Author: Chris Quinton
Buy link: Amazon.com (Second Edition)
Publisher: Kouros Books
Genre: M/M time slip, historical and contemporary
Length: Short Novel (45,985 words)
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
A guest review by Leslie S
Review summary: Enjoyable romp combining contemporary spy action and a historical Roman mystery.
Phil thrives on the danger and excitement of his job, and he trusts his partner with his life. Until Ryan kisses him. It’s a diversionary tactic, but the kiss shakes Phil to his foundations. He doesn’t need or want a long-term lover, but now it seems his heart does.
A short time later, Phil finds himself trapped in his wrecked car, drifting in and out of a dream-haunted coma where he’s living a parallel life. Centuries in the past, someone’s trying to kill Caius Marcellus Valens, and nothing is the way it seems. When the dream invades Phil’s waking life, he must separate past from present before it tears apart his world–and the best relationship he’s ever had.
Phil Morgan and Ryan Buchanan are work partners for Davidson & Hart’s Security & Retrieval, an agency dedicated to tracking down stolen artworks and other objects. On a job in Amsterdam, when a distraction is needed during a tense situation, Phil is shocked when Ryan pretends to be his boyfriend and kisses him. Ryan is able to laugh it off, but Phil can’t get the kiss out of his mind.
Phil is bisexual. He has a girlfriend more for convenience and cover, having felt obliged to hide his sexual preferences while he served in the RAF and then in the Serious Organised Crime Agency. Being with a woman has become a habit, and now it’s something of an inconvenience. He’s worried that his feelings for Ryan will get in the way of the job and destroy their previously tight teamwork.
After a weekend away with his girlfriend as he struggles to understand his emotions, Phil is driving back to London when bad weather and a closure on the motorway force him to take the country roads. He loses control of his car and has a huge accident, rolling his car into a ditch. While he thinks he’s physically okay, Phil seems to have a weird sort of concussion, because he faints and when he wakes up again, he’s in Roman Britain and a slave is addressing him as Caius Marcellus Valens, only surviving son and heir of a wealthy and sick old man.
Caius is recovering from a chariot crash that happened along the same road (the Fosse Way, one of the old Roman roads through England) where Phil crashed his car. Phil inhabits Caius’ body but is separate from Caius’ mind, so although he has access to Caius’ memories, when Phil is dreaming, he controls Caius’ actions. Phil is annoyed that Caius is a bit of a wet blanket who, although he’s served in the Roman legions in North Africa, has failed to excel as a soldier and is content with being a pen-pusher and waiting to live off his inheritance. Except Caius might not survive that long—with his slave Demetrius’ help, Phil discovers that the chariot crash was no accident. The wheel pins were tampered with. Someone wants Caius dead.
As Ryan rushes across the country to Phil’s rescue, Phil continues to drift in and out of consciousness, dipping in and out of events in Caius’ life. Since his Roman ‘self’ seems to be clueless, Phil decides to find out why someone tried to kill Caius. Things get even more bizarre when Phil meets Caius’ uncle, Quintus, who bears a strong resemblance to Phil’s real-life boss Charles Trent. And if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s a dissatisfied Briton, Rianorix, always lurking in the background and offering information—and Rianorix looks just like Ryan.
As the parallel lives collide, Phil doesn’t know who to trust. He’s unravelling one puzzle only to find himself in another, and it quickly becomes apparent that if he puts his faith in the wrong person, there could be tragic consequences—not just for Caius, but also for Phil himself.
The premise and execution of this story are really unusual. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this before, and on one level I found this an intriguing read purely because the idea was so unique. It’s not a time travel story because Phil’s physical body stays in his own time; perhaps it’s more of a ‘time slip’, since Phil’s mind is occupying the mind of an ancient Roman. I had a lot of questions about the set-up as I read, such as where did Caius’ mind/thoughts go when Phil was inside him—was Caius unconscious within Phil’s mind?—but though none of the actual mechanics of the parallel life were ever explained, in the end that didn’t bother me all that much. Like Phil, I just accepted that this was what was happening and enjoyed the ride.
Essentially this is a story about learning to trust and taking a chance on a possibility, knowing that it could go horribly wrong. Phil’s fear of making the wrong decision and losing not just his colleague and good friend but also the man he’s come to love leads to him acting like an ass; to me, the scenes set in Roman Britain and the detective story to unveil the bad guy is a metaphor for Phil’s uncertainty and his struggles to make sense of his feelings for Ryan. As such, the metaphor is stretched a little too far and is a bit too obvious for my taste, but at the same time, the Roman story was absolutely my favourite thing in this book.
Anyone who likes stories set in the Roman period will find much to enjoy here. I liked the fact that the real Caius was so insipid, because it made Phil so much more dynamic and gave a sense of urgency to the investigation to uncover the would-be murderer. I really liked Demetrius and was quite sad that he and Caius weren’t lovers! Demetrius is a little startled by Caius’ radical personality change, but he assumes it’s because of the bump on the head Caius received during the chariot accident. What I liked most was that Demetrius obviously prefers Phil’s Caius to the real one and has quite the bent for detective work.
The whodunit aspect of the plot was well done, with several suspects all with strong motives and the obligatory red herring thrown in. The historical details are accurate and immersive—I particularly liked the description of the villa—and the Romans are the strongest of the two supporting casts. Caius’ doctor, Silenus, was another favourite of mine.
Where the book lost steam for me was after the conclusion of the whodunit and before the actual denouement, when Ryan and the emergency services pull Phil from his wrecked car and drag him out of his dream parallel life and back into the real world. I’m not going to give spoilers, but there’s a pivotal event that occurs right as Phil is pulled back to consciousness, and this memory haunts him so much that he puts up barriers against Ryan and does almost everything he can to drive Ryan away. Their boss Trent tells them to sort it out otherwise he’ll split up their team and reassign them. Neither Phil nor Ryan wants this, so they revisit the scene of the accident so Phil can come to terms with his parallel life and his real life. These scenes lacked the drive and sparkle of the Roman plot, so although I wanted to know how the situation resolved, I wasn’t as invested in the characters as I was in the whodunit.
Overall, though, this was an enjoyable read that gets a little stilted towards the end, but is worth it for the Roman whodunit.