I felt conflicted going in to this and at the end I'm still feeling a bit unsure. With a synopsis like that, I felt both highly intrigued and ready for some hopefully good sex scenes, while at the same time uncertain of how the story would actually go.
I love dark-fic stories and ones that explore the dark realities of the world (ex. rape, non-con, dub-con) and in some ways this story definitely delivered on that end as I expected, but Gormley also kept the focus primarily on Rhys and Darius rather than making a big deal of the necessity for Rhys to have multiple partners for a prolonged period of time, which gave some reprieve for how bad Rhys' overall situation is.
There were aspects that I loved and some that I didn't really like. I fell in love with the first 30%. The setup, the writing, the world building, the secondary characters, and Gormley's creative approach to a 'zombie' story. The next 40% did not captivate me the same way although I was still intrigued enough, and the last 30% was a little difficult to get into despite all of the action taking place.
Some of what I liked:
I understand how some people have and will feel frustrated with Rhys' continued reluctance to fully participate in all the sex he's having, but I feel that Gormley made his progressive development in this situation realistic. Given Rhys' experience at the Monastery before Darius and his fellow Jugs show up, Rhys' reluctance makes sense. He's a 19 year old virgin who's dealing with the heartache of recently lost loved ones as well as past abuse partly for his sexuality, and one of the people who tormented him is a still-constant presence upon leaving the Monastery and finally seeing the outside world again.
Rhys doesn't reveal this until around the end of the story, but there are many times he expresses his feelings on the matter even when he doesn't exactly discuss these feelings. This lack of communication creates some problems, but while the miscommunication is definitely a contributing factor for the plot, it didn't feel as forced or thrown in as some other stories use it which was a definite plus.“It was never about love. It was about self-respect. I fought it for a long time because I didn’t want the only sex I ever had before I died to not mean anything, especially when it was already something I didn’t have a choice in. Then it didn’t feel meaningless anymore, and it was okay. Better than okay.”
Some of the secondary characters were especially charming and there were plenty of moments that had me laughing.
About damn time I saw an MM book with a badass, likeable female character. We need more pleasant women in our mm romance; it shouldn't feel refreshing to enjoy a female character and not want to slap her for being a bitch.“So Xolani is a Persian name?”
“Nope.” Titus laughed again. “Darius started calling her that when she joined Delta Company. Means ‘peace’ in Zulu.”
“Peace?” Rhys felt his eyebrows creep up.
“Well, he didn’t have a word for ‘will rip off your face and eat it with ketchup.’”
And on that happy note, some of what I didn't like:
As I said, I really liked the first 30% of the book and the rest didn't feel as enjoyable, but the problems didn't start there. One of my biggest issues that stuck with me was the fight between Rhys and Jacob within the Monastery and the Jugs nearby. My issue isn't that the two fought, Rhys had every right to attack that bastard, but with the Jugs' reaction. Rhys has sacrificed himself to be a distraction for the Revs in the hopes that the others in the Monastery (aka his sister and her child) can have a chance at survival, only to fail. It is later revealed that one of the Jugs saw Jacob, father of Rhys' sister's child (she's forced into this by the way), run away like the coward he is while the others were left to die. But does the Jug actually do anything about it? No, but he does whine about it later on when he tells Rhys what he saw. Early on Rhys doesn't know this, but he does learn that Jacob abandoned his sister and her child, so naturally he gets fucking pissed and starts pummeling Jacob. Who wouldn't? Now, I don't know how far away the Jugs were exactly when Rhys started to break here, I wasn't that clear on their proximity, but I do know they hadn't been that far away. They were clearly close enough to pull Jacob off Rhys when he blacked out, which makes me believe they were also close enough to hear Rhys' broken screams
so why the fuck are they confused over why Rhys snapped?? It's not like he was screaming quietly. I get that Jacob needs to be around for the conflict at the end of the story, but there was no excuse for acting like Rhys was in any way at fault here."You ran away?...I'll kill you! You left them!"
Then there's the miscommunication/misunderstanding between Rhys and Darius about their relationship throughout the book. It develops pretty slowly and that's fine, especially with Rhys' lack of experience and how neither one wants to allow themselves to become attached in case Rhys becomes infected and turns into a Rev and needs to be killed. At one point it felt like they were finally coming to a much needed understanding and were actually getting closer at last, but it wasn't until the very end that they cleared things up and came to that understanding they should have reached long ago. After all, Rhys had told Darius what he wanted before that point:
So these were some definite drawbacks that made me enjoy the whole story less."Fuck that, Darius! You don't get to tell me I have a choice and then ignore what I say when I choose!
Less irritating were the editing errors scattered throughout the story. They were scattered just enough that I didn't focus on them, but it was hard not to notice when I encountered them. There was one sentence that suddenly changed the gender of a character, calling him a her twice, before switching back in the next paragraph and not making the same mistake for the rest of the story, but the others were thankfully not as big.
I enjoyed the story overall and for the world building and how much I loved Xolani it deserves 5 stars. Unfortunately, toward the end I just wanted to be done.