What a great quote to demonstrate two lovers generating more heat than the sun.
And what a great series it has been. Certainly the best I’ve ever encountered, both in this genre and outside it. An epic adventure right from the first chapter. Nail biting action, gut wrenching excitement, unforgettable characters, and an all encompassing love.
At no stage was I bored and, if at times I wondered where on earth the plot or the emotional arc was going, I felt confident that the author’s story telling skills and character depiction would rise to the occasion. There were stacks of surprises, none more so than in the first few books where revelations shook not only the readers’ minds but the minds of the characters as well.
We laughed and we cried along with Ben and Nik as they progressed on their journey. The lack of emotional attachment that some readers found disturbing in the start gradually gave way until, in this book, Nik finally acknowledges that he doesn’t only love Ben, he is “in love” with him. But this isn’t shown with wine and roses, it’s done in typical Nik fashion
“I do not like being so much in love, Benjamin, and I blame you entirely.”
The most disturbing aspect of the book were the two words “The End”. Before this, each one finished with “To be continued" and the title of the next book. I gather that the author was always a couple of books ahead when each was published. But as yet, there is no Book 9.
Good news or bad?
Good, in one way, because some readers won’t even start a series until they know they’re complete. There’s nothing worse than unfinished story lines or unresolved issues between the characters. Or, worse still, they go on too long until they “Jump the Shark" or just dwindle into nothingness.
If this is the final book in the series, it’s a fitting one. There’s lots of closure on many fronts, and right up to the end there is nail biting action and possibly the most horrific of all scenes to date.
But what of Book 8?
In tone, it’s quite mundane. No exotic locations. We’re not even sure for ages if there is an arch villain or a threat to them or their loved ones. Most of the action takes place within walking distance of Ben’s birthplace and the expanse of Dartmoor as the author draws on his local knowledge to paint a picture of an area littered with ancient relics.
In doing so, Books 3 and 7 are drawn on. Family and God. Many readers had issues with the inclusion of the latter, so, remembering that Book 8 was already written when Book 7 came out, it’s interesting to see more of Ben’s insights into what he did and why. We learn that it wasn’t purely a repayment of a promise for saving Nik.
He’d been searching for something lost to him since he was eight, when his mother had not been home one day on his return from school. Martin and Sarah had explained it to him—God knocks, and if you open the door He will enter. Ben had heard something, and he had been very willing to open that door.
So we have the mystery/suspense/action core, centering around Dartmoor and its relics both ancient and new.
But, His Fateful Heap of Days is also a story about humanisation. From a childhood where he was used and abused, Nik has donned an impenetrable suit of armor. Deflect, deflect, deflect. The first time we meet him, back in Book 1, Ben describes his “perpetual air of disinterested nonchalance”. By the time this book comes around, Nik is struggling to regain this apartness, but the barriers are continually being chipped away by his entourage, both consciously and unconsciously. Now, nearing fifty and super aware of that fact, Nik is becoming human, and he’s finding it scary.
It’s amusing to watch someone who is not English, gradually realise that one of the most sincere expressions of love and affection in the British culture is being called names and made the butt of jokes.
Hence, when violence rears its ugly head amidst all this light hearted jollity and schoolboy style adventuring, they are caught by surprise, and it’s only through the intervention of an unlikely saviour that Nik lives to see another day. But when Nik and Ben regroup and go to the rescue of what they hold most dear, the gloves are off and no punches are pulled.
For once, this action only takes up a small part of the book, but it is shocking and heart stopping possibly because it is so unexpected.
So let’s get down to spoilersville as I explain and give examples showing why I liked this book particularly, both as a stand alone and as a wrap up book.
Nik, has filled his world with people and animals who need him and who he has chosen (for whatever reason) to protect. Even going so far as to provide a companion for the dog blinded when coming to his defence. Puffball, PB or Petookh doesn’t play a vital role in this book except by assisting Nikolas with the paperwork that had been left carelessly on the table. In doing this, he seemed to have discovered the remains of Ben’s steak and eggs, as some very well licked shards of china littered the floor along with the soggy remains of the investment portfolio. The only thing from the table not on the floor was the glass with the remains of the olive oil and chocolate whey shake.
The latter is, supposedly, the answer to Nik’s new fear. One that consumes him at the start of the book and drives some very funny scenes. He’s continued his workouts with Squeezy which started during Book 7 and, at first, Ben is jealous and imagining the worst. Once Tim reassures him that Nik is just worrying about turning fifty, then the fun and games begin. Lots of jibes at Nik’s expense about bad backs, early nights, needing glasses and taking it easy. At first, Nik doesn’t know that Ben knows, but gradually he realizes that Ben is teasing him. Then he is miffed because that’s not how their relationship is. He’s the boss and everyone should pay due deference to him. This interplay between Nik, Ben, Squeezy and Tim is at the heart of the first part of the book.
On the surface, it’s harmless fun and some readers may think it irrelevant, but this is missing out on what it represents. The humanisation of Aleksey Primakov into Nik.
He’d lived his life parcelling out the truth, coating it with lies and then obscuring that with evasion. He had intended to keep his discovery entirely to himself, but as he smoothed the creases on the table, it occurred to him that more than telling them, he was, in fact, sharing with them. It was something of a revelation. He wanted to share this with these three men.
But what of these three men? For starters, Squeezy is shown in a new light. Totally irreverent and nonPC when with Ben, chiming in with unhelpful comments and references to movies of dubious worth: Centaur porn and the Human Centipede. But one on one with Nik, the “fucks” disappear and at one stage, commenting on Nik’s attempts to manipulate things, he says:
“You do know you’re heading for a fall, yeah? ”.... “Has this tactic ever worked with anyone in your life? Anyone? Ever? Put so much armour on no one will see the fear? Has that ever worked for you? ”
.....You don’t get rid of fear and unhappiness by palming it off onto someone else.”
In Radulf’s top secret blog, Squeezy is called “dog in previous life biped” (his highest compliment) and notes that Almost all bipeds fall for dog-in-previous-life biped’s silence-inside trick. I learn from a master. Blond biped (Nik) suspicious. But blond biped suspicious of everyone.
Have to admit to being somewhat embarrassing around dog-in-previous-life biped, reverting to utterly humiliating puppy-like fawning. Gave him one of my favourite toys. He gave me one of his. and in this book, even Nik develops a respect for Squeezy and Tim.
Squeezy is also one of the few to see past Ben’s beauty.“Least likely SAS soldier ever was our little Benji.”
He even deliberately lies to Nik to test his trust issues and then says: “So why not put that trust into practice a little and just tell him the truth?”
Finally, he postulates a different scenario surrounding Molly’s birth to make Nik (and Ben) think about bonds and relationships. He’s fucking awesome.
“...you’re just mercenaries, Ben. You and him (Nik) both. You fight for the cause if and when it suits you, but you don’t wear the colours, haven’t sworn to the flag, don’t show any allegiance. When the battle’s over you don’t stay in country, and when the war resumes, you might just decide to sign up for the other side. Does that make it clearer to you? You rejected being gay. You said it was unclean. That’s me. I’m unclean.”
Tim utters lines that address the very nature of being gay, something that a few readers felt lacking in previous books, and his presence is vital because much of the storyline revolves around his knowledge of pagan customs and Wiccan rituals. Even though hurt by it, he understands Ben’s call for help in Book 7.
“Every religion, major or minor, or cult come to that, exists entirely on the premise that gods do occasionally speak to us, yes. The entire Christian religion is based on the belief that God speaks to the chosen elect. The Koran is believed to be the literal word of God given to a man. So why should I question that you also heard a voice calling to you?”
He even discusses the matter with Nik, daring to stand up to him for once when Nik refutes Ben’s spiritual crisis.
“Yes, it was! You of all people should recognise this. He was a soldier—’You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day…a thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you…’ Those words have been recited by millions of men facing battle. They’ve turned to God. Surely, you’ve experienced that spiritual awakening at least once in your life?”
Of course Nik didn’t want to admit whether or not he had. He does, however, form a begrudging respect for Tim and uses his experience with men under fire to help him later.
Nik also acknowledges that: Tim Watson was the catalyst that had taken him from where he had been to where he was now—sitting in a Devon pub garden, feeling for the first time in his life that he’d like this life to be a bit longer than it was probably going to be.
Contrast this looking toward the future to the man who had to be chained to the bed for two weeks to get him to admit he was trying to leave Ben. For a change, Nik starts thinking about how others feel. He’d always thought about how they fared, but in remembering Squeezy’s comment about the best way to conquer fear, he even goes as far to lie to make Tim feel better:
“Ben cannot sleep well at night these days. He…frets…about you. About your friendship.” Nikolas wondered briefly whether this was the first selfless lie he’d ever told. He saw, with an annoying remembrance of the moron’s contention about happiness, the smile of pleasure on Tim’s face. He added, surprised at himself, “He said you’d talked. That all was now well in the sandpit.” He was going to embellish this with, “He’s missed you,” but this was a step too far. Then he wrinkled his nose and said it anyway.
These are baby steps for Nik but important ones.
He expected the distant images to suddenly resolve and, like a movie, play once more in his mind, but nothing further emerged than what had come to him in the porch—he’d hidden beneath the altar. It had been dark. There had been other people there. He suddenly remembered that. They’d been whispering, which is why he’d lifted the cloth. For some reason, Ben knew that this wasn’t a happy memory, unlike most of the others he’d experienced out in the grounds. He smiled at the thought that his mother or father may have admonished him for being disobedient, just as he had Molly.
Even though he knew he didn’t need to appear any more attractive than he was—and this was not vanity in his book; he was burdened by his looks as much as he benefited from them. Sometimes, in dreams, he still heard a guttural Russian voice saying, “Very pretty,” and remembered on waking all that had followed from that assessment.
His relationship with Nik has become more even.
Sometimes, such moments with Nikolas made all the rest pale into insignificance. Nikolas called Ben his true twin. They could not be less alike in so many ways, but sometimes, in a few precious moments like these, they had an almost otherworldly connection.
Now Ben is quicker to be sensitive to when things are awry between them.
He also knows how to manipulate Nik into doing what he wants. Suggesting he is too old to do it. And he can tell better when Nik is lying or not. If he says something is okay, he knows it isn’t. Contrary, but that is how he ticks.
Nik has also come to terms with issues that irked him in the past. His jealousy of Ben’s acting career which was part of the conflict in previous books has changed over time as exemplified by his attitude to Ben’s fan mail which he refuses to admit he reads. “Yeah, you do. Peyton told me.”
Now he secretly takes pleasure in their adoration, as long as they don’t get too close. He even wonders if God is punishing him for taking such a prized possession away.
And so to love
Where once it was wham, bam, thank you man. Often needing pain and battles of dominance, now they take the time to enjoy each other, sometimes falling asleep where once they would have been fucking.
Was there anything better than kissing Ben? Nikolas didn’t think so. He wondered idly as they ground their mouths together and their tongues danced whether he was getting soft in his old age.....He sometimes thought now he could stay kissing Ben for the entire day and never grow weary or impatient for more.
This more than anything is closure for those readers who wanted there to be more emotion between these two men. But these things can’t be forced. They were a culmination of some pretty seismic shifts which took place over the course of the eight books.
Nik now has a new appreciation of his lover: He associated Ben’s power and hard-angled edges with security. And Ben, in return, is sure enough of himself to interrupt their love-making to demand he be told what Nik is thinking or laugh while indulging in some cock sucking.
In fact, there is little graphic description during the sex scenes, but so many things bring their love making to mind. Even accepting a chunk of steak from a fork in a restaurant. They don’t get to “moonlight and roses” more moonlight and jersey cows.
In fact, one of the best things throughout the series has been the humor. We laugh with them and at them. Especially at lines like this from Ben: “Read? I didn’t actually re…I mean…version? Huh? You mean there are Bibles with different endings?” and of course the hilarious Museum break in.
But later he’s talking about Nik and Nik assumes he’s talking about Tim as Ben says: “I gave too much credit for supposed maturity and apparent intelligence. Didn’t see the complete and utter fuckwit lurking beneath.”
Nikolas frowned. Tim was eight months older than Ben. This seemed a little harsh.
And while some readers may dismiss Nik’s concern about age as over the top, perhaps they should wait until they are his age before making that judgement, remembering also that gay men may be a tad more sensitive about such things as looks, especially when Nik imagines Ben. sleeping alongside something which should be put out for the bin men and then replaced with something more current—shinier, up-to-date, more knobs probably. Only with that moronic, irritating idiot with the dumb name could Nikolas admit that when he worked out and ran and drank his olive oil and whey, he was not waving but drowning…
It’s funny in a way, that this man who faced down polar bears, tsunamis, death squads, cannibals and Chechen hit men is scared of getting old. Not from vanity, but because by doing so he might lose Ben and he is only able to admit it to Squeezy.
And his continual attempts to retain his dignity, aloofness and “perpetual air of disinterested nonchalance” are few and far between. Nikolas spent the rest of the trip home in even more disgrace than earlier. But now it was the proper not being talked to of before—before he’d allowed the disrespect and familiarity to creep into his relationship with all these men. Tim even murmured sir to him once. Most satisfactory.
That respect didn’t last long.
Nik understands what love is now and even sees the distinction between love and being in love. He’d loved him (Ben), but he wouldn’t have claimed he was in love. There seemed to be a distinction between these two - no, he’d always maintained that little distance, always guarded that last bit of his freedom. Loving implied conscious will. In love was captivity. He was Ben’s prisoner now, and he knew he would never seek to escape. It didn’t feel like incarceration though. When he looked at Ben, he wanted to smile. Whatever he was in was exceptionally welcoming. For the first time, it occurred to Nikolas that love wasn’t weakness. Love didn’t leave you vulnerable. If it did, then you were in love with the wrong person.
Ben’s snark was now audacious, blatant, and Nikolas had the almost unheard of desire to actually kiss him in public. It was the damn being in love thing. It was awful.
Yet later he concedes that Ben’s leaving him voluntarily in Book 7 and coming back of his own accord was a demonstration of Ben’s love for him. And this adds to his confidence about the strength of their relationship. “For the first time, you thought for yourself and chose this life with me.”
At times, Nik’s almost in awe of this new feeling: Nikolas very discretely gave him the finger and Ben laughed a deep-throated chuckle that began a fire of need in Nikolas’s belly—no, in his soul. Being in love changed all kinds of meanings. He spoke many languages, but he was more than willing to learn another.
Wonderful sentiment, wonderful writing and again such a world away from where they were at the start of the series, yet a totally believable emotional arc given what they have been through in the meantime.
Nik (sometimes) consciously thinks before he speaks and acts. Nikolas heard a habitual and cutting reply form on his lips, but he wasn’t that person anymore. He didn’t need to be. He was a master of the universe and Ben Rider-Mikkelsen loved him. So instead, he said, “I do. Stay here and contact your colleague in York. I would be very interested to discover if he knows Genevieve Redoubt as well as she appeared to know him.”
One of the passages I loved best was this one:
And in that instant, Nikolas’s whole life swirled and coalesced in his mind, as a man drowning would relive his own history. Everything he had done, he’d done with egotistical intentions. If he’d killed, he’d believed that person needed killing. If he’d tortured, then that also had been justified in his mind. But this man, Ben Rider, gave affirmation to felonious belief. He always had. Ben, Nikolas saw now, understood his better intent and overlooked his ego, and through that generosity of spirit, gave him salvation.
Then later he adds to this by admitting: He’d lied to Ben, to everyone in the past, because he wanted to protect them, himself, his secrets, which were damaging to them all. Ben’s unwavering faith in him had validated this choice—too much perhaps. But now he wanted the outcome of his life to match his meaning.
Now he understands what love is. If Ben was happy, then he was happy—it was, he supposed with rueful regret, just another result of this being in love thing.
But he also now sees why Ben could love him. Something he’s never really believed before:
Ben laughed and glanced back at him, and Nikolas felt a surge of overwhelming friendship and love from Ben, and, for one brief moment, as he had in the dream, he stepped outside his own corporeal form and saw himself as Ben saw him—a vast, Nordic-blond Special Forces soldier, windswept and so powerful it was as if he was carved from the very rocks of the moors themselves.
One of the important aspects of army training in this belief that sometimes men need to be broken before they can be reformed into something stronger. Every trial, every tribulation that broke them down and made us weep for them was needed, because it was only via their love for each other that they were both able to reform into something new, something powerful.
It returned to him then: all his authority, all his confidence. Everything surged along with his blood in this primal act, this transgression, this perfection and worship of being a man with another man in a place such as they were. He exploded into Ben and hung on to him, toes raised, shaking with furious pleasure until Ben sank to his knees, taking him down, still trapped inside, and they knelt there panting until the great rush was finally over.
So despite being in love and enjoying their kisses and their fun in bed, they both still relish the primeval strength of their relationship. Fitting in this very pagan setting with its images of randy goats and leering satyrs.
Ben has changed too. He has started to relax about the nature of their relationship. He’s no longer angsting about it.
Nikolas would know he was there watching him. It was just the way they were together.
While this book has Nik becoming more human and therefore more vulnerable, it also shows the closeness they have. Twins was the comment at one stage, best friends at another. Getting satisfaction just by being together. Knowing how in tune with each other they are. They don’t have to be equals to have that. It’s this confidence that provides me with closure if this is the last book in the series. As so often happened these days, their fight was ruined by their inability to take each other seriously, and they collapsed onto their backs, panting and chuckling, arms loosely draped over each other’s bellies, just scrunching fingers against warm skin and feeling heartbeats steady and strong. “In love.”
Over the series the author has included a number of female characters, some good, some evil, some helpless, some strong. Most of them play a part in His Fateful Heap of Days, even if only minor. We also get introduced to a new group at Hextor Farm, and Nik has to rethink his initial stereotyping and gains a new appreciation of their qualities.
He envied women then, and he had never done that before, always pitying them or deriding them for their weakness. He saw for the first time in his life that he had made a serious error in these assessments, and that he had only ever defined these opposites from the limited perspective of a man. Perhaps a whole other definition of those concepts existed of which he had no part…
Nik didn’t have a positive relationship with his mother, there are memories of her slapping him about the head. Yet he was always desperate for her attention, which she was too ill to understand or provide. Then, after she died, he was surrounded by men who used and abused him. Most of the women he subsequently came across in Russia were victims, ones he could afford to have no empathy with and although he got married there, it was to a woman who reminded him of the father who had raped him repeatedly. No wonder he had had negative thoughts about women at times.
I loved his interaction with Genevieve Redoubt. He saw in her a kindred spirit who protected the people around her. I loved the way she stood up to him, but he didn’t back down when she commented how women were usually victims in war.
“...because it’s always us, isn’t it? Always the victims when men want power and influence.”
Nikolas put his finger to her chest this time. “I did not see many women on the battlefields of my life, no. I saw broken bodies and destroyed lives, but they were the bodies of men and the lives of men.”
She acknowledges the truth in this and they develop a healthy respect for each other.
Later he says: He knew what this (becoming one through anal penentration) felt like, after all. And perhaps, in that, they weren’t less than women after all. They couldn’t bring life into the world, but they could bind their bodies with oneness of shared experience that women could never know. He and Ben could give and they could receive, and yet they were the same. They brought this unique mirroring to the phenomenon each time they made love, and out of that exclusivity they gave birth to passion that ignited the entire world.
We also get to see a bit more of Martin and Sarah. Nik still isn’t too sure what to make of these two. Neither of them have the sort of attributes he admires: looks, figure or personality. In fact, Martin in particular gets to him because he: didn’t back down, a feature of all their conversations Nikolas was beginning to notice. The most humble, obsequious, yet irresistible force you could ever meet. Yet later Martin admits that if he had to have a champion to right a wrong, then he could think of no one better than Nik. A sentiment I think all readers will agree with and thus Martin gets admitted to our pantheon of “good” characters.
And let's not forget that Nik later admits he has had a change of heart regarding Sarah in an extremely rare, better revelation that she was possibly one of the most beautiful women he'd ever known....
Again we get more closure as we see Nik still troubled by and grieving for his lost son. He doesn’t regret sacrificing him for Ben, but he is haunted by nightmares and even in daylight: (Nik) had a vision of his son being forever entwined with the peat-preserved remains of the witch, Jane Drover. Would she tighten her torc on him and open her fen? Would those dark juices work him to a saint’s kept body…? But Ben knows how troubled by this Nik is and supports him, sympathises with him and protects him when he can. It’s wrong to say Nik is unaffected by the deed or the loss of his son, or even more importantly his son’s chance at innocence.
Nothing will bring him back, even though the prospect of this is used at the end of the book. A dramatic and powerful scene that was depicted so vividly. While part of us knew Nik was bluffing, he had all the ammunition and gut wrenching determination inside to make that believable.
But at the end, He held her tight to his chest as her breathing steadied. He could not remember being held by his mother like this, but he knew he had been. Perhaps by his father as well. He suddenly wanted to buy Molly a little tricycle and put playing cards into the spokes for her, and then he realised with a swell of almost unbearable excitement that he could, instead, buy her a tiny off-road motorbike…and that he would then need a dirt bike too, so they could ride together…
JW has proved with “Ollie Always” and the “Royal Affair” series that he is not a one trick pony. A scifi novella is due out next month and, following that, the first in what he promises to be a series revolving around a book club, also located in Devon. I’m really looking forward to that one.
Personally, I would be quite happy to leave our heroes where they are. Still burning for each other but “in love”. Maybe some short stories could be written to fill in the gaps in the current timeline. Give us a closer look at the way they met, or some of the early cases. Or maybe we can have vignettes featuring Miles and Emilia or maybe even Squeezy and Tim getting married (that would be a hoot).
But hey, I’m willing to be outvoted on that one.
I’ll finish off by expressing my heartfelt thanks to the author for providing hours and hours of wonderful entertainment.
Before each book came out, I re-read the entire series (or most of them) in preparation. This never felt like a chore or a drag because the writing is that good. In fact re-reading, and knowing what happens next made some of the scenes funnier, more heart warming or more gut wrenching.
But most of all I have to thank him for creating such wonderful characters who now have cemented their place in my heart and mind. There, Nik and Ben will live on forever. And to cap it all, the true hero of the series (in his eyes at least) not only survives to the end but saves the day! He deserves a medal just for that (and whether you take that as the author or the dog, I’ll leave up to you.)
Or better even expressed in Nik’s own words: What we have here, min skat, exists solely because of the two of us. I told you that we burn; well the radiance of that great conflagration is like a shield banishing darkness. This little bubble of perfection into which we’ve brought these few select people is the perfect world I tried but failed to create when I was a child. So ask me if I think it was an earthquake, and for once I’ll tell you what I really think. I see the manifestation of evil growing across the whole world, Ben. The lights of our civilisation are going out one by one, and we will be extinguished, engulfed by what is coming. Except here, under our shield, in the light of our fire.” He turned Ben’s hand over and stroked across the creases. “We hold the whole world in the palm of our hands.” He folded Ben’s fingers into a fist. “And we are mighty.”
And as for Ben?
He was willing to give Nikolas whatever he wanted right now—day-to-day, year-by-year—until the span of their days was done, and then, only then, would he resurrect his plan to enjoy another lifetime with Nikolas Mikkelsen.