Thursday, January 12, 2023

Cooper West - The Protector

Guardsmen are always matched in a bonded pair. The Protector can shift into a weredog, and the human partner is his Handler. They are incredibly rare and highly valued, but people also fear them for their mystical abilities. No Protector in living memory has outlived his Handler—until Alex Taylor.
Now a widower, Alex lives a lonely half-life and faces day after day of grief with no hope for happiness in the future. When he unexpectedly bonds with the young and vibrant Handler Marcus Stephanek, Alex is angry and unwilling to leave the memory of his former Handler behind. He pushes Marcus away and tries to distance himself from their bond. But then a mysterious villain who has been secretly shadowing Alex for years sets his plan in motion. Alex and Marcus must learn to trust their bond and love each other, or risk not only their own lives but the lives of those closest to them.

Comment: I've read some interesting comments about this book somewhere, regarding the fact the main couple in this shifter centered story wasn't too keen on the idea of being mates. I was quite curious to see how the author would develop this idea.

Alex Taylor is a Protector, someone who can shift to become a dog. Usually Protectors work in pairs with their Handlers, who don't shift, but all share some sort of genetic makeup that makes them part of the same world and predisposed to be mates. Alex, however, is unique because against all odds and what has always been a fact, when his Handler died, Alex didn't die too. He has resisted, even though he lives with a broken heart...

Marcus Stephanek is a 26 year old Handler, way past the age where usually a bonding happens and he lives sad he never got to have a mate. However, a completely chance encounter with Alex ends up in them realizing they are mates after all, despite what happened to Alex' first Handler. Marcus is ecstatic at first and they bond very quickly but then Alex seems uninterested in having a replacement mate. Biology might make them need to be close, but will they actually bond for real?

As many other readers probably have said and will agree on, the most interesting element of this novel is the world building the author created. Calling mates Protector and Handler isn't such a big deal but there are enough details about this bond and how this happens which makes the evolution of the situations depicted unique and mostly logic. This is the first book I try by the author so I was ready to be entertained by this world.

Considering the fact that the shifters become dogs, very often these pairs work in security or rescue missions or in the military forces and we get to understand there's this sort of unbalance if I may use the word, between the pairs, because often it's the Handler who establishes himself or herself and the Protector goes to live there and they make their living following certain expectations. I suppose this information is made for us to infer the Handler is the one who tends to be more assertive or "alpha" but it can create, if only subconsciously, a slightly unfairness in the relationship.

I'm adding this because it's one more element in why Alex and Marcus don't really work out at first. Between their personalities and pasts, the fact they don't seem to follow a norm - Marcus has a more nomadic lifestyle so he moves in with Alex - is just one more thing why their bond isn't smooth nor appreciated. Alex lost the person he loved the most and of course mourning doesn't have to have a dateline but Alex isn't willing to move on. Despite this, I actually felt a bit more pity for Marcus, because he had this expectation which was never met and now, finally bonding isn't the happiness he envisioned.

I actually liked the fact the author presented the angst between these two in a very obvious and dramatic way. What they both feel isn't easy to deal with, easy to simply ignore or endure but biology and a whole social norm for these types of people (I mean Handlers and Protectors) force them to live a life neither is enjoying. I would say the drama has some exaggerated details, probably to reinforce even more the animosity and the challenge of their situation, but some details failed to impress me.

At the same time, despite the clear focus on the main couple's relationship, we also have supporting secondary characters to give us a different picture (such as Samantha and John, another happily bonded pair) and the doctors who help/follow the pairs, who provide interesting details but that we get to understand aren't always as helpful as they could be. There are also other secondary people and situations to add layers but there are some moments it feels as if it's too much going on.

Still, the story was captivating enough and I was eagerly waiting for the moment the guys would finally talk and agree on trying to be a couple, I was even hopeful something external might prompt them into this, like something to make them have an epiphany or something. However, the author - in my opinion - complicated the drama with a villain and one of those mad schemes that sometimes happen in novels when people have crazy agendas, for instance someone tried to kill Alex because he survived his Handler's death, but I don't think the story needed this. We could still be dazzled by the world building alone with the attention being in the romance only.

The romance has an HEA, sure, but I must say I didn't find the guys' change of heart to be that romantic after all.
Anyway, this was still quite readable but some details brought my grade down. I'll read the second book at some point, just to confirm if this is just how this book is or if it's the author's style.
Grade: 6/10

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