This book first came to my notice when I saw it on a list of most underrated books for 2014. It had garnished lots of very enthusiastic 5 star ratings.
The blurb is worth repeating: "How do you love someone who exists entirely in the shadows? How do you love a man who describes himself as dead? How do you get that ghost to love you back? Ex-SAS soldier, Ben Rider, falls in love with his enigmatic married boss Sir Nikolas Mikkelsen, but Nikolas is living a lie. A lie so profound that when the shadows are lifted, Ben realises he's in love with a very dangerous stranger. Ben has to choose between Nikolas and safety, but sometimes danger comes in a very seductive package."
Once I started reading, I found myself being blown away as much as I was when I came across "Special Forces". There are parallels, ex SAS (British) and a man who we discover is not only Spetznaz, but belonging to the more sinister, Zaslon unit. And the author even admits to having read the first two books of that series "Soldiers I and II"). But it was more like fabulous fan-fiction, taking those bare bone parallels and going off in another direction.
For a start, these characters are more likeable (for me anyway). They both do and have done horrendous things. Some "on camera". They both hurt others, each other and even themselves, but underlying that, their love seems more honest. The men are monogamous for starters. (At least except for a blip in book 4 which was integral to the plot).
The first book is told entirely from the POV of Ben. He's a bit like Dan. Happy go lucky, good at what he does, straightforward, what you see is what you get.
He was head hunted by his current boss who now works for the British Government in a covert cell. (In later books, we get flashbacks to how and why) and Ben has become his right hand man, an efficent tool for carrying out different operations.
The first was busting open an animal right's potential terrorist group. Ben has to infiltrate the group by gaining access via the man they see is the ringleader, Tim. Tim is a Professor in Ethics and gay. This last fact isn't too abhorrent to Ben as he has been fucking his boss almost ever since he started working for him four years ago. His boss is married.
Oohm cheating, infidelity. How could this man be termed "nice", Well it turns out that this is a marriage of convenience and a cover. The lovely twist being that not only is the marriage a cover for Sir Nikolas, it is a cover for his wife who is having an long term affair with a member of the Royal Family.
While the emotional arc of the ongoing changes in the relationship between these two men forms the backbone of the book, the plot is actually in a number of discreet parts. The next case Ben has is the abduction of a child on behalf of the father. The ethics of this one sits uneasily with Ben and he gets back in touch with Tim, for advice. For the operation Ben and Nik purchase a scruffy dog from the pound with the idea of using him to gain access to the target child's current family and then taking him back to the pound.
So, running along in the background of this book are all sorts of themes of ethics, lies, manipulation, using people and things and how far you are willing to go to achieve a goal.
In this book, the action is paramount. The sex scenes are pretty unemotional and because we only get Ben's POV, it's not that introspective (again shades of SF). But we do get introduced to some wonderful side characters. Including Radulf, the scruffy wolfhound, who in many ways, steals the series.
Critics will argue that the scenario is unrealistic, Nikolas turns out to be a billionaire. But he is so much more than that. How he came to be one: his family, his past, his enemies are only gradually revelaed to Ben and the reader.
Nikolas is a tortured hero who is willing to lie and manipulate to get what he wants, but his dark vision of himself is continually being challenged by Ben's love.
The story itself may not be perfect. The characters certainly are not, but in many ways these imperfections give the series somewhere to go. Everything that happens has repercussions down the line. And the books just get better and better.
Fabulous story telling.