Review: Imperial Stout (Trouble Brewing #1) by Layla Reyne

  The Spartans were famous for their shield walls.” “Shield walls?” “When under attack, a Spartan phalanx would lock shields and advance together. As one. They were nearly impenetrable. Saved countless lives.” Not so non sequitur after all. “Before you dig into this further, Price, think long and hard whether your shield of one is enough. For both— for all —our sakes.”

The Spartans were famous for their shield walls.” “Shield walls?” “When under attack, a Spartan phalanx would lock shields and advance together. As one. They were nearly impenetrable. Saved countless lives.” Not so non sequitur after all. “Before you dig into this further, Price, think long and hard whether your shield of one is enough. For both— for all —our sakes.”

Imperial Stout is the first book in Layla Reyne’s romantic suspense series Trouble Brewing, which exists as a companion/spin-off series to her previously published Agents Irish and Whiskey series. The book is hot, hot, hot, and the reading equivalent of the summer’s action blockbuster, with way more sex. Steamy, powerful, dynamic sex.

The story revolves around Assistant United States Attorney Dominic ‘Nic’ Price and the Assistant Special Agent in Charge he’s working with, Cameron Byrne, affectionately (and very, very sexily) called ‘Boston’. By Nic, and Nic alone, of course. After a case is botched by third-party interference, costing a diplomat’s wife her life, Cam and Nic have to decide just how trustworthy their CI is, just how far they’ll go to solve this case, and just how long they can dance around each other before their sexual chemistry blows up in their face. They’ve shared a kiss, and now lives, careers, and families are on the line.

An action-packed book from start to finish, the plot drops you in running and asks you to catch up, or get left behind. Nothing is inherently complicated, but as a political suspense novel, there are a lot of acronyms and departmental names/positions to get used to handling at first. It’s not an insurmountable wall, but was a bit of a speedbump. As was the feeling that there was just that little bit of something extra I was missing about all these characters. Now, I take responsibility for this feeling as a reader, because this is a series adjacent to another that’s already been published, that I chose not to read before diving into this one. Mostly because time is a fickle, fickle mistress and I still haven’t figured out how to read books in my sleep yet.

I want to make it really, really clear that this book can absolutely stand on it’s own, and I didn’t necessarily feel as though this book was lacking anything. It was more that I could see these clearly open doors and breadcrumbs as I made my way down the path of this narrative, and those little glimpses were just enough to remind me that there were things I may not be fully grasping the weight of, because of X, Y, or Z. It’s always difficult to judge what you don’t know is missing from a narrative, but sometimes that feeling of this ghost narrative lingers more strongly in some stories in this one. If anything, it’s pushed the Agents Irish and Whiskey books that much further up my list.

Those two minor issues aside, however, I really enjoyed reading this book. It was everything I didn’t know I wanted, largely because romantic suspense is one of my lesser read romantic subgenres.  Which doesn’t really make any sense to me, when I think about it, given my love of high drama, high stakes narratives, and it’s a blindspot I plan on remedying as fast as I possibly can!

The tension between Cam and Nic builds really beautifully alongside the dynamics of the case they’re solving, and one of the things I loved most about this book was Layla’s ability to balance the overarching narrative of the entire series she’s establishing in this book with the quickly moving bottle-narrative of this first book. It’s a trick dance to do, but this book does a really great job, and it leaves the reader with a HFN that’s both deeply satisfying and intrinsically addicting.

Cam is bisexual man, and Nic is gay and out at work, which comes up in discussion at a couple of times in the book to really interesting effect. In the first scene, we see Nic outlining his sexual orientation (along with his inflammatory and trouble-making nature) being a reason he’ll probably never be promoted from AUSA, whereas Cam’s bisexuality makes it easier for him to straight-pass and thus avoid the question entirely.

More than that, he was gay, very out about it, and that wouldn’t fly with the current administration, even at a post in San Francisco. Maybe if he were bi, like Cam, he could pull it off, but he wasn’t. He liked men, period. He’d never wavered, even when his sexual orientation had gotten him disowned.

The second scene involves their Confidential Informant, Abby, who is attracted to Cam. Cam, under his ruse of being a cop-turned-B&E artist, doesn’t discourage her attraction in an effort to further cement his cover. It’s never presented as a point of insecurity or doubt for Nic, which is important, but Cam’s orientation does allow Abby to explain away the relationship she knows to exist between Cam and Nic.

“So that kiss last night was a lie too?” “I had to know whether you were lying. If you were still on Becca’s side, for real, I had to sell the rogue cover. I need to stay close, if I’m going to get you and your sister out of this.” Sighing, she sank onto the end of the bed. “Who the fuck am I supposed to trust? How do I know you’re not lying now? Becca’s got me tied in knots and you just pulled a fucking one-eighty. Which end is up?

I point out these two moments specifically not because they bothered me in any way, but because I think they’re incredibly interesting and important in a book where we’re looking at a m/m relationship that’s not a strictly homosexual relationship, amidst a world where Alphaholes and hegemonic masculine standards can run amuck. It was one of the best parts of the book for me, outside of the sex scenes, and I just so greatly appreciated the way Layla framed the outlines of this particular relationship!

I should probably finish by discussing the sex scenes in this book, because Lordy were they just smoking hot from start to finish. No closed doors here, folks — doors thrown wide open and tables reinforced here, folks! It’s five-alarm, in no small part because of the external stakes on this relationship. It’s a tale as old as time that it’s ten times hotter to sex up the person you love if you think there’s a good chance they’ll die during their bank heist tomorrow.

I mean, in the tales I’ve been reading anyway.

I gave this book three stars, and had an absolutely fantastic time talking to Layla for today's episode of Not Now, I’m Reading!

I was provided an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review, which this most definitely was.