rubicon, as it were, they’re connected. As I was pondering how to describe my feelings about this story, the word bittersweet flitted through my mind. Not in the way that Romance readers disdain – nobody dies at the end. (Okay, well, actually several people die; the book takes place over decades, so life happens, but there’s also a death by suicide of a secondary character that impacts our protagonists significantly. But the heroes don’t die.) No, I thought of it as bittersweet because these men were forced apart due to forces outside their control, so the story almost has those second chance romance vibes where the protagonists reconnect in middle age after being separated for decades, and my heart always breaks a little bit at all those years they were (needlessly) apart. I’m not sure that either Gennady or Daniel would thank me for those sentiments; they both have undeniably full lives, but still, their love story is so sweeping that the sentiment is evoked in me nonetheless. How can it not be, when their love endures years of involuntary separation?
Part Three: The Setting
I’m not actually going to talk about the book’s Part Three, but I’ll round out my arguments here because I do believe that one draw of this story is its unique setting. I’ve already mentioned that it occurs over the course of years, which is unusual in romance (and, I would argue, difficult to do well), but also it exists in an unusual period of historical romance. Even if history isn’t your jam, there’s a certain nostalgia in the descriptions of small town Midwest America in the post WWII decades. Like, I used to eat perfection salad (though I couldn’t tell you it was called that) as a child. It feels familiar, even as it is not for most of us (these guys are only a bit younger than my grandparents).
Beyond that, the setting creates a legitimate, non-personal reason that these two honestly can’t be together. The Soviet Union was extremely closed, anti-Communist sentiment in the US was intense, and while queer folks have existed throughout history, the legal protections that a modern reader expects were not in place. There is absolutely no safety net for these two. It’s all just so interesting.
This book also challenged me somewhat unexpectedly. You see, I have read a non-zero quantity of queer historical romance, and always the idea of a lavender marriage or the like is considered a betrayal of the relationship between the protagonists (even if it’s not explicitly discussed). And I always think, “Yes, yes. But also could we consider this marriage business from some other standpoint for a change?” And yet this book includes what we modern folk would call polyamorous V relationships. As the author kindly included the content note “messy polyamory” for me, I knew that this was going to happen (somehow) going in, but when I arrived, I began to wonder if I would actually appreciate the application of an open marriage in a romance that wasn’t specifically intended to be a poly romance. The romance is constructed between Gennady and Daniel. How do I fit wives in there? Ultimately, the V relationships were really well suited to what they accomplished in the narrative, and it was the fact that Gennady was continuously bound by his job and prevented from being fully enmeshed in Daniel’s life that smarted for me, not the marriages.
I would’ve liked to stay with Daniel and Gennady a little bit longer. I honestly didn’t want to leave these two and had a huge book hangover after I turned the last page and was aghast that it was just over. WHAT?! I don’t get to stay with them forever? Really that would have been too much, but it’s always nice when one’s so invested in a story that one doesn’t want it to end.
I voluntarily read and reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own. We disclose this in accordance with 16 CFR §255.
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