Barrel Proof by Layla Reyne

Barrel Proof by Layla ReyneBarrel Proof brings this gay romance/spy thriller series to a solid ending. While the previous two books had enough to stand alone, this jumps right in where the previous one left off, though it offers reminders pretty quickly to ground the reader. It does feel like this is a better binge read than stretched out too long. Because of where the last book left Jaime and Aiden, even though I remembered the events, the emotional connection to the characters had dimmed. However, even there, it took very little to restart that connection.

The book uses a large time-jump/summary to make Aiden’s attempts to deal with Jaime’s betrayal reasonable, but the story is in a bit of a holding pattern during this section. Jaime, who has the narration, wasn’t doing much that’s critical, or so it seemed. I’ll say only his concerns and ruminations become very relevant by the end, and things smoothed out on all sides once Aidan comes back into the picture. He doesn’t stay long for work reasons, but the mood changes from depression to anticipation.

It’s the last that drew me into the series and is strong in Barrel Proof as much as any of the others. Not the anticipation, exactly, but the sense this is much more than the explicit gay sex. The connections both made them vulnerable and stronger, while the love is clear whether requited as with Aiden and Jaime, and Mel and Danny, or not as with Nic (the DA). This makes the story powerful, gives the characters clear motivations, and doesn’t interfere with the story because it’s integral to the tale unfolding.

I enjoyed seeing Nic become a full character, and Katie (Aiden’s niece) stole the show as usual. Whether fighting bad guys or risking their lives to rescue those they love, the sense of family, both born into and chosen, forms the foundation of their lives and work.

The villain of the piece is much more than an amorphous bad guy despite how he appeared in the earlier books when they didn’t have much to go on. The story comes together with plausible and complex clues to figure out. To avoid spoilers, I will say only there was one twist that disappointed me (not in the writing, but in the character involved) and one that was beautifully done and gave me something I’d thought lost. Other themes touched on things like consequences when breaking the rules even if it means results, and I liked how all that comes out and is resolved as well.

Overall, I read the series for the connections between the characters and the active caring they showed even when they were sometimes being idiotic about it (because of very human reactions). The third book does not disappoint and brings together a ton of pieces to make this all work. While I had some quibbles with the beginning of the book mostly because of the time jump that I agree is necessary, I am glad I stuck it out through the whole series because I “met” many deep characters who felt and acted like real people in all their strengths and frailties. Plus, the addition of realistic consequences for all involved was a pleasant surprise when all too often the maverick behavior is excused or ignored in fictional worlds.

P.S. I received this arc from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.

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