Someone to Honour (Westcott #6) by Mary Balogh (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Abigail Westcott’s dreams for her future were lost when her father died and she discovered her parents were not legally married. But now, six years later, she enjoys the independence a life without expectation provides a wealthy single woman. Indeed, she’s grown confident enough to scold the careless servant chopping wood outside without his shirt on in the proximity of ladies. But the man is not a servant. He is Gilbert Bennington, the lieutenant colonel and superior officer who has escorted her wounded brother, Harry, home from the wars with Napoleon.

Gil has come to help his friend and junior officer recover, and he doesn’t take lightly to being condescended to – secretly because of his own humble beginnings. If at first Gil and Abigail seem to embody what the other most despises, each will soon discover how wrong first impressions can be. For behind the appearances of the once-grand lady and the once-humble man are two people who share an understanding of what true honor means, and how only with it can one find love.

Rating: Narration: A; Content: B-

The heroine of Someone to Honor, the sixth book in Mary Balogh’s series about the Westcott family is Abigail Westcott, the younger daughter of the late Earl of Riverdale. She was approaching her come out and her eighteenth birthday when her father was discovered to have married her mother bigamously, meaning that she and her siblings – sister Camille and brother Harry – were illegitimate and that Harry could not inherit the Riverdale title (which passed to their cousin, Alex). Abby is now twenty-four, and has spent most of the six intervening years resisting her family’s urging to resume her life in society and find a husband. Although at the time, the news of her family’s change of status was hugely upsetting, she now realises that what happened has set her free in a way she could never have imagined being before. Without the pressure of having to conform to society’s expectations of the daughter of an earl, Abby has been able to take the time to discover who she truly is as a person and to work out what she really wants in life – and has found that the idea of remaining unmarried is no longer as scary as it was six years earlier when she was expected to make a match befitting her status. As her mother and siblings had to forge their own paths to happiness, so Abby has begun to forge hers – the trouble is convincing her loving, well-meaning but sometimes misguided family that she knows what she’s doing.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge: The Broken Wing (Warrender Saga #2) by Mary Burchell

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Tessa Morley has spent her entire life in the shadow of her beautiful and bewitching twin sister Tania.

Unlike Tania, whose vivacious beauty and outgoing personality have ensured that she is forever in the limelight, Tessa lacks her sister’s confidence and has always been exceedingly shy. Although blessed with the voice of an angel, and musical talent that far surpasses that of her twin, Tessa has never been given the same kind of chances as her sister because she happened to be born lame.

With the dream of a stage career out of reach, Tessa has taken work as a secretary for Quentin Otway, the arrogant and temperamental artistic director for the Northern Counties Festival who, along with famous conductor Oscar Warrender, is responsible for the gathering of significant musical talent for the festival.

Tania, determined to be cast in the festival’s production of Cosi fan tutte, convinces Tessa to ask Otway for an audition — and without warning Tessa finds herself having to deny her one great talent…her voice.

As upsetting as the situation is, Tessa is willing to bear the hurt for the sake of her sister, whom she loves dearly, but then it seems Tania will even rob Tessa of the man she loves. Her only consolation comes in the form of Oscar Warrender, whose keen ear identifies Tessa’s skill and who insists that for the first time in her life Tessa must take centre stage. Will Otway see Tessa for who she really is? Or is she doomed forever to be overshadowed by her sister?

NOTE: I don’t know why the cover depicts someone playing the violin when the heroine is a singer.

Rating: B-

For this month’s Kicking it Old School prompt, I went back to Mary Burchell’s Warrender Saga, a series of thirteen novels set in the world of classical music that were originally published by Mills & Boon in the 1960s and 70s.  I read the first book, A Song Begins for a TBR Challenge prompt last year and haven’t yet got around to reading any more, although I own several of them, so this seemed like a good opportunity to play catch up.  The events of book two, The Broken Wing (originally published in 1966), take place about six months after those of A Song Begins and are focused around a prestigious music festival.  The principal characters are the festival’s director, Quentin Otway (who is, of course, both brilliant and demanding), and his super-efficient assistant/secretary, Tessa Morley, who – it’s obvious straight away – is infatuated with Quentin, just as it’s obvious that he has no idea of it.

Tessa and her twin sister, Tania, are like chalk and cheese.  They’re not identical twins, in either looks or personality; Tania is a vibrant go-getter and their former actress mother’s favourite, while Tessa is quiet and shy, her reticence always making her an afterthought at home.  Tessa isn’t jealous of Tania though, although she does get annoyed by her frequent self-absorbtion; the relationship between the sisters is well written and presented as something that has many different shades.  Tania isn’t the evil twin and Tessa isn’t the put-upon doormat; there are elements of that in there, yes, but both are protective of each other in their own way and Tania does take pride in Tessa’s achievements, despite her tendency to steamroller her way through life.  Both are talented singers, too, although Tessa  – sure has no hope of a stage career on account of her being lame and walking with a limp – hides her light under a bushel while Tania is doing fairly well in the field of comic opera and operetta.

Not one to let the grass grow under her feet, Tania ‘persuades’ Tessa to get her an audition for the part of Despina in Mozart’s Così fan Tutte which is being mounted at the Northern Counties Festival with Oscar Warrender conducting.  Tessa isn’t wild about the idea, especially when Tania insists that she – Tessa – must, under no circumstances, let on that she sings as well.  Tania knows Tessa has the better voice, but is also sure that her vivacity and stage presence will carry her through; and sure enough, Tessa gets her the audition and Tania gets the part.  It seems at this stage that Quentin is quite bowled over by her – although the more canny Oscar Warrender isn’t quite as impressed with Tania and already suspects that there is more to Tessa than meets the eye.

One of the things I always notice when I read much older books like this one is the way in which the hero is almost a secondary character; they’re very heroine-centric novels and we only get to see the object of her affections through her PoV.  And viewed with modern eyes, those heroes can sometimes be unappealing; at best overbearing, at worst, dictatorial, and there’s no question that Quentin doesn’t always behave well to Tessa in this book.  He says some hurtful things, usually without realising it (and I’m not sure if that doesn’t make it worse!), but at other times, he seems quite in tune with her, and he isn’t too proud to admit when he’s wrong and apologise for it.  And although the parallels between ‘damaged’ Tessa (the way her disability is portrayed and spoken of is distasteful) and the little figurine of the angel with the broken wing that Quentin keeps on his desk is howlingly obvious, there’s something about the way they bond over it that is rather sweet and which also indicates a degree of affection on Quentin’s side that Tessa is unaware of.  He can be thoughtless, but his ability to show vulnerability and to own up to his mistakes meant I liked him overall.

Tessa could easily have been something of a doormat, but she isn’t.  Yes, she puts up with Quentin’s dickishness, but he’s paying her wages and she has a job she loves and she’s not quite ready to tell him where he can stick it.  And she’s not afraid to call him on it when he’s being inconsiderate or let him know when he’s pissed her off; she’s one of those quiet heroines who can only be pushed so far, and I liked that about her.  I didn’t, however, like the way she was so preoccupied with her ‘lameness’.  She walks with a slight limp (she doesn’t appear to need a stick) but in spite of her vocal talent – which, according to Warrender (an expert) is worth cultivating – has ruled out any sort of musical career for herself on account of it.  Um.  I worked in the classical music biz for several  years and met and worked with a number of opera singers, many of whom were hardly built to be rushing around a stage!  And as Warrender says, a limp wouldn’t preclude Tessa having a concert career.  I suppose there had to be some sort of reason for Tessa not to want to be a singer; it’s just that this one is, and pardon the pun, rather lame.

Compared to many of today’s romances, The Broken Wing is pretty sedate, but its richly realised setting – which is once again permeated by the author’s love for and knowledge of opera and classical music – and clear, precise prose, are definite points in favour. Even taking into account the reservations I’ve expressed, I enjoyed it and plan to continue with the series.

Bringing Down the Duke (League of Extraordinary Women #1) by Evie Dunmore

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Oxford, 1879. A beautiful bluestocking is about to teach a duke a lesson . . .

Brilliant but destitute Annabelle Archer is one of the first female students at Oxford University. In return for her scholarship, she must recruit influential men to champion the rising women’s suffrage movement. Her first target is Sebastian Devereux: cold, calculating and the most powerful duke in England.

When Annabelle and her friends infiltrate his luxurious estate, she’s appalled to find herself attracted to the infuriatingly intelligent aristocrat – but perhaps she’s not the only one struggling with desire. . . Soon Annabelle is locked in a battle with rising passion and a will matching her own. She’ll need to learn fast just what it takes to bring down a duke.

Rating: B+

Evie Dunmore’s Bringing Down the Duke is the first book in the A League of Extraordinary Women series, and is a very strong début from someone who promises to add a much-needed fresh voice to historical romance.  The writing is sharp and clear, and displays a really good sense of time and place; the characters feel true for the time period, and I was particularly impressed by the heroine, who is forward-thinking and progressive without being one of those contrary-for-the-sake-of-it, look-at-how-unconventional-I-am types who annoy the crap out of me.

Annabelle Archer has lived under the roof of her cousin, a country clergyman, since the death of her parents.  She’s an unpaid skivvy; she keeps house, looks after his children and endures his continual complaints about the fact that her father over-educated her – why on earth would a woman need an education?  So when Annabelle is offered a place at Lady Margaret Hall (in 1878, LMH was the first Oxford college to open its doors to women) he’s  far from pleased, but when she says she’ll fund the cost of a replacement housekeeper (somehow), he begrudgingly allows her to go.

Some months later, we find Annabelle in London with a group of her friends, like-minded young women who, under the leadership of Lady Lucie, secretary of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, are planning to approach various men of influence with a view to getting them to support changes to the Married Women’s Property Act.  The strategy – identify a man of influence, approach him firmly, but with a smile, and deliver a pamphlet boldly declaring The Married Women’s Property Act makes a slave of every wife! – isn’t difficult to grasp, but at this period, just walking up to a gentleman unannounced and unchaperoned wasn’t the done thing and could lead to worse things than a refusal to listen.  Annabelle is understandably nervous, but nonetheless determined to do her bit when she notices a man who appears to be exactly the sort of man of influence she needs to approach.

Sebastian Devereux, thirteenth Duke of Montgomery, is one of the most powerful and respected men in England.  He  has a reputation for being cold and severe, and devotes most of his time to the running of his numerous estates and is particularly concerned at present with regaining possession of his family seat, Castle Montgomery, which his profligate father lost in a card game.  The Queen (who was, sadly, one of the biggest opponents of female emancipation) promises her support for his cause if he will take on the role of chief strategic advisor for the Tory party in the upcoming election – a job he doesn’t have either the time or the inclination to perform.  But he can’t refuse what is tantamount to a royal command.

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

Surrender of a Siren (Wanton Dairymaid #2) by Tessa Dare (audiobook) – Narrated by Gabrielle Baker

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Desperate to escape a loveless marriage and society’s constraints, pampered heiress Sophia Hathaway jilts her groom, packs up her paints and sketchbook, and assumes a new identity, posing as a governess to secure passage on the Aphrodite. She wants a life of her own: unsheltered, unconventional, uninhibited. But it’s one thing to sketch all her wildest, most wanton fantasies, and quite another to face the dangerously handsome libertine who would steal both her virtue and her gold.

To any well-bred lady, Benedict “Gray” Grayson is trouble in snug-fitting boots. A conscienceless scoundrel who sails the seas for pleasure and profit, Gray lives for conquest—until Sophia’s perception and artistry stir his heart. Suddenly, he’ll brave sharks, fire, storm, and sea just to keep her at his side. She’s beautiful, refined, and ripe for seduction. Could this counterfeit governess be a rogue’s redemption? Or will the runaway heiress’s secrets destroy their only chance at love?

Rating: Narration: B; Content: C

Originally published in 2009, Surrender of a Siren is the second book in Tessa Dare’s Wanton Dairymaid trilogy, and is her second published novel. It was released in audiobook format earlier this year, and although I’ve never listened to narrator Gabrielle Baker before, I decided to pick it up for review. In fact, the narration turned out to be the best thing about the listening experience; Ms. Baker’s delivery and speech patterns reminded me very much of Mary Jane Wells (who is narrating Ms. Dare’s current Girl Meets Duke series), and although I had issues with certain aspects of her performance, I enjoyed listening to her and will definitely seek out more of her narrations. When it comes to the story, however… well, it’s an early work and it shows, especially in terms of the plot and the characterisation of the heroine, who annoyed me for something like ninety percent of the book.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Marry in Secret (Marriage of Convenience #3) by Anne Gracie

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Lady Rose Rutherford—rebel, heiress, and exasperated target of the town’s hungry bachelors—has a plan to gain the freedom she so desperately desires: she will enter into a marriage of convenience with the biggest prize on the London marriage mart.

There’s just one problem: the fierce-looking man who crashes her wedding to the Duke of Everingham — Thomas Beresford, the young naval officer she fell in love with and secretly married when she was still a schoolgirl. Thought to have died four years ago he’s returned, a cold, hard stranger with one driving purpose—revenge.

Embittered by betrayal and hungry for vengeance, Thomas will stop at nothing to reclaim his rightful place, even if that means using Rose—and her fortune—to do it. But Rose never did follow the rules, and as she takes matters into her own unpredictable hands, Thomas finds himself in an unexpected and infuriating predicament: he’s falling in love with his wife….

Rating: C

I enjoyed the first two books in Anne Gracie’s Marriage of Convenience series – in fact, the first, Marry in Haste, was a DIK (Desert Isle Keeper) at AAR – but this third book proved to be something of a disappointment.  The premise – a young woman about to make an advantageous, but loveless, marriage is unexpectedly confronted by the man she married years before and believed dead – sounded as though it might make for a good read, but sadly, after the initial excitement of the opening chapters, things fizzled out.  The main characters were bland and didn’t grab my interest, and instead of a rekindling relationship, I got a couple who, after a bit of angsting over whether they wanted to be together, resumed their marriage and shagged a lot, and a story that revolved more around a rather weak whodunnit than a romance.

Twenty-year-old Lady Rose Rutheford is due to marry the Duke of Everingham in what has been hailed as the match of the year. Her sister Lily and cousin George (Georgiana) aren’t happy about the match; Everingham is handsome, wealthy and titled, for sure, but he’s a cold fish and they think Rose is making a huge mistake.  But Rose is adamant.  She doesn’t want a love match and she and the duke have reached an agreement – she will give him his heir and he will give her the freedom to live as she wants.  When, however, the ceremony is interrupted by a gaunt, dirty and dishevelled man insisting that Rose is already married – to him – the reasons for Rose’s choice become apparent.  When she was sixteen and still away at school she met and fell in love with Thomas Beresford, a young naval officer.  They married secretly just a couple of weeks before Thomas was was due to go to sea  – and just a few weeks later, Rose learned that his ship had been sunk and everyone aboard had died.  Numbed with grief, and concerned for her sister Lily, who was recovering from a serious illness, Rose doesn’t tell anyone about Thomas or their short-lived marriage, and the more time passes, the more she thinks there’s no point in saying anything.

The first quarter or so of the story captured my interest.  Rose, shocked beyond belief, doesn’t know how to feel or what to do while her brother Cal and her snooty Aunt Agatha insist Thomas is nothing but a liar and schemer out to get his hands on Rose’s fortune.  When Rose fails to acknowledge him – to be fair, she doesn’t deny him either – Thomas is hurt and angry, and is determined to stand his ground and claim his wife.  But after Rose says she doesn’t want the marriage annulled and that she will honour her marriage vows, he starts to see that perhaps he’s wrong and that staying married to him – especially give how much he’s changed over the past four years – isn’t the best thing for Rose. After this, Thomas tries to discourage Rose from her determination to remain his wife while Rose – who has miraculously turned back into the lively, headstrong and flirtatious young woman he met four years earlier (and whom her family believed had disappeared) – seems to grow only more intent on remaining by his side (and getting him into her bed!)

While Thomas continues to be torn over his relationship with Rose, we learn something of what happened to him in the years he was gone.  He and a number of his crewmates were captured by Barbary pirates and sold as slaves after Thomas’ plea to his uncle for ransom was denied.  It took him years to escape, but now he has, he’s determined to find the men who were captured with him and free them – and to find out why his uncle denied him.  When Thomas visits his bank in London and discovers a number of irregularities in his finances, he realises that something underhand is going on; someone is stealing from him and it’s obviously been going on for some time.  But who?  And why?

Thus, what could have been a second chance romance about two people who married impulsively  getting to know each other after their enforced separation and really learning to love each other turned out to be a not-very-mysterious mystery with no romantic or character development whatsoever.  Thomas indulges in a lot of hand-wringing of the I-do-not-wish-to-sully-your-purity-with-my-degradation sort, while Rose is relentlessly cheerful and pretty much bulldozes her way through everything he says.  Thomas’ experiences as a captive and slave have obviously affected the way he treats servants and others who are regarded by those of his class as beneath them, and he clearly feels shame about what happened to him, but there’s not much depth to his character or Rose’s; neither is especially memorable or engaging and I didn’t connect with either of them.  I liked the relationship between Cal and Ned (heroes of the previous books) and the one that was developing between them and Thomas, but the ladies were thinly sketched and the identity of the wrong-doer was obvious.

Marry in Secret is an exercise in wasted potential in just about every way.  The romance is non-existent, the mystery is weak and the characterisation is uninspired.  I may pick up the next (and final) book in the series because I’m intrigued at the prospect of the pairing of the cold fish duke with the I’m-never-getting-married-and-handing-over-control-of-my-life Lady Georgiana, but I really can’t recommend this instalment.

Secrets of a Highland Warrior (Lochmore Legacy #4) by Nicole Locke

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The key to his past…

…lies with the enemy sharing his bed!

Part of The Lochmore Legacy: a Scottish castle through the ages! Rory Lochmore had expected to wage battle, to claim land and finally secure his standing within his clan… Instead he won a wife. A McCrieff wife. Their convenient marriage could unite the two long-feuding clans forever. But can a political alliance give way to a passion strong enough to stand the secrets of the past?

Rating: B

Secrets of a Highland Warrior is the fourth and final book in the Lochmore Legacy series, in which each instalment has been written by a different author and is set in a different time period.  Interestingly, the story began in the Victorian era (with His Convenient Highland Wedding) and then moved back through time so it’s here that readers finally discover the truth behind the centuries-old animosity between the Lochmore and McCrieff clans, the reason for the empty crypt and the origin of the antique brooch found by Flora in the first book.

It’s Spring of 1293 in the Scottish Highlands, and Rory, son of the Lochmore chief, is journeying to meet with the chief of clan McCrieff in the attempt to once and for all resolve the long-standing dispute over a tract of land granted to the Lochmores by the English king.  Anticipating a battle, Rory has ridden out with over a hundred of his men – only to meet with no opposition.  All is quiet. There’s no sign of the enemy.  Nothing bars the way on to McCrieff land or to the McCrieff stronghold –  surely it’s a trap?  With nothing but dishonour and his father’s wrath awaiting him should he return to Lochmore Castle empty-handed, Rory decides to proceed with caution, taking with him his closest friend and right-hand man, Paiden, and a few of his most trusted men.  His uneasiness grows the closer they get to the McCrieff stronghold, and only increases when they are met by an imposing man – not the clan chief – who invites Rory and his men to eat at the McCrieff table.

Alisa is the daughter of Frederick – the man who greeted Rory – the Tanist of the clan.  With their chief sick and dying of a mysterious complaint, the Tanist (the heir apparent) has stepped in to lead the clan, and given that many are still loyal to Hamish McCrieff, this is causing divisions that Frederick is at pains to keep hidden.  Ailsa is the clan’s healer and has been unable to identify what ails the chief.  All she can do is tend him which, for some reason she doesn’t understand and cannot question, he has decreed she must do alone.  So it’s rare for her to have a moment to herself, but she manages to slip out to observe her father meeting with the Lochmores and is struck by the aura of power and dominance radiating from the man who is obviously their leader.  When their eyes meet, her heart skips a beat – and when she learns his name, it brings back the memory of an old fable told to her by a dying woman many years ago, the tale of a baby named Rory born during the time of the Great Feud between the clans.

When Frederick proposes to Rory the easiest way to solve their current feud – that he marry his daughter – Ailsa is at first adamant in her refusal.  But when she comes to realise that by doing so, she could prevent many deaths and injuries, she changes her mind and agrees to the match.  For his part, Rory is suspicious; he is sure the Tanist’s motives go beyond a simple alliance, but can’t yet work out what it is.  He and Ailsa are to say their vows that very evening, but everything is thrown into uproar when Paiden is poisoned during the pre-wedding feast, an action clearly designed to continue the Great Feud – but at whose behest?

I’m not a great reader of highland romances, mostly because those I’ve read all seem to revolve around the same two or three plotlines, usually involving opposing clans and arranged marriages.  There’s an opposing clan AND an arranged marriage in this book, but thankfully, Nicole Locke puts a different spin on her story, with Ailsa working to save Paiden’s life while she and Rory work together to find out who ordered the poisoning.  Running alongside this and the developing romance, is the thread concerning Rory’s long-held suspicions that he is not his father’s true son.  While on the surface he’s your typical highland-warrior-hero (big, braw and brooding) beneath that there’s an attractive vulnerability to him; it’s his destiny to become Lochmore chief, but he knows he has no real right to that position and he’s deeply conflicted.

I have to applaud Ms. Locke for creating, in Ailsa, a flame-haired, highland heroine who isn’t a heedless spitfire for the sake of it.  She isn’t backward about coming forward, that’s for sure, but she isn’t TSTL; she’s spirited and strong-willed, but she’s also intelligent and thinks things through – and Rory soon finds he rather likes her tendency to be outspoken.  As he and Ailsa begin to set aside their suspicions, they start to look beyond the feud and to the possibility of a real future together; and the spark of attraction that flared between them when they first saw each other starts to burn, slowly at first, as they begin to learn more about each other and take their first steps towards trust, understanding and, eventually, love.

I confess that I haven’t yet read all the previous books, but this one does work as a standalone, even if you’re not familiar with the basic premise of the series.  I liked the way the series is structured, with each book revealing something of the Lochmore legend, and everything is tied neatly together in a lovely, poignant epilogue written by Janice Preston.  The Lochmore Legacy books have all received strong recommendations her at AAR and this one is no exception, so if you’ve been waiting until the series is complete to embark on this romantic journey through time, then now’s the time to begin.

Spellbound (Magic in Manhattan #1) by Allie Therin

This title may be purchased from Amazon

To save Manhattan, they’ll have to save each other first…

1925

New York

Arthur Kenzie’s life’s work is protecting the world from the supernatural relics that could destroy it. When an amulet with the power to control the tides is shipped to New York, he must intercept it before it can be used to devastating effects. This time, in order to succeed, he needs a powerful psychometric…and the only one available has sworn off his abilities altogether.

Rory Brodigan’s gift comes with great risk. To protect himself, he’s become a recluse, redirecting his magic to find counterfeit antiques. But with the city’s fate hanging in the balance, he can’t force himself to say no.

Being with Arthur is dangerous, but Rory’s ever-growing attraction to him begins to make him brave. And as Arthur coaxes him out of seclusion, a magical and emotional bond begins to form. One that proves impossible to break—even when Arthur sacrifices himself to keep Rory safe and Rory must risk everything to save him.

To save Manhattan, they’ll have to save each other first…

Rating: B

The synopsis for Allie Therin’s début novel  Spellbound caught my attention immediately.  Supernatural relics, powerful psychics, romance, magic and an unusual setting -1920s Manhattan – it all looked like a recipe for a great read, and for the most part, it was.  The story pulled me in right away, I was impressed by the worldbuilding, the plot is intriguing, I liked the characters, and the setting is vividly described; pretty much everything about the book works, although I had a few issues with the central romance.

Twenty-year-old Rory Brodigan is a psychometrist, possessing a unique talent that allows him to touch an object and discover its history.  More accurately, the object pulls his mind into its history and there is often a very real possibility that it may never be able to return to the present.  Feeling himself to be something of a freak – and following a scrying that went badly wrong – he’s become something of a recluse and lives with his aunt, an antiques dealer in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City.  Thanks to Rory’s talent – which they are careful to keep secret – she has built a reputation for being able to distinguish real artefacts from fake ones, which is what brings congressmen’s son Arthur  Kenzie to her shop with a rush job he’s prepared to pay handsomely for.

A veteran of WW1, Arthur is the scion of an incredibly wealthy, well-connected, New York family.  He’s handsome, well-educated, sophisticated – and lonely, taking pains to keep his relationships casual, infrequent and usually outside the US.  During his wartime service, he learned of the existence of magic courtesy of two of his closest friends – both of whom he saw die horribly – and although he doesn’t possess a scrap of magic of his own, he’s dedicated himself to protecting the world from supernatural relics that could destroy it.  He’s received word that an extremely dangerous and powerful artefact is on its way to New York, possibly into the hands of a fearsome enemy; and with it due to arrive any day, he’s racing against time to find someone with the necessary talent to be able to help him and his small band of allies to find it.  Having heard of someone in Hell’s Kitchen who has been uncannily accurate in discerning the provenance of various items, he prepares a test – a set of skilfully forged letters that he says he needs authenticated straight away – and takes them to Mrs. Brodigan’s shop.

When – unimpressed – she meets with Arthur the next morning to give him the news – all the letters are fakes – he explains he wasn’t wasting her time, but was instead assessing her suitability for another, much bigger job.  He gives her a case containing a relic packed inside a secure, lead-lined box, a ring that has defeated his associates’ attempts to assess its power or purpose  – but before he can explain, he’s called away, and leaves her with instructions not to open the box until he arrives at the shop so they can discuss it further.   It’s this relic – a ring that can control the wind – that ultimately reveals the truth to Arthur and brings him and Rory together.  Unable to resist taking a look inside the case – wondering what the rich arsehole who brought them a bunch of fake letters could possibly want this time – Rory opens the ring box, touches the relic, and is immediately pulled into a vision from which he very nearly doesn’t make it back.  Livid, he telephones Arthur Kenzie to tell him where he can stick his ring, and Arthur, realising the ring box has been opened, rushes to the shop to find out what’s going on.  Realising eventually that Rory is the psychometric, Arthur and his closest friends and allies – Jade, a telekinetic and Zhang, an astral walker – band together to protect him and his unique gift from those who would abuse it.

Rory, however, doesn’t want anything to do with them.  He’s rude and abrasive and mistrustful; life has taught him that’s the only way to stay safe, and when we learn more of his past, it makes perfect sense that he would be slow to trust – and fortunately for him, Arthur and his friends aren’t going to give up on him that easily.  He pushes them away – or tries to – at almost every opportunity, even as his attraction to the handsome and urbane Arthur grows stronger.

The story is well conceived and well executed, and the author does a fabulous job of integrating the prohibition era setting and the details of her secret magical world into it.  I enjoyed learning about the existence of relics and their power, of the use of magic for good and evil and of the prejudices facing supernatural beings in the society in which they live.  The main secondary characters are easily as interesting as the leads; Arthur’s principal allies Jade and Zhang are well-developed characters whose presence is integral to the suspense plot.  The first part of the book was a five-star read, easily, and I flew through it, eagerly immersing myself in the world Ms. Therin has created.  But somehow, the second half of the book didn’t quite live up to the first.  The plot – in which Arthur faces a devastating betrayal at the same time as he, Rory, and their allies must race to save Manhattan from spectacular destruction – is tense and exciting, but the villains were somewhat underdeveloped.  I also had a problem with the romance, because try as I might, I found it difficult to see what the gorgeous, sophisticated and world-weary Arthur saw in Rory who, while only eight years younger than him (Arthur is twenty-eight) often acts more like someone in his mid-teens than a young man of twenty.  I understood Rory’s prickly nature – his backstory is heartbreaking – and I understood Arthur’s natural instinct to protect; they do have chemistry, but Rory’s brattish behaviour goes on too long, and when he does eventually drop it, the couple goes from zero-to-sixty in the blink of an eye.  This is a series, so there was no real need for things to progress quite so quickly – and the book’s single sex scene is all build-up and then fades to black, which is a missed opportunity for relationship development.  When done properly, intimate scenes are an excellent way of showing the connection between characters, something which was sorely needed here given Rory’s trust issues and the way he treats Arthur for the first part of the book.

Despite those reservations however, Spellbound was an impressive début and a truly enjoyable read.  I liked the found-family quality of Arthur’s relationships with Jade and Zhang, and Rory’s with Mrs. Brodigan (who turns out to be a bit of a badass in her own right!), and the diversity of the cast, which felt right for the location and time period, was another big plus.  The book ends with a firm HFN for Arthur and Rory, and a clear indication that there’s more to come, so I’ll definitely be picking up book two when it comes out next year.