A well-paced espionage thriller
Lexie Martin isn’t a spy but you’d be forgiven for thinking she is. She’s an intelligence analyst, and to be honest, I think real spies are probably the only ones who care about the difference. Because not being a spy doesn’t protect her from getting mixed up in some very spy-y trouble after one of her assets from when she was a field agent alerts her to the use of an unknown chemical weapon against civilians. When a man breaks into her house and threatens her, she manages to flee and comes up with a plan that involves driving to Florida and bringing along the woman she just started dating as a deterrent for whoever is after her. Lexie then finds herself trying to get out of the mess she’s been thrown into and simultaneously falling in love with the delightful Sophia Flores.
Both funny and tragic, Integrity reminds me of the Ask, Tell books in that it deals with very serious matters but the tone is closer to that of Reaping the Benefits. The interactions between Lexie and Sophia are delicious. If she hadn’t got caught in a very complex and terrifying situation, Lexie would be a lot of fun and her relationship with Sophia reflects that. Noyes manages the tour de force of blending a horrible war crime and a hot and sweet meant-to-be romance arc, neither taking more space than is needed nor feeling like an afterthought in the other’s story (I’m not sure the chapter titles add anything, though). While the premise is very different, it brought to mind the movie Mr and Mrs Smith, I think more for the tone and mood than the repeated fighting and shooting. The falling-in-love-in-unusual-situations and the constant-but-necessary lies and the impossible question of whether a relationship can be built in these circumstances.
To be fair, however, while she nails the sexy aspects, I wish Noyes had given more space to the romantic element to bloom. There’s obvious chemistry, which makes the physical part completely plausible but the falling-in-love side could have been fleshed out more. And since the story is told in first person (Noyes is excellent at first person POV) from Lexie’s point of view, Sophia remains very much a mystery. Hopefully, we’ll get to know her better and see more of the MCs together, building the relationship beyond lust (though please give us that as well) in book 2, Leverage, out in November 2023.
The espionage/thriller arc is well-paced, mind-scrambling, exciting yet with an ending that, while temporarily satisfying, promises many more twists and surprises. In a blog post on her publisher’s website, the author shares her love-hate relationship with writing these books and planning a series as a pantser. She also mentions the help she got in making sure the story, despite being fiction (as the very short author note at the beginning reminds the reader), is plausible.
Saying Abby Craden’s narration is excellent is beginning to be repetitive. It feels a bit sacrilegious to write but I sometimes struggle a bit if I listen to two of her narrations back to back because she uses two main voices for sapphic MCs. It’s in the range of her secondary characters’ voices that I find she really shines. I love her MC voices too, obviously, but they can sound similar from one book to the other. In this book though, I felt there was more nuance, maybe because the characters aren’t as radically different as we’re used to. They have very distinct personalities but they’re both easygoing, sweet, and with a good sense of humour (again, that’s how I feel Lexie would be in normal circumstances). Yet Craden manages to make them sound perfectly distinguishable from each other. And her voices for the male characters blow me away as usual.
E. J. Noyes is one of my favourite authors and I was really excited about this novel. It delivered and I wish I didn’t have to wait for another six months to get my hands (or ears, since I’ll probably listen) on the next book in the series. 4.5 stars.