Crooked Shadows (Whitethorn Agency #2) by M.A. Grant

crooked shadows

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Everyone has secrets. Especially those who live in the shadows.

Cristian Slava doesn’t fear much. After he was betrayed by the man he called an uncle, leaving upstate New York for the Carpathian Mountains of his childhood is more a matter of practicality than fear. With him is Atlas Kinkaid, a former marine turned fierce bodyguard…and fierce lover, albeit a hell of a complicated one.

Cristian’s cunning is tested by the politics and intrigue of the vampire families of Romania, and the warm welcome he and Atlas were assured of quickly turns to ash as they race to unravel the mystery of an old friend’s disappearance. Searching for the missing vampire draws them into a web of betrayal and half-truths that reaches further than Cristian ever could have imagined, and they uncover a string of grisly murders that bear a striking similarity to the attack that changed Atlas’s life forever.

Stalked by the past and uncertain of the future, Cristian learns he does have something to fear after all…

Losing the man he loves.

Rating: A-

Crooked Shadows is the second intriguing and exciting instalment in M.A. Grant’s paranormal/urban fantasy Whitethorn Security series, and as it picks up immediately after the first book – Rare Vigilance – ended, I’d strongly advise reading that before jumping into this one or you’ll be a bit lost.

Note: There are spoilers for the previous book in this review.

Rare Vigilance ended with its two protagonists, Cristian Slava and Atlas Kincaid, about to go on the run following an attack by the strigoi – a terrifying creature that even vampires fear – at Cristian’s family home.  Barely escaping with their lives, they need to find whoever is controlling the strigoi, stop them, and in the process, prove that Cristian’s father isn’t responsible for their creation and prevent his overthrow by the ruling Council. They’re both convinced that the Wharrams – Cristian’s mother’s family – are behind the increased strigoi activity and the attack on Decebal Vladislavic’s nest, and they travel to Romania intending to find out more about the creatures and to seek help from Decebal’s allies there.

It’s apparent from the moment they arrive that neither of those things is going to be easy.  Cristian and Atlas have to navigate the complex and dangerous politics of the vampire world at every turn, never knowing who to trust and forever looking over their shoulders for the next betrayal.  The author does a fantastic job here of creating and sustaining an atmosphere of uncertainty and near-paranoia and conveying just how exhausting and knife-edged a situation the two men are facing.  Their first port of call is to meet with Voivode Mehai, a former associate of Decebal’s who, if not precisely a friend, should at least offer Cristian basic courtesy and safe passage through his territory.

But even more bad news awaits them.  Mehai’s son Radu – a friend of Cristian’s – disappeared while investigating a recent spate of attacks and killings in their territory, attacks which result in injuries which could only have been caused by strigoi – and now the Council is about to pay Mehai a visit not to help, but to attempt to assign blame for the current rise in violence to him and his leadership.  With the Council members – including Theo Wharram – due to arrive any day, it’s imperative that Atlas and Cristian leave as soon as possible. The timing of the Council’s visit and Radu’s disappearance can’t be coincidental; if Radu has learned something that could help Mehai prove his innocence to the Council, they’d want him out of the way.  Cristian tells Mehai that he and Atlas will search for Radu, hoping to bring him back in time for whatever information he’s found to be of use.

M.A. Grant really ramps up the action in this book; there’s danger on all sides and Atlas and Cristian are forced to confront some of their deepest fears and to rely on each other as never before.  The relationship they began to develop in Rare Vigilance is still on somewhat shaky ground emotionally – for a number of reasons – and everything they go through in this story really pushes at its boundaries and tests its limits.  This book is more action-focused than the previous one, but it does include some solid relationship development, with a deeper, stronger connection gradually forming between the two men as they face ordeal after ordeal together.

The PoV in this book switches to Cristian (Rare Vigilance was told solely from Atlas’ perspective) which brings him into much sharper focus than before, when he was quite enigmatic for most of the story.  When I reviewed that book, I said that there were hints at a different man behind the cocky exterior, and those words are borne out here as we see a much more thoughtful, gentler side to Cristian.  He’s clearly head-over-heels for Atlas but fears Atlas doesn’t feel as deeply for him, and I loved seeing that vulnerable side of Cristian, and how he tries so hard to be patient and open with Atlas, and encourage a similar openness in him.  He worried that bringing Atlas back to the place he and his unit were attacked was bound to bring back horrific memories that would trigger Atlas’ PTSD, but he will do whatever is necessary to keep Atlas safe – from his nightmares and from whatever creatures are lurking in the woods.

I really enjoyed this instalment in the series, but there were a couple of things that didn’t quite work for me.  The first part is a little slow in places, and although I absolutely love stories that feature intrigue and political manouevering, I occasionally had trouble keeping track of who was who and how they related to each other.  And then there’s the sudden switch from Cristian’s to Atlas’ PoV at around the 90% mark.  For spoilery reasons I won’t go in to, there was no other way for the author to continue the story, but it was jarring nonetheless.

Crooked Shadows is otherwise a terrific follow-up to Rare Vigilance.  It’s thrilling and sexy, with plenty of high-stakes action as well as some lovely, tender moments between the two leads. Be warned, however, that it ends on a real humdinger of a cliffhanger, one that is sure to complicate our heroes’ lives still further and plunge them into yet more danger in book three.  I’ll definitely be here for that when it’s released in 2022.

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