We meet up with Ash McKenna once more, this time as he’s filing to get his passport. It doesn’t take long to get caught up  on how he’s doing after the events in Portland: He’s living in a hippy commune in the Georgia woods, he intends to leave the country entirely and fly to Prague, and he’s dealing with what happened in Portland by drinking as much cheap whiskey as it takes to not be swallowed by his memories and fears. Also, that he has next to nothing. 

The commune, South Village, is owned and operated by a friend of Ash’s, Tibo, whom we met first in New Yorked. We learn that Tibo offered to make Ash head of security but haunted as he was by his past, Ash turned it down to instead work in the kitchen alongside a man names Aesop. Ash’s goal is to keep his head down, work, and stay drunk enough to get by until his passport comes in. 

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Which is all thrown for a loop when he returns to camp to find one of the residents, a man named Crusty Pete, dead from a fall off a rope bridge. What is thought to be a simple accident gets complicated for Ash when he starts suspecting the rope had been sabotaged. Even though he doesn’t want to handle it, even though Tibo tells him to leave it alone, Ash is who he is and cannot help but start poking into exactly what Pete was up to, and what exactly the page of numbers he found in Pete’s tree house meant. 

As matters progress, as more people are found dead, as some government agency raids the camp using means of questionable legality, Ash becomes more and more entangled in what is happening at South Village, whether he likes it or not. Add in a new found friendship with Aesop, a fight against the DTs as he stops drinking, and agents unknown within South Village, it becomes a race-Will Tibo, Aesop and Ash manage to decode what Pete left behind in time to stop whatever it is and save themselves as well? Will whoever it is pushing back against the order in South Village wreak the havoc they desire? Or will the FBI take them all down, before Ash gets a chance to get clear of his past in Portland?

Oh mans. I get so little reading time anymore that even if a book is good, it takes me forever to get through it. But somehow, every time I get my hands on one of Hart’s books, I tear through it in am impressively short time.

South Village was no exception. I finished it in record time, just as I had with its two predecessors, New Yorked and City of Rose.

It’s incredible to me that every time we run into Ash McKenna, he is both the same guy we know and love, and an entirely different person. Now past the time in which he tried to leave his history of entanglement and violence long behind, we find him instead trying to drown it in a sea of cheap whiskey.

Over and over again, every time we meet Ash, we encounter a very human character trying to deal with a life that didn’t come with a manual. How he lived in New York wasn’t working. Keeping his hands and nose clean in Portland sure as hell didn’t cut it. And now, baking in the Georgia heat, all the whiskey manages to do is give Ash permission to not actually deal with anything he’s feeling. It’s blessedly hard to face what happened and where he is in life when he’s halfway inebriated at all times.

This is closer to the same Ash we met in New Yorked, so blinded by what he’s experiencing personally that he misses what other people might be living through, and more importantly, what negative effects he’s having on those around him. Ash comes across as somebody you want to coddle, somebody you want to kick in the ass, and somebody you need to stay the hell away from, all at once. He’s a hot mess, and I love how he lives on the page.

Coming to this from the previous two books I had high expectations for the story, and Rob didn’t disappoint. There’s so many different things going on yet the notes of each are perfectly struck, Hart composing a masterful symphony of character conflicts and larger mysteries, all timed to the ticking of a clock as it winds down. I found myself fighting as hard as Ash was to understand what was happening, to get a handle on what the cipher was and who it was meant for, and feeling just as addled and hindered by his addiction as he found himself. Hart seems the master of disseminating bread crumbs, giving you just enough to keep you on the trail but no way in hell are you getting the full picture before he decides to let you. The mystery will be revealed when, and only when, Hart says so.

Though I liked the book as a whole, there was one dynamic in particular that struck me above everything else. There’s a bit of a cliche in a lot of mysteries and crime fiction, where our big, brazen, flawed male hero falls for a girl he’ll sleep with but won’t seek happiness with, no matter how strong their connection. In the end they push apart from each other, going their separate ways to leave our main guy hurting and alone.

Enter Aesop. I think what I liked best about how important Aesop became to the story, how he filled the buddy-role for Ash, was how little I expected it. See also, how little Ash expected it. Aesop was responsible for Ash sobering up, for opening Ash’s eyes to the people around him, and for making sure Ash wasn’t alone when he needed help, both personally and while dealing with the conspiracy evolving inside South Village. Pretty important for somebody you could easily dismiss as a gentle, non-intrusive side player at first glance.

He was important to the story in his own right but it was truly the relationship that formed between the two men that struck me. It was a true friendship. It was touching. It was personal. It was close and moving. And it was between two guys, in a crime fiction novel. For me, as a reader, it was refreshing as well as an important deviation from that tired cliche. To exhibit a true connection like that, human and tender, especially between two men, was definitely the less easy road to take. I admire Hart for not only doing it, but for managing to nail the emotions there like whoa.

This book has a little bit of everything going on. Personal troubles, relevant environmental concerns, threats from inside and outside the camp, friendships, enemies, and murder will all keep you on your toes and tearing through pages. I’m as excited for more Ash McKenna after this book as I was after the first.

Bring on Prague.

Look for a copy of South Village at your friendly local booksellers, find it on Amazon, or buy indie with IndieBound.

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