Title: Undercover Sins (Secret Sins #1)
Author: Hayley B. James
Cover Artist: Paul Richmond
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Buy link: Amazon.com
Length: Novel (295 pdf pages)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
A Guest Review by Feliz
Summary Review: An ambituous book with an intriguing plot idea that unfortunately fell short of its great potential, mostly due to repetitive telling and overexplanation.
The Blurb: Police officer Gabriel Carter refuses to walk away from an assignment without seeing it through. So when he goes into deep cover as a male prostitute named Ty, he intends to do everything in his power to see his case to an arrest. He seduces his mark, Demetrius Prado, the second most powerful man in Las Vegas and a human trafficker, but the man is nothing like he expected.
The more Gabriel learns about Demetrius, the more twists and turns are thrown his way in the convoluted case leading to Demetrius’s rival, Arden, and beyond. It’s a case of mistaken identities and layer after layer of trumped-up cover stories, and Gabriel is sure there’s no way he’ll ever be able to trust Demetrius with his life… much less with his heart.
The Review: I found the plot idea appealing — an undercover cop reluctantly falling in love with the target of his investigation is a fascinating premise with loads of heavy conflicts both internal and external waiting to happen. It also started out promising with a Ty who is so merged in his ruse as a sassy young whore that he acts, thinks and talks the part. His seduction of Demetrius is one of the best scenes in the book – including one very special game of chess, which I found delicious. The actual sex scenes between Ty and Demetrius were hot and well done. The world building was subtle; I liked the Las Vegas setting, and the atmosphere in the club.
Also, some of the characterizations were pretty good, first and foremost Demetrius. He’s an incredibly complicated character – something like those Russian Matryoshka dolls, layer upon layer of different personalities and backstories. His character is to act out of character, make erratic moves and decisions, irrational and growingly conflicted. I found his inner disunity nicely done and comprehensible, although I couldn’t make myself like him. There was Lee, Demetrius’s cool and inshakeable bodyguard, and Lesley, Ty’s protective Sergeant, which were both well- drawn, likeable characters.
I had problems with Ty/ Gabriel. From the very beginning, I couldn’t help stumbling upon inconsistencies that kept pulling me out of the story flow with wait, what? — moments. If there had been only a few, I could have just shrugged them off since this is fiction, after all, but it happened again and again, adding up to a serious bother.
The fact that Ty’s supposed to be deep undercover, but obviously has broken cover early on to a fellow rent-boy, Jackson, and Ty’s contact officer meets with him in front of Ty’s pimp who’s obviously also in the know — seemed to me terribly bad police work. Demetrius, who is supposed to be a powerful kind of Mafia don in human trafficking, confronts Ty about stalking him and using a fake ID, and still Ty doesn’t fear unmasking when Demetrius hires him?
Later, after Demetrius has stopped to be Ty’s target, Ty hates himself for sleeping with a monster like Demetrius, but still it’s mostly Ty who initiates yet another tryst again and again. Ty is understandably under a lot of stress, which explains a lot of his rashness, but sometimes he acts just immature, lashing out or running away like a sulky teenager while at the same time demanding respect from the people he’s just offended – breaches of character which can’t be explained away by the circumstances.
The worst character was Arden. Admittedly Arden is The Villain, and he’s described as feared and hated, one who has no qualms putting a bullet between the eyes of everyone who steps into his way. Yet, Arden plays petty games, pouts if something doesn’t go according to his whims and doesn’t have himself under control. If he did so being merely the Don’s son, fine, but he’s supposed to be a big player himself and leading his own branch of business.
What actually bothered me most with the writing in itself was the fact that time and again, inconsistencies were actually addressed, only to be wiped away as “that’s just the way it is”. It felt like the author noticed them, but didn’t feel like polishing them in order to clear them up. I couldn’t help feel cheated.
I think I understood what the author meant to do with this book. How is it possible to remain human if you pretend to be a monster? How can those heroic law enforcers who go deep undercover, actually partaking in crimes in order to fight them, come out unscathed? How much evil can a good man witness and stay sane? In the end, it boiled down to the question whether a noble end justifies each and every means, or if there are boundaries beyond which forgiveness is impossible.
Well, I truly believe I’d gotten the point after the first few times Ty mused about it, or Ty and Demetrius discussed it, or Ty and Jackson discussed it, or Ty and Lesley discussed it…the repetition came across as hammering it in, which became a bit bothersome after a while. Especially the constant to-ing and fro-ing between Ty and Demetrius started to get to my nerves. The book could have done with a third less and actually would have won since a lot of repetitiveness could have been avoided.
With this story, the reader is drawn into a world which is supposed to be realistic, but reminds more of an urban fantasy setting which sometimes seems rather artificial. Nearly everything between Demetrius and his adversary, Arden, is about sex, and pretty soon about sex with Ty. This leads to some rather disturbing sex scenes outside the main pairing, some of which were non-con, precariously close to rape.
Also, there were the so-called pets, kind of like sex slaves of either gender, who read like something right out of a not very realistic BDSM master/slave fantasy. While pets weren’t mentioned in the beginning, they later seemed to be a required accessory for every bigwig and wannabe in the world of human traffickers. I must admit that I wouldn’t know, since I don’t have in-depth knowledge about human trafficking. But for this, I had to seriously suspend disbelief.
I didn’t hate this book at all, I “only” had to many issues too really enjoy it. Despite my reservations, I’d give a tentative recommendation. As I said above, it’s a very ambitious book with a challenging setting, dealing with equally daring topics, and I can very well fathom how people might overlook a lot of weaknesses for the emotional, unusual romance. Those who really hate over-explanation, repetitive telling and unlikeliness that pushes disbelief might rather want to wait for this author’s next offer.