Author: G.B. Gordon
Cover art: Reese Dante
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
Buy link: Buy Link Santuario
Length: Novel/67,600 words/224 PDF pages
Genre: Mystery/Thriller/Speculative fiction/Romance
Rating: 3.75 stars out of 5
A guest review by LadyM
Review summary: Commendable first novel which doesn’t quite live up to its potential.
Blurb: Police teniente Alex Rukow has spent his life trapped on Santuario, his people’s isolated home-slash-prison-island. They’ve been living in poverty under the tyrannical regime of their own elite familias for the last two-hundred years, ever since their generation ship landed on the planet and found it already populated by earlier Earth settlers, the Skanians, who banished them to the inhospitable south.
Increasingly shamed by the decisions of their ancestors, the Skanians seek to open their borders. But dissent exists on both sides, and in the midst of this explosive political situation, a dead body appears on the island.
Bengt, a Skanian investigator, is shipped to Santuario to lead the murder investigation—which, he quickly realizes, the local teniente wants nothing to do with. As far as Bengt is concerned, things can’t get worse than the brutal climate, his own memories, and a growing attraction to a partner who will barely say two words to him. But then he and Alex run afoul of the local familias, and the problems with their investigation and their budding relationship seem like nothing compared to just getting out of this whole mess alive.
It’s always exciting for me to review an author’s first novel. In this case, it was even more so, because I am a fan of all speculative fiction and the premise really sounded exciting. In the end, while I enjoyed some elements of the story, the others were completely drowned by the dreary atmosphere, the likable protagonists were not enough to sell me the romance and the ending didn’t fit the rest of the story. But, let’s start from the beginning.
I liked the set-up of the story: the divided world at the turning point in its history and two men from the different sides investigating the brutal murders. The two societies are so isolated from one another that both have some ridiculous misconceptions about the other side. This was a little over the top, considering that at least the Skanians possess the technology which could refute at least some of them, but it worked well for the story, especially when Bengt tries to navigate Santuarian society ruled by tyrannical oligarchy or when Alex struggles with the concept of women in the positions of authority or accepted gay relationships. Both men are likable and haunted by their own demons: Alex by constant fear, undefined desires and unattainable escape, Bengt by guilt about the event from his past. They are both dedicated to their work, though Alex is always aware that overzealous investigation could put him under the scope of Securitas, familias’ brutal secret police. The men’s experiences are so different that they can barely communicate at first. Bengt is a fish out of water, terribly naïve when it comes to the situation on the isolated island; Alex is jaded and incapable of believing in change. Bengt is living openly as a gay man; Alex is so far in the closet that he can’t even acknowledge his desires. Only the time they spend together working on the case eases somewhat the mutual mistrust and discomfort.
I had several problems with the development of the story. I was hoping for some inventive investigative techniques under the totalitarian regime, perhaps in the vein of Citizen X, but it pretty soon became clear that the murder investigation is just a device to show the terrible poverty and pressures the Santuarians live with. There is no respite from the dreary, oppressive atmosphere which makes it hard to really get into the story and, absurdly, to sympathize with people’s suffering. I couldn’t help thinking that even in the most terrible regimes there is life and laughter and people who overcome their circumstances one way or another. There is no such thing here and it doesn’t help that there are no likable secondary characters save Capitán Mendez. Even the freedom fighters are barely palatable. It says something when the bad guys such as Luiz, Alex’s biological father and one of the officers of Securitas, or Leonid, one of his thugs, come more alive on the pages. The resolution of the mystery was unsatisfying, primarily because it wasn’t something the readers could puzzle out themselves.
Another thing that didn’t quite work is romance. While I liked both protagonists, they are riddled with doubts and uncertainties and can barely communicate. During the course of the novel, this was somewhat remedied and I could believe that they were becoming friends. However, there just wasn’t enough mutual attraction shown on the page for me to accept the potential love between. Alex can’t even think about his desires let alone verbalize them and then he is suddenly having sex with Bengt. This being the series, I think it would be better if the romance was just hinted and then developed in the second book.
This brings me to the ending of the novel. After all the dark, depressing events in the book, the situation was pretty much resolved within the last few pages, epilogue included. The bad guy gets what was coming to him, the political situation is resolved, the happy ending is on the horizon. This didn’t follow the natural progression of the story – the men’s parting seemed like the perfect ending – and was therefore unbelievable. This was another thing that would work better in the second novel. I would have liked to see Bengt working for the opening of Skanian borders and some of Alex’s life in hiding.
I may sound too critical, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy parts of the story. As I said, both men were likable and the author’s writing style is very readable – it was a quick read in spite of rather depressing tone. The only sex scene in the book was beautifully written; in fact, it may be one of the best I’ve recently read. More importantly, I really want to read the second book and the continuation of Bengt and Alex’s story. It will also be interesting to see what Skanian society really looks like.
In the end, Santuario is a good first novel, which could have benefited from some lighter touches and additional focus on the men’s relationship. If you enjoy speculative fiction and are not adverse to darker stories, Santuario will be a nice addition to your reading list. As this is the author’s first book, I certainly recommend that you try it.