The Gentleman’s Book of Vices (Lucky Lovers of London #1) by Jess Everlee

the gentleman's book of vices

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Is their real-life love story doomed to be a tragedy, or can they rewrite the ending?

London, 1883

Finely dressed and finely drunk, Charlie Price is a man dedicated to his vices. Chief among them is his explicit novel collection, though his impending marriage to a woman he can’t love will force his carefully curated collection into hiding.

Before it does, Charlie is determined to have one last hurrah: meeting his favorite author in person.

Miles Montague is more gifted as a smut writer than a shopkeep and uses his royalties to keep his flagging bookstore afloat. So when a cheerful dandy appears out of the mist with Miles’s highly secret pen name on his pretty lips, Miles assumes the worst. But Charlie Price is no blackmailer; he’s Miles’s biggest fan.

A scribbled signature on a worn book page sets off an affair as scorching as anything Miles has ever written. But Miles is clinging to a troubled past, while Charlie’s future has spun entirely out of his control…

Rating: A-

Set in Victorian London, Jess Everlee’s The Gentleman’s Book of Vices tells the story of a bookshop owner – whose super-secret alter-ego is the writer of some of the finest and most sought-after erotica currently to be found under counters and in back rooms – and the most devoted admirer of said erotica, a young gentleman whose dedication “to his vices” has finally landed him in the sort of financial trouble from which there is only one way to escape. The romance between these two polar opposites – one staid and rigidly controlled, the other vivacious and happy-go-lucky – is very well written, with emotions that leap off the page, two complex, well-crafted protagonists and a strongly written group of secondary characters. Taken as a whole, it’s a very impressive début novel – and it would have received a flat-out A grade had it not been for the ending, which is rushed, simplistic, and just doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the novel.

Charlie Price has sampled all the vices London has to offer, but his dissolute life is about to change. His usually indulgent parents have, in the past, helped him out of the financial trouble he’s got himself into, but they’re no longer prepared to do so without his agreeing to “take a respectable job and settle down like a ‘proper, healthy fellow’” and prove he’s changed his ways. An introduction to the Merriweather family – most particularly, their unwed daughter, Alma – swiftly followed, and Charlie now works at Merriweather’s bank and is to be married to Alma in eight weeks time. He’s resigned himself to having to lock away his box of scandalous little treasures – his erotic novels, nude sketches and sculptures of illicit lovemaking – possibly forever, and as a kind of last hurrah, he’s determined to get his favourite author of illicit smut – the incredibly elusive Reginald Cox – to autograph his favourite book. But those who write the kind of filth Cox specialises in must necessarily guard their identities, and Cox has proved very difficult to pin down.

Luck is on Charlie’s side, however, when his close friend, the mysterious Jo, comes up trumps with a name.

While running a bookshop really wouldn’t have been Miles Montague’s choice of career – and quite honestly, he’s not all that good at it – he inherited it from his dead lover and keeps it out of a sense of duty even as the bills mount up and he has to continually add to the business funds from the money he earns from his writring. He’s solitary by nature, which is probably just as well given his secret occupation, and has jealously guarded that secret, which is why he’s so panicked when a young man comes into the shop just after closing time one day, and makes it clear he knows exactly who ‘Reginald Cox’ really is. Immediately suspecting he’s about to be blackmailed, Miles curtly asks the man to name the price he wants for his silence – but Charlie (for of course, it is he!) quickly tries to correct that assumption and to calm him down. All he wants, he says, is for ‘Reginald’ to sign his (very well read) copy of the book, Immorality Plays. Stunned, disbelieving and furious, Miles refuses and tells Charlie to get out – which he does, but not before pulling Miles into a blistering kiss and slipping his card down the front of Miles’ trousers.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

A Gathering Storm (Porthkennack #2) by Joanna Chambers (audiobook) – Narrated by Simon Goldhill

a gathering storm

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When grief-stricken scientist Sir Edward Fitzwilliam provokes public scorn by defending a sham spiritualist, he’s forced to retreat to Porthkennack to lick his wounds. Ward’s reputation is in tatters, but he’s determined to continue the work he began after the death of his beloved brother. In Porthkennack, Ward meets Nicholas Hearn, land steward to the Roscarrock family. Ward becomes convinced that Nick, whose Romany mother was reportedly clairvoyant, is the perfect man to assist with his work. But Nick—who has reason to distrust the whims of wealthy men—is loath to agree.

Until Fate steps in to lend a hand. Despite Nick’s misgivings, he discovers that Ward is not the high-handed aristocrat he first thought. And when passion ignites between them, Nick learns there’s much more to love than the rushed, clandestine encounters he’s used to. Nevertheless, Nick’s sure that wealthy, educated Ward will never see him as an equal. A storm is gathering, but with Nick’s self-doubts and Ward’s growing obsession, the fragile bond between the two men may not be strong enough to withstand it.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B+

It’s taken a while for Joanna Chambers’ 2017 historical romance, A Gathering Storm, to make it into audio, but I remember enjoying the story back when I read it, so, despite the fact that the narrator is new-to-me, I decided to give the audiobook version a listen. The book is part of the multi-author Porthkennack series, all set in and around the Cornish seaside town of the same name, but it’s a standalone, so it’s not necessary to have read any of the other books in order to enjoy it.

The story begins on the night of a terrible electrical storm, when Sir Edward Fitzwilliam (known as ‘Ward’) is aboard ship, crossing the Irish Sea from Dublin to Anglesey. The storm is at its height when Ward experiences something very strange – he hears the voice of his twin brother George calling out to him and assuring him that all will be well. Realising later that this must have been the exact moment of George’s death and believing he’d received a communication from ‘beyond the veil’. Ward dedicates himself to recreating the conditions that allowed it to happen, in spite of the disapproval and dismissal of the wider scientific community of which he is – or had been – a respected member.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Thief in the Night by KJ Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by James Joseph & Ryan Laughton

a thief in the night

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Toby never meant to be a highway robber, but needs must. He didn’t plan to impersonate a top London valet either, but when the chance comes to present himself as the earl of Arvon’s new gentleman’s gentleman, he grabs it. Unfortunately, the earl is the man he seduced and robbed on the road to get here. Oops.

Miles, Lord Arvon, is not impressed. But he’s faced with a tumbledown home and lost family fortune, and desperate times call for desperate measures. Toby—shameless, practical, and definitely desperate—may be just the man he needs.

To steal back a priceless bracelet, that is. What else were you thinking?

Narration – A/B; Content – B+

In KJ Charles’ 2021 novel The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting, we were introduced to Robin and Marianne, two siblings who conned their way into society with a view to their both making very advantageous marriages. Brief mention was made of the fact that they had grown up with an older half/step sibling named Toby who just up and left them one day and whom they haven’t seen since. In A Thief in the Night, we get to meet Toby, who, like his brother and sister, lives by his wits, with one eye (metaphorically) always looking over his shoulder, and the other always on the main chance.

The story opens at an inn where Toby, while waiting for the drink he’s ordered to arrive, is keeping an eye on the attractive man of military bearing sitting by the fire. His clothing is travel-stained, but looks to be that of a man of means, so Toby nonchalantly walks over and strikes up a conversation. After exchanging names (Toby doesn’t give his real one, of course), they get to talking, and Toby learns that his companion, Miles Carteret, has recently returned from fighting on the Penunsula and is on his way home. Toby is quick to recognise the signs of interest, and to make his own interest clear; before long, they’re out back, exchanging greedy touches and frantic kisses and Toby is on his knees. After putting themselves to rights, they had back inside where Miles dozes off – and Toby helps himself to his watch and pocket book and scarpers.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Sailor’s Delight by Rose Lerner

sailor's delight

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Self-effacing, overworked bookkeeper Elie Benezet doesn’t have time to be in love. Too bad he already is—with his favorite client, Augustus Brine. The Royal Navy sailing master is kind, handsome, and breathtakingly competent. He’s also engaged to his childhood sweetheart. And now that his prize money is coming in after years of delay, he can afford to marry her…once Elie submits the final prize paperwork.

When Augustus comes home, determined to marry by the end of his brief leave, Elie does his best to set his broken heart aside and make it happen. But he’s interrupted by one thing after another: other clients, the high holidays, his family’s relentless efforts to marry him off. Augustus isn’t helping by renting a room down the hall, shaving shirtless with his door open, and inviting Elie to the public baths. If Elie didn’t know better, he’d think Augustus didn’t want to get married.

To cap it all off, Augustus’s fiancée arrives in town, senses that Elie has a secret, and promptly accuses him of embezzling. Has Elie’s doom been sealed…or is there still time to change his fate?

Rating: B-

I’ve read and positively reviewed several of Rose Lerner’s historical romances here, so I was excited when I saw that she had a new m/m historical coming out and eagerly snapped up a review copy. Sailor’s Delight is loosely linked by character to The Woman in the Attic, but it doesn’t share any storylines, so can absolutely be read as a standalone.

Eleazar Benezet is a Navy Agent – a job which involves looking after the financial and legal affairs of naval men and officers while they’re away at sea. Among his numerous clients is sailing master Augustus Brine, whom Elie has known for more than a decade… and been sweet on for just as long. When the book opens, Elie is surprised and delighted to learn that Brine’s ship has docked a couple of weeks early and that he will be coming ashore for the first time in two years; Elie is eager to see him, but also dreads it, because he knows that Brine is planning to marry the young woman to whom he’s been engaged for several years during this period of shore leave. The wedding will take place as soon as Brine can afford it, which will be once he receives his share of the prize money from the Vliegende Draeck, a Dutch merchant ship captured in 1809, but which, thanks to various court appeals, has yet to be paid. Now, however, the court cases are over and it’s simply a matter of finalising the accounts – which Elie has been putting off doing for weeks.

Elie knows he should have finished by now and that it shouldn’t have taken him this long, but… Brine’s marriage will likely mean the end of their close friendship, and Elie can’t deny that part of the reason for the delay is simply his own selfishness at wanting to have Brine as his client and friend for a bit longer, and to continue to dream about the possibility of something he knows is never going to happen. But he is going to procrastinate no longer. Rosh Hashanah is over and the Days of Awe are beginning, so it’s the perfect time to make amends for the wrong he has done Brine in failing to move the matter forward in a more expeditious manner.

Elie and Brine are tw of the nicest men you could ever meet – they’re sweet but totally clueless! Elie is the sole PoV character, so we only see Brine through his eyes, and the author does a good job of showing the reader lots of little things that Elie doesn’t see that make it clear that Brine is equally smitten (such as the fact he’s clearly studied the customs of and pays attention to the observances of Elie’s Jewish faith). Despite that, however, I never really connected with Brine as I did with Elie.

This book has a lot going for it. The detail of Elie’s job is fascinating and the elements of Jewish culture are deeply and skilfully embedded into the story; I liked the way the passing of time is marked by the use of the Gregorian and Jewish calendars, and by the various wardroom toasts at the head of each chapter. I enjoyed spending time with Elie’s large and loving family, and I was impressed with the subtle but impactful way in which the author tackles the issue of the anti-semitism Elie faces. But the romance is a bit lacklustre, mostly because the mutual pining and Elie’s obliviousness about Brine’s true feelings (and vice versa) goes on for too long, and so much of the story is concerned with Elie’s guilt over procrastinating about the prize money and his determination to make amends.

I appreciated the way Ms. Lerner counters stereotypes in the characterisation of Brine’s fiancée, Sarah Turner. Her arrival in Portsmouth certainly complicates matters and causes an even greater degree of misunderstanding between Elie and Brine, but I liked her; she’s a no-nonsense, independent woman who clearly has Brine’s best interests at heart – and has known for a while that those interests do not lie with her. Yet Elie and Brine are continually at cross-purposes and can’t seem to have a proper conversation about her. Brine feels duty-bound to marry Sarah because she looked after his parents before they died; Elie is sure Brine wants to marry Sarah and tries hard to assure her of that fact, even as it kills him to do so. It takes so long for Elie and Brine to have an honest conversation that I was beginning to wonder whether it would happen at all; this is a long-ish novella, coming in at around two hundred pages, but the confessions of love don’t come until the final chapter, and it’s rushed and doesn’t deliver the kind of emotional satisfaction I want from an HEA.

If you’re looking for a low-angst, incredibly well-researched historical romance featuring an engaging, realistic principal character and lots and lots of pining, Sailor’s Delight could well be the book for you. But for me, even though I thoroughly appreciated the informative and well-crafted historical backdrop and the way the story is so firmly grounded in Jewish customs and culture, it was a little bit too low-key.

The Doctor (Magic & Steam #3) by C.S. Poe (audiobook) – Narrated by Declan Winters

The Doctor

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

1882—Gillian Hamilton, magic caster and Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam, has been stripped of his title, badge, and freedom. Gillian’s true name and powers have been exposed, so now he’s kept under lock and key. To make a tragedy worse, Gunner the Deadly has returned to his life out in the Wild West and has not been heard from since.

Rumors of a doctor, known only as Sawbones, with access to illegal magic have persisted into the new year. Gillian believes that violence, chaos, and certain death will befall New York City if this criminal isn’t apprehended. And despite having lost his sense of purpose, Gillian knows he’s the only one capable of confronting this new madman—with or without the backing of the FBMS.

But such dangers should never be undertaken alone. Gillian will need both Gunner’s deadeye marksmanship, as well as his love, if he’s to detain Sawbones before irreparable damage is done to the magic of his world.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – A

C.S Poe’s steampunk Magic & Steam series gets better and better with each instalment, delivering a cracking blend of romance, humour, high-stakes action and nail-biting tension as our two heroes – quiet, self-contained lawman Gillian Hamilton and sexy outlaw Gunner the Deadly – battle mad scientists, mechanical men and dangerous gangsters in a steampunk version of New York in the 1880s.

Note: There are spoilers for the previous books in the series this review.

The author dropped a massive bombshell at the end of The Gangster when the past Gillian has worked so long and hard to hide finally caught up with him and he was revealed to be Simon Fitzgerald, a wanted war criminal known as the Butcher of Antietam on account of the atrocities he was forced to commit during the Great Conflict when he was a ten-year-old boy. Just before he was taken into custody by agents of the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam, a desperate Gillian urged Gunner to leave him to his fate – and when the book opens, Gillian has been spent almost two months incarcerated in the Home for the Magically Insane on Blackwell’s Island.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge – Plain Jane by M.C. Beaton

plain jane

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It’s up to the servants of No. 67 Clarges Street to hatch a scheme… and arrange a match!

‘Oh, to be as beautiful as Euphemia!’ sighs plain Jane Hart when she joins her sister at No.67 for the Season, as then Lord Tregarthan might notice her… as she has noticed him and forever lost her heart.

And while it is Euphemia’s fate to flit her way through balls and into the arms of a marquis, Jane’s is to stay at home… until the Downstairs staff transform the plain Miss into the Season’s sensation and send her waltzing into a daring liaison with the man of her dreams

Rating: C+

It was a very sobering thought to realise that most of the books I own that could be considered “vintage” – and thus contendenters for my read for that prompt for the July TBR Challenge – were written and published well within my lifetime. I ended up going with Plain Jane, book two in The House for the Season series by M.C. Beaton, written under her pen-name of Marion Chesney and originally published in 1986.

Beaton wrote a lot of Traditional Regencies under the Chesney pseudonym, and this series is unusual in that the recurring characters are the servants who live and work in the epomymous house, and because we get to spend time with them as well as with the above-stairs characters, who change from book to book.

67 Clarges Street in Mayfair is a most desirable address, but thanks to a series of misfortunes (the previous owner, a duke, killed himself there, the subsequent tenant lost all his money, the next lost their daughter) the place has a reputation for bad luck and has proven very difficult to let. The small group of servants who reside there do their best to keep the house in order in very trying circumstances; the current Duke of Pelham delegates all matters relating to the house to his agent Jonas Palmer, a liar, thief and bully who pays them a pittance because he knows that none of them can find other positions without a character (written reference), and he isn’t about to provide them. A good tenant for the house is their only hope of earning a decent wage and possibly getting such a reference – but they know full well that the chances of a tenant being found are slim.

Jane Hart first laid eyes on the handsome Lord Tregarthan when she was just ten and has dreamed of him ever since. Eight years later, he’s still her ideal, but she has never really believed she’d ever see him again – until her mother announces she’s taken a house for the season in London in order to bring out Jane’s beautiful older sister, Euphemia. It’s a complete surprise; Mrs. Hart is a penny-pincher of the first order, but a friend tells her of a house in a prime location that can be had very cheaply, and it’s too good a thing to pass up. She starts planning Euphemia’s wardrobe, where they will go, who they will meet… and doesn’t intend to even take Jane until her normally quiet and unobtrusive husband puts his foot down and insists that Jane goes, too. Mrs. Hart isn’t pleased, but reasons that as Jane will manage with Euphemia’s hand-me-downs (as she always does), it won’t merit too much extra expense – and Euphemia, vain, selfish and often spiteful, likes the idea of having her much plainer sister with her as it will show off her own loveliness to greater advantage.

Well, of course, the staff at Clarges Street take to Jane, liking her sweet nature, sunny disposition and lack of artifice, and the French lady’s maid works wonders making over Euphemia’s old gowns, dressing Jane’s hair and teaching her many of the things a well-bred young lady sould know, such as how to curtsey, use a fan and flirt a little. When Jane meets Lord Tregarthan at last, she’s a little disappointed – he seems to be all good looks and no substance – but even so, she’s still very much smitten. She’s delighted when he asks her to go driving with him the next day, and moreso when he takes her seriously when she expresses her interest in the unexplained death of Clara Vere-Braxton, the daughter of a previous tenant who was found dead in Green Park, and suggests that they should look into it. Tregarthan, of course, tells himself that his interest in Jane is not romantic, but can’t help being drawn to her good-humour, warmth and sense of adventure.

The story moves quickly, with Jane’s romance with Tregarthan being a mix of Ugly Duckling, Cinderella, and murder-mystery, and there’s a romance or two brewing below stairs, too. The trouble is that it’s a lot for such a small page count (under 200 pages) so it all feels rather superficial. I was far more interested in the servants’ stories than in the main romance to be honest – not only is it a refreshing change for these characters to have such prominent roles, they also feel more rounded and real, possibly because there is clearly more to be said about them. I liked that they’re so clearly a family unit, and that they look out for each other, despite their faults and disagreements – they deserve a decent master who will treat them well and I hope that they eventually get one! There’s no question the author knows her stuff when it comes to the period she’s writing about, whether talking about the weather or the lives of the servants or the workings of high society, and there’s plenty of wry humour and sharp observation. I’ll also point out that the book’s age shows in the use of the word “gypsy” in descriptions. Jane has “tough, coarse, gypsy hair”, she’s told later that she looks like a “gypsy princess” for example. There’s a whole argument around to revise or not to revise older books; I’m not going there, and I just wanted to flag this up.

In the end, Plain Jane was a quick, fun read, but it’s a comedy of manners more than a romance. I enjoyed it, but it lacks the kind of depth and romantic development I generally look for these days.

All the Duke I Need (Desperately Seeking Duke #3) by Caroline Linden (audiobook) – Narrated by Beverley A. Crick

all the duke i need

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

She’s a duchess in all but name
Philippa Kirkpatrick has been raised at Carlyle Castle by her doting guardian, the Duchess of Carlyle. Preoccupied with the succession of the dukedom and the duke’s health, the duchess has left the estate in Philippa’s hands—and Philippa is determined not to let her down.

He’s not a duke at all . . .

The arrival of a new estate steward should be a relief, but instead it threatens to upend everything. William Montclair is handsome, brash, and scandalously bold. The horrified duchess wants to sack him on sight. Philippa is just as shocked . . . but also, somehow, charmed.

But could he be her hero?

Carlyle cannot be her home forever, but Philippa is determined to leave it in good hands. She means to teach Will how to run the estate properly and love Carlyle as she does. The more time she spends with Will, though, the more she likes him . . . trusts him . . . even loves him. Unfortunately, she’s also more and more certain that Will is keeping secrets that could break her heart.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B

Caroline Linden’s All the Duke I Need features a lovely, well-developed romance between two likeable and engaging characters – but as the finale of a series in which the overarching plot has focused on the search for the heir to a dukedom, it pains me to say that it falls somewhat short. There are a number of plot points that are rushed or which don’t make much sense, and some important questions that remain unanswered by the end. The author has said that she’s writing an epilogue that should answer them all, but I still feel cheated; if the story requires more chapters to finish it properly, then those chapters should have been included in THIS book – not as an optional extra. With all that said – don’t let it put you off listening; the narration is very good, and the romance reaches a satisfying conclusion with the two leads nicely set up for a future together. I would just have liked more of an overall sense of completeness by the end.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Treasure (Greynox to the Sea #1) by Kim Fielding (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Leslie

treasure

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Julian Massey has always been sickly. When the young man’s parents send him to the seaside town of Urchin Cove to recuperate, he finds himself stranded in a tiny cabin with only the quirky local inhabitants for company. Then a storm blows through, and he finds an unexpected discovery washed up on the beach: an unconscious man.

After stealing a treasure, Kit Archer is taken prisoner by a ruthless pirate, Captain Booth. When a storm hits the pirate ship, Kit is able to escape, but not without serious injuries. Jules nurses him back to health, and friendship grows into desire. But Captain Booth is bound to come in search of his treasure and the man who stole it.

In a world with dragons, sprites, and wizards, it’s going to take more than a little magic for Jules and Kit to find lasting happiness together.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B-

I so enjoyed listening to Kim Fielding’s Farview a few weeks ago that I decided to back-track and listen to the novella that preceded it, Treasure. It’s a little gem of a tale that introduces listeners to the magical world of Greynox and Croftwell with its imps and wizards and dragon-drawn carriages

Julian Massey – a quiet, bookish young man who has suffered from poor health all his life – is sent by his family to the seaside town of Urchin Cove in order to take advantage of the restorative effects of the fresh, sea air. When he arrives at the holiday cottage rented for him, Julian is at something of a loss; he’s never had to look after himself before, so has to learn how to do simple tasks very quickly (I have to say that I found it odd he was sent there alone given his family’s worries for his health). But he does learn, surprising himself with the sense of achievement he feels and enjoying his new-found freedom from his family’s constant and suffocating concern, his books and his occasional chat with the quirky inhabitants of the nearby village. It’s not long before Julian begins to feel the benefit of the change of environment and the exercise.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

The Doctor (Magic & Steam #3) by C.S. Poe

the doctor

This title may be purchased from Amazon

1882—Gillian Hamilton, magic caster and Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam, has been stripped of his title, badge, and freedom. Gillian’s true name and powers have been exposed, so now he’s kept under lock and key. To make a tragedy worse, Gunner the Deadly has returned to his life out in the Wild West and has not been heard from since.

Rumors of a doctor, known only as Sawbones, with access to illegal magic have persisted into the new year. Gillian believes that violence, chaos, and certain death will befall New York City if this criminal isn’t apprehended. And despite having lost his sense of purpose, Gillian knows he’s the only one capable of confronting this new madman—with or without the backing of the FBMS.

But such dangers should never be undertaken alone. Gillian will need both Gunner’s deadeye marksmanship, as well as his love, if he’s to detain Sawbones before irreparable damage is done to the magic of his world.

Rating: A

This third book in C.S. Poe’s Magic & Steam series is one of my most highly anticipated reads of 2022, and it absolutely did not disappoint. After the massive cliffhanger at the end of The Gangster, the author had some serious ground to cover in The Doctor in terms of furthering and pulling together the various plot-threads she laid out in the previous books, and in continuing to develop the romance between quietly-controlled lawman Gillian Hamilton and sexy outlaw Gunner the Deadly while also revealing more of their backstories. She pulls it all off with considerable aplomb, moving the story along at a swift pace and incorporating some superbly written set pieces and action scenes while also giving prominence to moments of insight, connection and tenderness between Gillian and Gunner that are heart-meltingly lovely in their understatedness.

Note: There are spoilers for the previous books in the series in this review.

The Gangster ended on a massive clliffhanger when the past Gillian has worked so long and so hard to hide finally caught up with him. In a last-minute bombshell, we learned his real name is Simon Fitzgerald and that he’s been a wanted war criminal since he was just a boy, for atrocities he was forced to commit during the Great Conflict (this universe’s version of the American Civil War.) Before he was arrested, Gillian sent Gunner away for his own protection (he’s a wanted man, after all) – and in the weeks since then, Gillian has been incarcerated at The Home for the Magically Insane on Blackwell’s Island.

Starved, humiliated, abused and assailed by horrific memories, Gillian fears for both his life and his sanity, knowing he’s destined to be locked away until such time as those in power – the non-magical politicians who founded the FBMS – want to make use of him and his unparallelled magical abilities. He also knows there’s much more at stake, a threat to the magical community he’s now powerless to do anything about, tears in the atmosphere that are damaging the undercurrent of power drawn on by magic users that he believes are being caused by quintessence, a new, illegal kind of magic he and Gunner had discovered being used by the gangster, Tick Tock.

The one person who takes Gillian’s concern seriously is Eugene Barrie, a visiting doctor who helps him to escape the asylum and arranges to accompany him to California, where Gillian believes he’ll be able to track down the architect (spell-creator) who built the illegal spells, and Sawbones, the man responsible for creating Tick Tock’s grotesque army of half-human, half-mechanical men. And maybe he’ll be able to find Gunner, too, and apologise for sending him away – although he can’t help worrying that Gunner might want nothing more to do with him. However, all is not as it seems, and just a couple of days into the journey, Barrie is revealed to have nefarious ulterior motives.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot, so I’ll just say that my jaw dropped a little further with each revelation as more of the story’s intricately woven web of connections is slowly revealed. Gillian and Gunner are dramatically reunited, and I just adore how in tune they are with each other, how they continue to grow together and love each other with such ferocity and genuine devotion. They fit so well together, Gunner’s steadfast support and strong protective streak just what Gillian needs after having been so very alone all his life.

Gillian’s secrets aren’t the only ones to come to light in this book, however. Gunner has been an enigmatic figure so far, a man who doesn’t lie but who is always very careful about what he says, and I’m so glad we’re – finally – getting to know more about him. The truth of his past comes as a complete surprise (more jaw-dropping!) and I may have squealed in delight when the thread tying Gunner and Gillian together was revealed 🙂 But there’s not too much time for wallowing in that connection as we hurtle towards a thrilling and high-stakes climax – which culminates in a shocking discovery that promises a greater threat, to both the magical world and Gillian and Gunner personally.

Both men are immensely likeable, complex, yet flawed characters who are easy to become invested in. Beneath the self-effacing stickler, Gillian is an endearingly sweet but prickly and vulnerable badass with a dry sense of humour and a driving need to do the right thing no matter the personal cost. He’s been through so much – his backstory is heartbreaking – but he’s a survivor, and I was so pleased to see him owning his truth and ready to love Gunner openly at last. I also loved that he’s no longer hiding his incredible power, and the moments when he really lets rip with his magic are deeply statisfying and vividly written, putting the reader right in the middle of the action. And while Gunner could easily have been a strong, silent stereotype, the affection for Gillian that radiates from him, the way he shows that affection in every word and deed, makes him so much more than a two-dimenstional cypher who’s there only to provide the muscle and the firepower. As is very clear, Gillian doesn’t need firepower, he needs someone to see him and believe in him – and Gunner is that someone.

I was pleased to catch up with some of the secondary characters from previous books, including Gillian’s boss, Loren Moore – his exchanges with Gunner provide some much-needed humour (and I couldn’t help sighing just a bit over Jealous!Gunner), and bare-knuckle fighter Addison O’Dea, who comes through for Gillian at a time of great need. The bad guys are the worst kind of evil – power-hungry, amoral, totally unscrupulous – who, at times, made my skin crawl. I can’t wait to see their plans thwarted, although right now, it’s looking like our heroes have a really tough road ahead.

It seems C.S. Poe loves to torment her readers, as The Doctor ends with another cliffhanger – this time relating to Gunner’s past (a clever mirror of the one in the previous book), which left me stunned, cursing and wondering just how much more heartache is in store for these two. But I’m in it for the long haul, so I’ll be here for book four, The Councilman, (the author recently confirmed this will be a five-book series) which honestly can’t get here soon enough.

The Doctor is a real edge-of-your-seat read; a fantastic combination of action, adventure and romance with loveable (and un-loveable!) characters and a skilfully developed steampunk world. The plot unfolds magnificently, the pacing is perfect, the writing evocative, and the emotional highs and lows will deliver happy sighs and punches to the gut. The Magic & Steam series one of the best ongoing series around, and with The Doctor, it gets even better.

A Daring Pursuit (Ruthless Rivals #2) by Kate Bateman

a daring pursuit

This title may be purchased from Amazon

TWO ENEMIES
Carys Davies is doing everything in her power to avoid marriage. Staying single is the only way to hide the secret that could ruin her—and her family—if it was revealed. For the past two seasons she’s scandalized the ton with her outrageous outfits and brazen ways in a futile bid to deter potential suitors. Outwardly confident and carefree, inside she’s disillusioned with both men and love. There’s only one person who’s never bought her act—the only man who makes her heart race: Tristan Montgomery, one of her family’s greatest rivals.

ONE SCANDALOUS BARGAIN
Wickedly proper architect Tristan needs a respectable woman to wed, but he’s never stopped wanting bold, red-headed Carys. When she mockingly challenges him to show her what she’s missing by not getting married, Tristan shocks them both by accepting her indecent proposal: one week of clandestine meetings, after which they’ll go their separate ways. But kissing each other is almost as much fun as arguing, and their affair burns hotter than either of them expects. When they find themselves embroiled in a treasonous plot, can they trust each other with their hearts, their secrets…and their lives?

Rating: C+

Kate Bateman returns to the world of the feuding Davies and Montgomery families for this second book in her Ruthless Rivals series. The protagonists this time around are Carys Davies and Tristan Montgomery, sister and brother respectively of the hero and heroine from A Reckless Match – but while the leads are attractive and the writing is strong, the humour and witty banter I so enjoy from this author is missing and there simply isn’t enough story to carry a full-length novel, especially as the rivalry between the families has been rendered moot by the marriage of Maddie and Gryff in the previous book.

Since being seduced and immediately dumped by the man she’d believed herself in love with, Carys Davies has been doing everything she can think of to avoid marriage. To keep potential suitors at bay, as well as a way to distract attention from her still unmarried state, she’s spent the past couple of seasons shocking the ton with her outspokenness and scandalous outfits. She’s under no illusions about the potential consequences of her mistake; she can’t risk a husband discovering, on their wedding night, that she’s not a virgin, so it’s easiest to eschew the institution altogether – and anyway, her single sexual experience was so utterly underwhelming, she can’t imagine why she would ever want to do it again. To add insult to injury, the gentlman responsible (who is clearly no gentleman) is now blackmailing her, threatening to expose her ruin if she doesn’t meet his frequent demands for money.

Carys refuses to allow herself to be cowed however, and continues to take delight in needling and scandalising the darkly gorgeous but rather staid Tristan Montgomery, who has been her nemesis since they were younger. The attraction that smoulders between them whenever they’re in the same room is both delicious and incredibly annoying – but despite the fact that they can’t go near one another without wanting to rip each other’s clothes off, Carys’ determination never to marry and Tristan’s to find himself a sensible, respectable wife who will support him in his career choices puts paid to thoughts that there could ever be anything more between them.

Tristan finds Carys intensely infuriating and intensely desirable in equal measure, and when he inadvertantly discovers the secret she’s been keeping he’s hurt and then furious. On learning that Carys’ seducer had neglected to show her “a good time”, he offers her the chance to find out what all the fuss is about when it comes to sex. After all, they can still be enemies… they’ll just be enemies with benefits.

While the chemistry between Carys and Tristan is terrific and the sex scenes are nicely steamy, the emotional aspect of the romance is sadly underwritten. Tristan uncovers Carys’ secret – and learns about the blackmail – fairly early on, so I’d hoped to see the development of a deep emotional connection between them alongside the sexual exploration, but it doesn’t happen. Instead, it feels as though all that has already happened by the time we meet them, and all that’s left is for them to actually admit to each other – and themselves – that they’re in love. The denial makes little sense given that Tristan is looking to get married anyway – he and Carys are dynamite in bed and they obviously share similar tastes and a sense of humour – and the family feud is over and done with thanks to Maddie and Gryff. There’s literally nothing standing in their way and the denial as a point of conflict is weak and unconvincing.

Tristan and Carys are likeable and clearly made for each other. I often dislike so-called ‘unconventional’ heroines, but Carys is, fortunately, not one of those TSTL curl-tossers; rather she’s a bright and intelligent young woman trying to make the best of a bad lot and trying to keep her family safe in doing so. She hasn’t told her brothers what happened to her for fear they’ll do something stupid, like challenge her seducer to a duel and either be killed or forced to flee the country, and I liked her for her clear-sightedness on that score. Tristan is more your stock-in-trade dark, broodingly sexy hero; he’s charming and clearly cares deeply for Carys, but struggles to be more than two-dimensional.

In the end, despite the engaging characters and their great chemistry, A Daring Pursuit is just a bit… dull. There’s a crazy plot involving traitorous gold and an escaped bear (yes, really!) introduced just after the three-quarters mark, but it’s so silly and so last minute that it doesn’t really help matters. Kate Bateman is capable of writing detailed and well-thought out plots that really anchor a story in a time and place, but this comes across as just a ridiculous turn of events to get us to the end of the book.

I may check out the next in the series – which I am guessing will be about Carys’ brother Morgan and Tristan’s cousin Harriet, whose dynamic seems very different to the other couples in the series so far – but unfortunately, I have to put A Daring Pursuit in the ‘not quite recommendable’ column.