Gilded Cage (Lilywhite Boys #2) by K.J. Charles

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Once upon a time a boy from a noble family fell in love with a girl from the gutter. It went as badly as you’d expect.

Seventeen years later, Susan Lazarus is a renowned detective, and Templeton Lane is a jewel thief. She’s tried to arrest him, and she’s tried to shoot him. They’ve never tried to talk.

Then Templeton is accused of a vicious double murder. Now there’s a manhunt out for him, the ports are watched, and even his best friends have turned their backs. If he can’t clear his name, he’ll hang.

There’s only one person in England who might help Templeton now…assuming she doesn’t want to kill him herself.

Rating: A-

K.J. Charles proves – once again – that she’s at the top of her game with Gilded Cage (the sequel to her late-Victorian-jewel-thief-caper Any Old Diamonds), which combines an intriguing murder mystery with a superbly written and swoon-worthy second chance romance.  It’s funny, it’s sexy, it’s poignant and it’s brilliantly observed, featuring wonderfully written, flawed characters who leap off the page, a villain worthy of all the boos and hisses and a high-stakes plot.

When jewel thief and one half of the Lilywhite Boys, Templeton Lane, encountered enquiry agent Susan Lazarus in Any Old Diamonds, it was clear there was a shared history between them – and that it wasn’t one that either of them remembered with fondness.  In Gilded Cage, readers learn the truth of that history – a story of young love gone badly wrong – after Templeton is accused of a double murder and Susan is the only person he feels he can turn to for help.

Against the advice of his associate Jerry Crozier – whom Templeton believes has lost his nerve since he fell in love – Templeton decides to go alone to a house in Mortlake in order to steal a set of highly valuable opals.  Things are going as planned until he enters the bedroom where the safe is located and discovers the house’s owner lying on the floor in a pool of blood.  When a terrified servant wakes the rest of the house, Templeton gets out (not before grabbing the jewels though!), evading his pursuers by swimming across the Thames (risky in the cold and dark) and then makes his way to the East End shop belonging to their regular fence, Stan, where he finds Jerry waiting for him.  Both are furious with Templeton for being so careless, not just of his personal safety, but of theirs, too, and tell him that he needs to get out of the country fast or face the hangman’s noose.  Angry and hurt at what he sees as a betrayal – although he does grudgingly admit to having cocked up big time – and unable to leave England owing to an increased police presence at the ports, Templeton needs to clear his name, which is how he ends up seeking out Susan Lazarus and hoping she won’t turn him in herself before he’s had a chance to explain.

What follows is part second chance romance part murder mystery in which the two leads are finally able to talk about their shared past while also gaining a new appreciation for and understanding of each other and who they are now.  Susan is a wonderful heroine.  Fiercely intelligent, no-nonsense, perceptive and loyal with just a hint of vulnerability she keeps well hidden, she’s not thrilled about seeing the man who broke her heart seventeen years earlier, but also knows that whatever else he is, he’s not a murderer and agrees to help him prove his innocence by finding the true culprit. And although Templeton comes across as a bit of a git to start with – his temper-tantrum over what he sees as Jerry’s ‘defection’ and new-found happiness causes Templeton to make very poor decisions and behave like a petulant kid – he is gradually revealed to be a decent, thoughtful man, his obvious respect for Susan, his acceptance of her bisexuality, and his being prepared to follow her lead (both in the investigation and in their personal interactions) more than making up for his earlier poor judgment and selfishness.

Their relationship is superbly done, the chemistry sizzles and I loved watching them talk through the issues that lie between them and find their way back to each other.  The dialogue – laced with wit and very astute social observation – sparkles, and the plot very cleverly weaves together the threads of past and present to create an immensely satisfying three-dimensional story that has fun poking fun at and playing around with genre tropes.

As is always the case with this author, the writing is superb, the characters are fully-rounded, flawed individuals, and the whole novel is permeated by a wonderful sense of time and place.  Most impressive of all is Susan, a woman who faces the same challenges and restrictions faced by all women at the time (late 19th century) with regard to personal freedom and independence, but who is nonetheless forging her own path as best she can, and the HEA is both original and perfectly in character as well as being thoroughly satisfying.  My one criticism of the story is that because most of the investigation takes place off-page, the sense of urgency – Templeton stands to hang if found guilty, after all – isn’t quite as strong as it should have been.

Although the book works perfectly well as a standalone, there are some lovely shout-outs to both the Sins of the Cities and the Society of Gentlemen; Templeton Lane is really James Vane, whose Great Uncle was Richard Vane –  the mention of the slender, elderly man who taught Templeton the art of silent footsteps was just lovely! – and we get a little peek into the home life of Susan’s ‘guvnors’, Nathaniel Roy and Justin Lazarus, who is clearly as much of a shifty bastard as he ever was.

Gilded Cage is a fantastic read and one no fan of historical romance should miss.  K.J. Charles is one of the very few writers in the genre who really understands it, and given the current deplorable state of HR in general, a true gem like this is not to be missed.

 

TBR Challenge: Widdershins (Whyborne & Griffin #1) by Jordan L. Hawk

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A reclusive scholar. A private detective. And a book of spells that could destroy the world.

Love is dangerous. Ever since the tragic death of the friend he adored, Percival Endicott Whyborne has ruthlessly suppressed any desire for another man. Instead, he spends his days studying dead languages at the museum where he works. So when handsome ex-Pinkerton Griffin Flaherty approaches him to translate a mysterious book, Whyborne wants to finish the job and get rid of the detective as quickly as possible.

Griffin left the Pinkertons after the death of his partner. Now in business for himself, he must investigate the murder of a wealthy young man. His only clue: an encrypted book that once belonged to the victim.

As the investigation draws them closer, Griffin’s rakish charm threatens to shatter Whyborne’s iron control. But when they uncover evidence of a powerful cult determined to rule the world, Whyborne must choose: to remain safely alone, or to risk everything for the man he loves.

Rating: B

Like so many of the books I end up reading for the TBR Challenge each year, Jordan L. Hawk’s paranormal/romantic suspense Whyborne & Griffin series is one I’ve been meaning to read for AGES, so this prompt was just what I needed to galvanise me into reading book one, Widdershins.

Percival Endicott Whyborne comes from a very wealthy family – his father is a railroad baron – but didn’t want to go into the business (as his older brother did) and is thus somewhat estranged from his family.  His mother has been unwell for years and he doesn’t get on with his father, who disapproves of his choice to dedicate himself to comparative philology (Whyborne is fluent in thirteen languages and can read more,) scholarship and a job in the Department of Antiquities at the Ladysmith Museum in Widdershins, Massachusetts.  He keeps himself very much to himself, never really having got the hang of social interaction, and ruthlessly suppresses his attraction to men,  still haunted by thoughts of the first boy he ever loved and blaming himself for his tragic death.  He has only one real friend, Dr. Christine Putnam, a fiercely intelligent, independently minded archaeologist who won’t let him hide himself away all the time, and who, it must be said, has some of the best lines in the book:

“I will not surrender my profession simply because men throughout history have been unduly enamored of their penises!“

(this said in response to a male colleague seeking to prevent her looking at a papyrus fragment depicting a fellow “… in rather an excited state.” )

The appearance of ex-Pinkerton detective Griffin Flaherty at the museum upsets Whyborne’s carefully maintained equilibrium.  Flaherty been asked to investigate the death of Philip Rice, son of the museum’s director who, the day before he died, sent a small, leather-bound book to his father which Griffin has brought to the museum – specifically to Whyborne – to have translated in order to see if its contents have any bearing on Philip’s death.  Although Whyborne is supposed to be working on deciphering some ancient scrolls which are due to be displayed in an upcoming exhibition, he agrees, wanting nothing more than to get the translation done and get rid of the handsome, too-friendly detective who is far too tempting for his peace of mind.

Whyborne’s efforts quickly reveal the book to be an Arcanorum, a book of arcane spells and alchemical treatises which details many occult rituals, not least of which is one able to bring back the dead.  As strange things start happening – from grave robbing to the appearance of mysterious and terrifying beasts, to break-ins at the museum  and the discovery of a powerful and ancient cult – Whyborne and Griffin are drawn into an investigation that will test them both to the limit and force them both to confront some of their darkest fears.

I enjoyed the story, which is immensely readable and entertaining, and I really liked the two central characters, reclusive, gawky Whyborne, and the more outgoing Griffin, whose handsome, charming exterior hides insecurities and emotional damage of his own.  While the story is related entirely from Whyborne’s PoV, the author does a terrific job of showing us Griffin through his eyes, although of course, Whyborne fails to notice the other man’s interest in him because he’s become so used to believing himself to be dull, awkward and unattractive.  But Griffin is smitten from the start; he obviously finds Whyborne’s shyness endearing and is also able to see beyond the bumbling scholar to the courageous, brilliant man beneath, his feelings made clear by the way he treats Whyborne with the sort of courtesy and respect he has never received from anyone before.

Their relationship starts as a slow, smouldering burn, with lots of longing looks and glancing touches, but after that, it moves fairly quickly – perhaps just a little bit too quickly – from that initial frisson to emotional commitment.  As this is the first book in a long running series (the eleventh and final book has just been published), the author could have perhaps taken a little more time to get them to the the ILYs.  I liked them as a couple and liked the way they come to know each other and talk about their pasts; the romance is both sweet and sexy as Griffin gradually coaxes Whyborne from his shell and Whyborne starts to allow someone beyond the emotional walls he’s so carefully constructed.  I just would have liked there to have been a little more time spent building an emotional connection between that initial slow burn and the declarations.  Delayed gratification and all that 😉

The plot, with its Lovecraftian influences and overtones, is a mix of suspense and supernatural horror, full of scary monsters, spooky goings-on (and a fair few “eeew!” moments) and a charismatic though creepy AF villain. The story is well-paced, with plenty of action interspersed among the more intimate and introspective moments, and moves inexorably towards a high-stakes climax which, while perhaps a tad predictable is nonetheless exciting.

In spite of my reservations about the romance and some aspects of the plot, I enjoyed Widdershins and am looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

The Art of Theft (Lady Sherlock #4) by Sherry Thomas

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” Charlotte Holmes has solved murders and found missing individuals. But she has never stolen a priceless artwork—or rather, made away with the secrets hidden behind a much-coveted canvas.

But Mrs. Watson is desperate to help her old friend recover those secrets and Charlotte finds herself involved in a fever-paced scheme to infiltrate a glamorous Yuletide ball where the painting is one handshake away from being sold and the secrets a bare breath from exposure.

Her dear friend Lord Ingram, her sister Livia, Livia’s admirer Stephen Marbleton—everyone pitches in to help and everyone has a grand time. But nothing about this adventure is what it seems and disaster is biding time on the grounds of a glittering French chateau, waiting only for Charlotte to make a single mistake…

Rating: A-

The Art of Theft is the eagerly awaited fourth book in Sherry Thomas’ superb series of historical mysteries starring Charlotte Holmes, a most unusual young woman whose keen, logical mind and incredible deductive skills would have been completely disregarded in Victorian England had she not invented the infirm but brilliant brother Sherlock who is – in name only of course – the greatest detective the nation has ever seen.  While each book in the series has a central mystery that is solved by the end, there are a number of overarching plot-threads and recurring characters which mean it’s probably not the best idea to pick up The Art of Theft without having read the other novels in the series; readers will get much more out of the wonderfully intricate characterisation and the various relationships between the characters by starting at the beginning with book one, A Study in Scarlet Women.   Because of the way the books are interlinked, there will be spoilers for the rest of the series in this review.

The aftermath of the tumultuous events of The Hollow of Fear sees Lord Ingram Ashburton in the country looking after his children, Mrs. Watson in Paris with her niece, Miss Olivia Holmes nearing the completion of her Sherlock Holmes story, and Miss Charlotte Holmes helping to settle her eldest sister, Bernadette, whom she removed from a home, into her new surroundings.  It’s a brief period of quiet that is broken when Charlotte receives a request for help from someone identifying  themselves only as A Traveler from Distant Lands.

Deciding she needs a distraction – from caring for her sister and from pondering the shifting nature of her relationship with her long-time friend (and now, former lover) Lord Ingram – Charlotte arranges to meet this traveler, correctly assuming the request for help to have come from a woman in need.  Her visitor proves to be none other than an Indian maharani, who also turns out to be the first client ever to decline to use Sherlock Holmes’ services.  Charlotte immediately deduces that this is because the maharani needs someone who is able to do more than investigate; and her supposition is borne out not long afterwards when she and Mrs. Watson – who has confessed to Charlotte that she and the maharani had been lovers once upon a time – visit the maharani at her hotel to offer their assistance.

The lady is still resistant, but when Charlotte most ably demonstrates that she does indeed possess the skills the maharani needs to help with her current predicament, she explains that she is being blackmailed, and that she has been given specific instructions as to what to do in order to receive a packet of letters she does not wish seen by unfriendly eyes.  Every yuletide, an exclusive and extravagant art sale is held at Château Vaudrieu, just outside Paris.  The cream of French society flocks there, as do art connoisseurs, manufacturers, millionaires and princes from around the world – and the maharani’s letters are hidden in the back of a painting by Van Dyck.  She needs someone to steal the painting in order to retrieve the letters – and given the château’s location and the amount of security that surrounds the event, it will be no easy task.

Charlotte is certain that the maharani has not told them everything, but even so, she enlists the help of Lord Ingram and Mr. Stephen Marbleton, and soon they, together with Mrs. Watson and Olivia are crossing the channel and travelling to Paris, where they will meet up with one of Lord Ingram’s friends and allies, Lieutenant Attwood.  An initial reconnaissance mission of the château undertaken by Mr. Marbleton and Lord Ingram reveals that there Is much more going on there than preparations for a masquerade ball and grand art sale. Before long our intrepid band is plunged into something  that goes far beyond simple blackmail – and which will once again see them pitting their wits against the mysterious Moriarty, the shadowy criminal mastermind whose very existence has slowly become irrevocably intertwined with that of our protagonists.

If you’ve followed the series – and have followed my reviews of it – you may be asking yourself why I’ve not graded this book quite as highly as the last couple.  I did struggle with the grading because this whole series is more than a head and shoulders above almost every other similar series out there, and Sherry Thomas’ writing is so wonderfully clever and precise.  I liked pretty much everything about the book – the developments in the relationship between Stephen Marbleton and Olivia, which is plagued by seemingly insurmountable difficulties;  the inclusion of a past, lesbian love affair for Mrs. Watson and the subtle discussions of colonialism and the British Raj; and I was pleased to see Charlotte starting to face up to the truth of her feelings for Lord Ingram, and the uncertainty she’s feeling as to how they can return to their old, comfortable association now they’ve been (albeit very briefly) lovers. The mystery is as detailed, complex and well-executed as ever, and I enjoyed the ensemble nature of the story – including the appearance of Lieutenant Leighton Attwood from the author’s My Beautiful Enemy (and a nice nod to that novel’s heroine).  But after the drama of The Hollow of Fear and its late-book revelations about Lord Ingram’s (soon-to-be ex-) wife, his brother’s betrayal, and the steps forward and steps back in the complicated relationship between Lord Ingram and Charlotte, The Art of Theft sometimes felt as though it was treading water somewhat. The characters face physical danger, for sure, but the stakes simply don’t seem as high for them personally as in the previous book and I wasn’t as completely gripped by this story as I was by previous instalments.  I suspect Ms. Thomas is keeping her powder dry, though.  Looking at the bigger picture; with the middle book (The Hollow of Fear) of a five book series reaching a high point in the story arc,  it makes sense that following book (The Art of Theft) would be a kind of ‘interlude’ or transition before heading into the finale, which I am sure is going to be a corker, given the cliffhanger at the end of the last chapter of this one!**

Still, with all that said, The Art of Theft is a cracking tale, a sophisticated, fantastically well-conceived mystery featuring richly-detailed settings and fully rounded, multi-faceted characters whose relationship are drawn with considerable skill and insight. It may not be my favourite of the series, but it’s still a terrific read, and one I’m more than happy to recommend.

**Note: Since this review was posted, the author has informed me that she has plans for more than five books in total, and that “book 3 isn’t the middle of the arc, but more like the turning point at the end of act 1.”

The Duchess in His Bed (Sins for All Seasons #4) by Lorraine Heath (audiobook) – Narrated by Kate Reading

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

For a duchess with practical desires, falling in love is an inconceivable part of her plan…

As owner of the Elysium Club which caters to women’s fantasies, Aiden Trewlove is accustomed to introducing adventurous ladies to sin and vice. But he is uncharacteristically intrigued by the mysterious beauty who visits his club one night, yearning to indulge in the forbidden – with him. Drawn to her indomitable spirit, he breaks his rule of never becoming personally involved with his clientele and is determined to fully awaken her desires.

A recent widow, Selena Sheffield, Duchess of Lushing, has never known passion, not until Aiden’s slow, sensual seduction leads her on a journey of discovery and incredible pleasure. But her reasons for visiting the notorious club are not all that they seem.

As Selena’s motives become complicated by love, she finds herself with a most unexpected choice: forge ahead with a secret plan that could secure her future – or follow her heart which could prove ruinous.

Rating: Narration: A; Content: C+

I’ve said before that I’m a fan of Lorraine Heath’s and it’s no secret that Kate Reading is one of my all-time favourite narrators. But The Duchess in His Bed, book four in the Sins for All Seasons series was a real slog and I had difficulty getting through it. The plot is fairly simple, albeit one that presented certain ethical dilemmas, but there was so much padding that I zoned out for periods of time, and found that so little had happened during those periods that I didn’t need to rewind to catch up with what was going on.

Her Grace, Selena, Duchess of Lushing, has been recently widowed. Hers was an arranged marriage, but her husband was a good man and while she wasn’t in love with him, she did love him and is genuinely grieving for him. Or she would be, if she had the time to grieve, but she doesn’t, due to another pressing concern. She and Lushing have no children and he came from a family that was not only short-lived, but also not prolific when it came to procreation. Thus, there are no male heirs to his title or the wealth that goes with it and everything will pass to the crown, leaving Selena with a comfortable income, but not one comfortable enough to enable her to ensure her sisters make good matches. Her brother, the Earl of Camberley, spends most of his time and money gaming and living the high life, despite the parlous state of the family finances, so there will be no help for her sisters coming from that quarter. But Camberley comes up with an incredibly risky plan. If Selena can bear a child within ten months of her husband’s death, he or she will be recognised as Lushing’s legitimate heir. If the baby is a boy, he’ll become the next duke, it it’s a girl, the title will pass into escheat, but the entailment is constructed in such a way as to allow a female to inherit the wealth and lands of the dukedom and will thus retain an elevated position in society.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

How to Love a Duke in Ten Days (The Devil You Know #1) by Kerrigan Byrne (audiobook) – Narrated by Derek Perkins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Famed and brilliant, Lady Alexandra Lane has always known how to look out for to herself. But nobody would ever expect that she has darkness in her past – one that she pays a blackmailer to keep buried. Now, with her family nearing bankruptcy, Alexandra strikes upon a solution: Get married to one of the empire’s most wealthy eligible bachelors. Even if he does have the reputation of a devil.

Love takes no prisoners.

Piers Gedrick Atherton, the Duke of Redmayne, is seeking revenge and the first step is securing a bride. Winning a lady’s hand is not so easy, however, for a man known as the Terror of Torcliff. Then, Alexandra enters his life like a bolt of lightning. When she proposes marriage, Piers knows that, like him, trouble haunts her footsteps. But her gentleness, sharp wit, independent nature, and incredible beauty awakens every fierce desire within him. He will do whatever it takes to keep her safe in his arms.

Rating: Narration: A-; Content: B

The first thing I’m going to say about How to Love a Duke in Ten Days, the first book in Kerrigan Byrne’s new Devil You Know series is this: don’t let the cutesy title fool you. Unlike most of the romances out there with dumb movie or song rip-off titles, this isn’t a light-hearted, fluffy historical rom-com. Ms. Byrne has become known for writing fairly dark stories featuring damaged characters with troubled pasts, filled with purple-tinged prose and melodrama, and this is no different. The book opens with what’s become one of the author’s trademarks – an impactful yet disturbing prologue set some years in the past that details a traumatic event in the life of one of the leads. In this case, there’s a scene of sexual assault and murder, and listeners should be aware that the assault and its effects on the heroine in terms of how she views men and relationships are mentioned throughout. And while it’s possible to avoid listening to the event itself, skipping the prologue in its entirety will mean missing out on meeting Alexandra’s friends (and future heroines) and the events that bind them together.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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.

When news of his new appointment reaches Lady Lucie’s ears, she realises a change of strategy is required, and that she needs to know more about the duke. To his end, she hatches a plan whereby she, Annabelle and a couple of other ladies will be invited to the house party being held at Claremont, the duke’s country home, with a view to finding out as much about the duke as they can in the attempt to ‘know thine enemy’.

Of course, the house party offers the chance for Sebastian and Annabelle to meet again, and to get to know each other. The spark both felt at their initial meeting really flares to life, and the author does a fantastic job building their romance in a believable manner that enables them to stay true to themselves. Their conversations and interactions are delightful; their flirtations via philosophical discussions and the way Sebastian shows the degree to which he really sees Annabelle through his selection of books for her are completely swoonworthy, and the longing they feel for one another is palpable.

Their romance is a delicious slow-burn, which fits their characters and situations perfectly. Both of them are well aware of the difficulties which lie in the path of a relationship between a duke and a commoner, and unlike so much historical romance, which just sweeps those things under the carpet, the author handles this aspect of the story in a way that feels completely authentic for the period. That said, however, I really don’t like that whole ‘I can’t marry you because I love you too much to ruin you’ thing, which I always feel is one character accusing the other of not knowing his or her own mind – and it’s one of the reasons I couldn’t quite push this up into the DIK bracket. Annabelle’s insistence on self-sacrifice felt out of character and also left Sebastian to do all the hard work while she did nothing to fight for what she wanted. I also felt Sebastian to be somewhat underdeveloped as a character, especially compared to Annabelle, and there are a few places where the pacing is a little off; the circling around one particular issue goes on a little too long, and there are a few plot points (notably one concerning Annabelle’s romantic past) that are under-explored.

On the surface, Bringing Down the Duke is nothing we haven’t seen before – uptight-duty-bound-hero-meets-unconventional-young-woman-who-gets-him-to-loosen-up-a-bit is a well-used plotline. Here though, the author breathes fresh life into the trope by giving her principals a real depth of character that’s been lacking in so many of the historical romances I’ve read lately. Annabelle is fully aware that her pursuit of an education and personal freedom, together with her espousal of the cause of women’s suffrage could have serious consequences for her, but these things are terribly important to her and she’s prepared to fight for them. She’s not loud or flashy (in the manner of Lady Lucie) but she’s no less committed, and her quiet determination adds weight and seriousness to her character and keeps the tone of the story grounded in reality. She’s a different sort of heroine just as Sebastian is a different sort of hero; he isn’t a cold, ruthless man with daddy issues, he’s a man genuinely dedicated to doing the best he can for those he cares for, and there’s the real sense that his association with Annabelle is gradually changing him because she’s opening his eyes to things he hadn’t previously seen or considered. Sebastian and Annabelle’s pasts inform their characters, but they also act according to their own lights and carve their own individuality separately from their upbringings and circumstances.

I can’t finish this review without mentioning the (horrible) cover. It appears to be yet another attempt by the marketing folks at persuading potential readers that they won’t get infected by those nasty romance cooties if they read this book in much the same way so many contemporaries (Fix Her Up, The Hating Game, The Right Swipe etc.) are doing at the moment. I confess that I’m not a huge fan of the dress-falling-off-half-naked-clinch covers either, but this one looks like something daubed in a kid’s fingerpainting class!

So don’t judge this book by its cover – or its title, which doesn’t make much sense either. Bringing Down the Duke is an impressive début novel that’s firmly grounded in its historical setting and manages to offer some insightful social comment without bashing the reader over the head with it. The writing is intelligent and accomplished, the central characters are engaging and three-dimensional, and the romance is sensual and tender. I’m looking forward to reading more by Evie Dunmore.

A Reflection of Shadows (The Elemental Web Tales #3) by Anne Renwick

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Shunned for her odd eyes and an unnerving habit of slipping into shadows, Lady Colleen Stewart refuses to be caged–should she decide to marry, it’ll be for love and to a man of her choice. After all, she’d rather be racing over rooftops than waltzing across ballroom floors. So when the only man to ever tempt her heart invites her on a covert mission, she leaps into danger.

Nicholas Torrington, Queen’s agent, is running out of time. While work has him chasing his tail, his sister grows increasingly ill, and Colleen, the woman he would make his bride, has acquired another, determined suitor. To coax his favorite thief back into his arms, he’ll break every rule and lead her through the underbelly of London on a hunt for a mad scientist and a cure for his sister.

But the discovery of a burned-out laboratory provides more questions than answers, and they find themselves caught in a deadly game where they have become the prey. Surviving the ambitions of their pursuers will bring everything into sharp focus as they risk their very lives.

Rating: B-

A Reflection of Shadows is the third (and latest) book in Anne Renwick’s  Elemental Web Chronicles – part of her steampunk series set in an alternate Victorian London.  Each of the books features a different central couple and self-contained plot, and are thus designed to work as standalones; however, coming late to the party did have an effect on my reading experience,  as I found myself a little lost to start with.  With six books and a number of novellas and short stories set in this world already published, I’m guessing most of the worldbuilding was done in earlier books; had I read some of those, I may have got up to speed more quickly. But it’s often the reviewer’s lot to review series books out of order, so all I can do in this instance is say that if you like the sound of this one, you should probably pick up some of the earlier books in the series first.

Lady Colleen Stewart is just three days away from her twenty-fifth birthday, which will see her come into her inheritance of Craigieburn in Scotland, and into the fortune that goes with it.  After her father’s death, her uncle, Lord Maynard, became her guardian, and she can’t wait to finally be free of him and of London – although she’ll miss her aunt Isabella, who is expecting her first child.  While Colleen and her uncle don’t get along, he has at least never put any pressure on her to marry – until now, when he seems desperate to ensure her marriage to one Mr. Glover (whom Colleen had once – stupidly, she now acknowledges – taken as a lover).  Colleen refuses in no uncertain terms; not only does she not want to marry Glover, she resents the attempt to force her into marriage.  Besides, she is strongly attracted to Queen’s Agent Nicholas Torrington and has just agreed to allow him to court her.

Nicholas is a scientist – a cardiophysiologist – as well as a Queen’s Agent, and is desperate to find a treatment for his sister, whose heart is seriously damaged and could give out any day.  He’s heard whispers of a scientist who has invented some sort of electrical device (akin to a pacemaker from the sound of it) that could save Anna – and learning the man is obsessed with the concept of transmutation gives Nick the opportunity to combine his current investigation into the operation of a shadowy organisation dabbling in sorcery with his search for the device.

It also affords him an unusual way to court his lady. Knowing of Colleen’s nocturnal activities as an operative for Witherspoon and Associates – a company that handles ‘private matters’ with discretion – her love of a challenge, her ability to move swiftly through London’s shadows and her keen night vision, Nick asks for her help in searching Dr. Farquhar’s laboratory – but their plans are thwarted when they arrive to find the house on fire – and Farquhar missing.

With Nick on the trail of an underground organisation believed to be experimenting on humans in the attempt to prove the existence of shifters, his search for a cure for his sister, and Colleen becoming unwittingly entangled in her uncle’s nefarious dealings, there’s quite a lot going on in this novel, but Ms. Renwick cleverly weaves her plot-threads together, arriving at the climax of the story to expose a truly despicable scheme.  The villain is a really nasty piece of work, and the author creates a strong sense of peril as Colleen and Nick have to use all their ingenuity and determination in order to keep themselves alive and try to find a way out of a seemlngly hopeless situation.  (And there are a few moments that are not for the squeamish!)  I found myself racing through the second half of the book, as the plot twists and pacing kicked up – although the way things were resolved was something of an anticlimax.

A Reflection of Shadows was an entertaining read with a well-constructed plot, a pair of engaging protagonists and a handful of nicely-drawn secondary characters.  I liked Nick and Colleen, who clearly knew and understood one another well and has the good sense to admit they’d met their match in each other.  But on the downside, I felt as though the romantic and character development must have happened in the previous books in the series, because  their relationship here is pretty much a done deal, so what we get is an established couple working together to bring down the bad guys – which is fine; they’re well-matched and work together well.  But it’s not what I was expecting.

The writing is strong and Ms. Renwick can clearly create likeable characters and craft an intriguing plot, but my disappointment in the romance means I can only award the novel a qualified recommendation.  That said, I liked enough about it to be interested in reading more of the author’s work, so I may go back and pick up some of the earlier books in the series at some point.