TBR Challenge: Kiss of Steel (London Steampunk #1) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

When Nowhere Is Safe

Most people avoid the dreaded Whitechapel district. For Honoria Todd, it’s the last safe haven as she hides from the Blue Blood aristocracy that rules London through power and fear.

Blade rules the rookeries – no one dares cross him. It’s been said he faced down the Echelon’s army single–handedly, that ever since being infected by the blood–craving he’s been quicker, stronger, and almost immortal.

When Honoria shows up at his door, his tenuous control comes close to snapping. She’s so…innocent. He doesn’t see her backbone of steel-or that she could be the very salvation he’s been seeking.

Rating: B+

Published in 2012, Kiss of Steel is Bec McMaster’s début novel and the first in her London Steampunk series.  Rather like Kristen Callihan’s Darkest London novels, the books in this series are set in a recognisable Victorian London, which enables the author to get right into the story without the need for extensive description, as the locations and references to things like the London Underground and the rookeries are already familiar.  She can then focus on initiating the reader into her vision of London as a grim, dangerous and divided city where the elite, quasi-vampires known as blue bloods rule and regard all other species – humans, mechs, verwulfen – as scum, useful only to them as menial workers, servants or thralls, slaves who provide a supply of fresh blood in exchange for protection. The blue bloods will stop at nothing to retain their power and influence, their superhuman strength and ability to self-heal making them virtually indestructible. But these abilities come at a price, as the virus to which they owe them – a virus they deliberately pass from generation to generation  – will eventually turn each blue blood into a fully-fledged vampire, a mindless, almost invincible killer; and to prevent that happening, anyone showing signs of entering the Fade (a pre-vampyric state) is summarily executed.

Ms. McMaster does a fabulous job of getting across all those facts – and many more – during the story as and when the reader needs them without resorting to static info-dumps which disrupt the flow.  The world she has created is a fascinating one that mirrors actual Victorian society in the huge divide that exists between the haves and have-nots, as well as putting a different twist on familiar paranormal tropes and setting the stage for the conflict between blue bloods and the other races that is going to run throughout the five full-length novels and two novellas that comprise the series.

Until the death of their scientist father six months ago, Honoria Todd and her younger siblings, Lena and Charlie, had lived under the protection of the Echelon, the ruling class formed of the highest aristocratic houses of the British Empire.  Artemus Todd was working to find a vaccine against the craving virus, principally to prevent the accidental infection of servants, thralls, women and anyone else the Echelon deemed unworthy. But Todd also had a hidden purpose; he theorised that if sufficient numbers of the uninfected aristocracy and their children could be inoculated against the craving virus, the blue bloods would eventually die out.  Unfortunately, he died before he could complete his experiments and Honoria and her siblings disappeared with his diary/notebook, infuriating Todd’s former patron, Lord Vickers, who has put a massive price on Honoria’s head.

The family has retreated to the one part of London that is more or less safe from the Echelon, the rookeries of Whitechapel, where Honoria changes her name and works as a finishing tutor at a local school.  Life is hard; she doesn’t make enough money to keep them warm and fed, but even worse, Charlie has been accidentally infected with the craving virus and the medicine needed to keep it at bay is extremely expensive.  Rogue blue bloods – anyone infected unintentionally or deemed unworthy – are not tolerated by the Echelon so Honoria is desperate to keep Charlie’s condition hidden for fear he will be taken away and either enslaved or killed.  Worried about her siblings, their lack of money, the fate awaiting them if they are discovered…  the last thing Honoria needs is a summons from the Devil of Whitechapel himself, Blade, a rogue blue blood who managed to escape the Echelon and make an empire of his own among the rookeries where he has ruled for the past fifty years.  Nothing happens in Whitechapel without Blade’s knowing about it or allowing it, and the people who life on his turf are expected to pay for protection in one way or another.  Having no wish to become his mistress or his thrall, Honoria offers the only thing she can; her services as a teacher of elocution and etiquette three evenings a week.

This rather odd bargain is the jumping off point for an action-packed, steamy and very well-devised story with a heartbreaking twist towards the end that had me glued to every single page.  Blade and Honoria are strongly-written, flawed characters you can’t help but root for, and there’s an equally well-fleshed-out secondary cast, many of whom will no doubt feature as future heroes and heroines in their own books.  At first glance, Blade is the sort of damaged alpha-hero found in many romances, but his struggles against the inner darkness that threatens him and the traumatic events of his past nonetheless made me care about him and want him to triumph over them. He’s got his own brand of charm, too; most definitely a diamond-in-the rough, he takes no prisoners but is deeply loyal to those he considers his own, and especially to the small ‘family’ he has built around him.  He delights in rattling the rather starchy Honoria and delights just as much when she gives back as good as she gets – although he readily admits to himself that sometimes she confuses the hell out of him.  Honoria is stubborn, intelligent and strong-willed; her desperation to protect her brother leads her to make one or two questionable decisions, and also to keep the truth of Charlie’s situation from the one man she knows who could help her for perhaps a bit too long.   It’s somewhat frustrating to read, but it does make sense in the context of her character; she’s had to become completely self-reliant and to eye everything and everyone she encounters with suspicion in order to keep her family safe and hidden.

The relationship between this unlikely couple crackles with sexual tension from the moment they meet, and their romance is superbly developed.  Large, well-muscled, brooding and careless of his appearance, Blade is the complete opposite of the elegant, pale-skinned, ennui-laden aristocrats amongst whom  Honoria grew up, so she is surprised at the strength of the fascination she feels toward the dangerous, rogue blue blood who is everything she’s never wanted.  Blade is just as drawn to the prim Honoria, sensing straight away that she is keeping secrets and determined to get them out of her. He’s impressed by her courage and inventiveness, her loyalty and her inner strength; they’re a great couple, the love scenes are sensual and earthy and their HEA is hard fought and well-deserved.

Kiss of Steel is a wonderfully imaginative, dark and gripping read featuring a seriously sexy and intense hero, a spunky heroine and an intriguing cast of secondary characters.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and am eagerly looking forward to the next in the series, Heart of Iron.

Advertisements

An Unsuitable Heir (Sins of the Cities #3) by K.J. Charles

This title may be purchased from Amazon

On the trail of an aristocrat’s secret son, enquiry agent Mark Braglewicz finds his quarry in a music hall, performing as a trapeze artist with his twin sister. Graceful, beautiful, elusive, and strong, Pen Starling is like nobody Mark’s ever met—and everything he’s ever wanted. But the long-haired acrobat has an earldom and a fortune to claim.

Pen doesn’t want to live as any sort of man, least of all a nobleman. The thought of being wealthy, titled, and always in the public eye is horrifying. He likes his life now—his days on the trapeze, his nights with Mark. And he won’t be pushed into taking a title that would destroy his soul.

But there’s a killer stalking London’s foggy streets, and more lives than just Pen’s are at risk. Mark decides he must force the reluctant heir from music hall to manor house, to save Pen’s neck. Betrayed by the one man he thought he could trust, Pen never wants to see his lover again. But when the killer comes after him, Pen must find a way to forgive—or he might not live long enough for Mark to make amends.

Rating: B

I freely admit that I’ve been chomping at the bit to get my hands on this third and final instalment of K.J. Charles’ Sins of the Cities trilogy, eager to discover who has been violently disposing of anyone with knowledge of the missing heir to the Moreton earldom and to find out how all the pieces of the puzzle the author has so cleverly devised fit together.

Note: The books in this series could be read as standalones (although I wouldn’t advise it!), but there is an overarching plot that runs through all three, so there are spoilers in this review.

A trail of arson and murder began – literally – on the doorstep of unassuming lodging house keeper, Clem Tallyfer, when the dead, mutilated body of one of his lodgers, the drunken, foul-mouthed Reverend Lugtrout, was dumped on the front steps.  An investigation by two of Clem’s friends – journalist Nathaniel Roy and private enquiry agent, Mark Braglewicz – revealed that someone was trying to do away with anyone who knew that the Earl of Morton (Clem’s half-brother) had committed bigamy.  He entered into a marriage in his youth with a beautiful young woman of low social standing and soon abandoned her, not knowing she was pregnant. She gave birth to twins – a boy and a girl she named Repentance and Regret – who have since disappeared without trace. These facts have set in train a series of events which have led to blackmail, abduction, arson and murder; someone is killing those with any knowledge of the earl’s first marriage and is trying to find his children – most importantly his legal heir – likely with similarly nefarious intent.

In the previous book, An Unnatural Vicewe discovered that the twins – who go by Pen and Greta – have been hiding in plain sight for the past decade, earning money and acclaim as the Flying Starlings, the music-hall trapeze act Clem takes Rowley Green (the object of his affections) to see near the beginning of book one, An Unseen Attraction (hah! Clever, Ms. Charles – they’re an ‘attraction’ and are also ‘unseen’ for who they really are ;)).  Following Moreton’s death, the killer – whose identity and motivations remain unknown – steps up his attempts to find the twins, which is when Justin Lazarus, medium extraordinaire and self-proclaimed, all-round shifty bastard finds himself in big trouble. Forced to flee his home – and London – in fear for his life, when An Unsuitable Heir opens, Justin and Nathaniel Roy are hiding out at Nathaniel’s house in the country while Mark attempts to contact Pen and Greta and keep them safely hidden until such time as Pen can stake his claim to the title.

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

A Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock #2) by Sherry Thomas

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The game is afoot as Charlotte Holmes returns in the atmospheric second novel in USA Today bestseller Sherry Thomas’s Victorian-set Lady Sherlock series.

Being shunned by Society gives Charlotte Holmes the time and freedom to put her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, she’s had great success helping with all manner of inquiries, but she’s not prepared for the new client who arrives at her Upper Baker Street office.

Lady Ingram, wife of Charlotte’s dear friend and benefactor, wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who failed to show up at their annual rendezvous. Matters of loyalty and discretion aside, the case becomes even more personal for Charlotte as the missing man is none other than Myron Finch, her illegitimate half brother.

In the meanwhile, Charlotte wrestles with a surprising proposal of marriage, a mysterious stranger woos her sister Livia, and an unidentified body surfaces where least expected. Charlotte’s investigative prowess is challenged as never before: Can she find her brother in time—or will he, too, end up as a nameless corpse somewhere in the belly of London?

Rating: A

Reviewing mysteries is always a challenge as anyone who’s tried it will know.  And with one of this calibre, it’s even more difficult, because I want to tell you just how GOOD this book is, but I can’t tell you too much for fear of giving too much away and spoiling your enjoyment.  I could just say a) “Sherry Thomas is a genius – go buy this book!”, or b) “Don’t waste time here – go buy this book!”,   but that isn’t much of a review, so I will attempt – somehow – to do justice to this terrific story and author… and will no doubt fail miserably, at which juncture you should simply heed the advice given in points a) and b).

Note: I think it would be possible to enjoy this as a standalone, but I really would recommend reading A Study in Scarlet Women first. There are spoilers for that book in this review.

A Conspiracy in Belgravia picks up on the day after the events that concluded the previous book.  Charlotte Holmes, ably assisted by her closest friend, Lord Ingram Ashburton, and Inspector Treadles of Scotland Yard, has solved the Sackville murder case and learned of the existence of an infamous criminal mastermind by the name of Moriarty.  In addition, Charlotte worked out that that Lord Ingram – Ash to his friends – had pulled strings behind the scenes in order to make sure she wasn’t left alone on the streets after she ran from her father’s house, and orchestrated her meeting with the army widow and former actress with whom Charlotte now resides, Mrs. John Watson.  Charlotte doesn’t like being beholden to Ash, especially not as their friendship, while generally strong, has been sometimes strained since his ill-advised marriage six years earlier.

Charlotte and Mrs. Watson have formed a working partnership as investigators, using the identity of Sherlock Holmes as a front for their operation.  Holmes suffers from a debilitating illness, so clients meet with his ‘sister’ – Charlotte – while the detective listens to the conversation from the next room.  It’s with some surprise that Charlotte identifies their latest prospective client, Mrs. Finch, as Lady Ingram, Ash’s wife.  Mrs Watson is concerned about accepting the lady as a client given their friendship with her husband, but Charlotte believes her need must be very pressing if it has driven her to seek Holmes’ help, and agrees to the meeting – although as Charlotte cannot afford to be recognised, the part of Sherlock’s sister will be taken by Mrs. Watson’s niece, Penelope Redmayne.  ‘Mrs. Finch’ explains that she is seeking information regarding the man she fell in love with before she married Lord Ingram, a young man deemed unsuitable by her parents, whose financial situation demanded she marry someone wealthy. While she and her erstwhile love agreed not to meet or write to each other once she was married, they planned a yearly assignation – on the Sunday before his birthday, they would both take a walk past the Albert Memorial at 3 pm, so they could each see that the other was alive and well. This year, however, her sweetheart did not keep the appointment, and she wants Sherlock Holmes to find out why. Penelope asks Lady Ingram for as many details as she can provide, but when she identifies the man in question as Myron Finch, Charlotte is stunned. Myron Finch is her illegitimate half-brother.

While Charlotte and Mrs. Watson set about looking into the disappearance of Mr. Finch, Charlotte is also mulling over the proposal of marriage she has received – the second one, in fact – from Lord Bancroft Ashburton, Lord Ingram’s older brother. Charlotte is fully cognizant of the benefits marriage to him would bring. It would rehabilitate her – to an extent – in the eyes of society and would soften her father’s stance towards her; she could care for her sister, Bernadette (who has some sort of mental disability) and could openly spend time with her other sister, Livia and generally return to the life to which she had been born. But even though Bancroft recognises and respects Charlotte’s keen intellect, he clearly expects her to discontinue her investigations as Sherlock Holmes, and she’s not sure that’s something she’s willing to give up.

As an inducement, Bancroft gifts Charlotte with a set of puzzles, which includes a message encoded using a Vignère cipher, a fiendishly difficult code that takes Charlotte some days to decipher. Once decoded, the message leads her to an address in Hounslow, North West of London, where she and Lord Ingram unexpectedly encounter Inspector Treadles. A man has been murdered – and appears to have named his killer before he died. Could he perhaps be the missing Mr. Finch? Or could he somehow be tied to Finch’s disappearance? Or, worse still, are Finch and the murder victim somehow tied to the mysterious Moriarty, a name which seems to inspire fear in those who know it, and someone of whom even the unflappable Bancroft seems to be wary?

Well… I’m not saying. As is clear, though, there’s a lot going on in this book, and I admit that I sometimes had to refer to the numerous highlights I’d made on my Kindle to refresh my memory about something, but for the most part, the story rattles along famously as Sherry Thomas skillfully pulls the disparate mystery threads together and then unravels them, bringing events to a climax I most certainly didn’t see coming. Just as impressive as her plotting is the way in which she continues to explore and develop her characters and the relationships between them, building on what we know of them from the previous book and rounding them out even more. We don’t see as much of Treadles in this story, but it’s clear that he’s been upset by the discovery of the deceit practiced by his good friend Lord Ingram (over Holmes’ true identity) and isn’t sure what to make of Charlotte any longer. There’s a romance in the offing for Livia, who is charmed by a mysterious young man who seems to see and appreciate her for who she is and doesn’t talk down to her or dismiss her interests; and we get to know a little more of the circumstances which led to Ash’s marriage to a society beauty he later learned had married him only for his money.

Anyone with any knowledge of this author’s work will already know that her work is highly creative and imaginative; she fashions strong, well-developed and engaging characters, crafts complex interweaving plots, and her historical romances are among the best in the genre. I should, however, warn anyone hoping for romantic developments between Charlotte and Ash that things between them don’t progress a great deal (if at all). The author sheds more light on Ash’s feelings towards Charlotte, showing he knows her better than anyone (and there’s a nice touch at the end where Charlotte both acknowledges this and admits she’s glad it’s Ash who knows her so well) and Charlotte… well, she doesn’t necessarily wish Ash had married her, she would just prefer he hadn’t married at all. She’s someone who relies on observation and logic and doesn’t have room for sentiment; yet in the face of all the logical reasons she should marry Bancroft, a small part of her can’t ignore the fact that she doesn’t find him attractive while his brother… is a different matter entirely.

There’s so much more to A Conspiracy in Belgravia than I can possibly say here. The characters, the relationships, the mystery … all are richly detailed and superbly constructed, making this a truly compelling, un-put-downable read. I stand by my original points a) and b). Just go and buy it.

Seducing Mr. Sykes (Cotswold Confidential #2) by Maggie Robinson

This title may be purchased from Amazon

No one at Puddling-on-the-Wold ever expected to see Sarah Marchmain enter through its doors. But after the legendary Lady’s eleventh-hour rejection of the man she was slated to marry, she was sent here to restore her reputation . . . and change her mind. It amused Sadie that her father, a duke, would use the last of his funds to lock her up in this fancy facility—she couldn’t be happier to be away from her loathsome family and have some time to herself. The last thing she needs is more romantic distraction . . .

As a local baronet’s son, Tristan Sykes is all too familiar with the spoiled, socialite residents of the Puddling Rehabilitation Foundation—no matter how real their problems may be. But all that changes when he encounters Sadie, a brave and brazen beauty who wants nothing more than to escape the life that’s been prescribed for her. If only Tristan could find a way to convince the Puddling powers-that-be that Sadie is unfit for release, he’d have a chance to explore the intense attraction that simmers between them—and prove himself fit to make her his bride . . .

Rating: B-

Readers return to Maggie Robinson’s fictional Cotswold village of Puddling-on-the-Wold for the second book in her Cotswold Confidential series, Seducing Mr. Sykes.  It’s a (mostly) lighthearted romantic comedy in which a determinedly unconventional young woman who doesn’t want to get married finds herself strongly attracted to a rather starchy young man who is intent on keeping his head down and living a quiet life.  It might not win any prizes for originality, but it’s a nicely-written, undemanding and fun read that kept me engaged and entertained for the time it took me to read it.

The small village of Puddling-on-the-Wold has for some decades, been used as a kind of rehabilitation centre for members of the nobility who have gone off the rails.  With a calmly ordered programme of healthful exercise and diet and a lack of anything vaguely stimulating, the village offers a simple, quiet environment for those sent there to take stock and make changes to their lives.  All the villagers are party to the reasons their ‘visitors’ are sent there and are in on the cures, and the place is now so popular as to be able to provide a decent living for the people who live there.  Puddling’s board of trustees is now run by the absentee Sir Betram Sykes, whose son, Tristan, takes his responsibilities to the place very seriously.  When a fire at one of the cottages means that the inhabitant – Lady Sarah Marchmain – must quickly find somewhere else to stay, he is not enamoured of the idea that she moves to Sykes House while the cottage is repaired and made habitable again.  It’s not that Tristan is especially worried about the proprieties;  he doesn’t actually live in the house, preferring to reside at a small folly in the grounds which he, an architect by profession, has modified to suit his own taste and comfort.  But Lady Sarah –Sadie – is a handful of tall, well-endowed, red-haired impetuosity and Tristan – whose scandalous divorce some years previously from a woman of similarly high-spirits has left him somewhat wary of women in general – wants as little to do with her as possible.

Sadie has been sent to Puddling by her father, the Duke of Islesford,  whose regard for her extends only as far as she can be useful to him.  Being a man who keeps a lavish lifestyle and likes to gamble, he’s in debt and looking to sell his daughter – who stands to inherit a substantial fortune on her twenty-fifth birthday – to the highest bidder.  Sadie’s hoydenish behaviour has already frightened off a couple of would-be suitors, and the duke is getting desperate.  Puddling is his final attempt to get her to toe the line before he commits her to an asylum and takes control of her money.  Most of the village’s guests stay for a month before returning home, but Sadie has already been there for an extra week and continues to behave outrageously in the hope that she will be able to prolong her stay while she searches for a means to escape her father.  The problem, however is that the all-too-handsome Tristan Sykes seems to have seen through her scheme to extend her stay and is completely wise to her attempts to make herself appear unstable and still in need of treatment.  So in a way, the fire (which wasn’t her doing) is a blessing in disguise as it will get her out of the village, away from the watchful eyes – and perhaps give her a chance to make her escape.

Things take an unexpected turn, however, when Tristan comes upon Sadie in a state of undress while she is exploring the attics looking for something to wear (all her clothes were lost in the fire) and is shortly followed by her father, who immediately accuses Tristan of compromising his daughter and insists the two of them get married.  Appalled, the couple tries to tell the duke that nothing happened, but he insists, threatening to blacken Tristan’s name, brand him as unfit to have charge of a rehabilitation facility and ruin Puddling and its community in the process.

Maggie Robinson has crafted an entertaining and rather charming ‘opposites attract’ story which, for all its surface light-heartedness has some darker undertones.  Sadie hasn’t known any warmth or affection since the death of her mother when she was a child; and her father’s plan to put her in an asylum was, sadly, not an unheard of one at the time, when locking away ‘troublesome’ females was an easy solution when a woman didn’t fit the accepted pattern or do as she was told.  Tristan’s status as a divorced man had a deleterious effect on his life and career and now all he wants is to live a quiet life, without the sort of tempers and tantrums his first – now deceased – wife was prone to.  He fights his attraction to Sadie at first, because her behaviour leads him to believe that she is unstable – which, to be fair, is what she wants him to think – but as he comes to know her and to know her story, he realises he has misjudged her and that he wants to keep her close.

The author has a deft touch with the humour and has created two likeable characters who have to leave behind their emotional baggage if they are to make a life together.  They have strong chemistry and the love scenes are sensual and well-written, but I have a couple of reservations overall that prevent me from rating the book more highly.  One is that Tristan so easily takes comments made by Sadie’s father and former fiancé at face value, and the other is that while Sadie’s behaviour is understandable given the way she has been treated by her father, her mulish, immature antics continue way past the point at which my understanding gave way to irritation.

With those provisos in mind, if you’re looking for a fairly light-hearted, amusing and sensual historical romance, I’d venture to suggest that Seducing Mr. Sykes might fit the bill.

The Secret of the India Orchid by Nancy Campbell Allen

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Anthony Blake is in love with his best friend’s sister, Sophia Elliot. But his plans to court her are put on hold when he is forced to resume his role as an undercover spy for the Crown. A secret document listing the names of the entire network of British spies-including his own-has been stolen. To protect Sophia, Anthony cuts off all ties to her and exchanges his life as an honorable earl for the façade of a flirtatious playboy.

Heartbroken and confused, Sophia travels to India, hoping to find healing in one of the most exotic regions of the British Empire. But the exotic land isn’t as restful as she had hoped. Instead, she finds herself embroiled in a mystery of a missing sea captain, a possible murder, and a plot that could involve the prince of India. And when Anthony appears at the British Residency, asking questions and keeping his distance from her, she is stunned.

She still loves him, and, in her heart, she knows he loves her too. But how can she rebuild her relationship with him if he won’t confide in her? Does she dare offer her heart to him a second time, or will their love be lost under the India sun?

Rating: D+

Nancy Campbell Allen’s The Secret of the India Orchid appealed to me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, much as I enjoy historical romances set in Europe, I’m always happy to see ones sent in more far-flung locations; and secondly, the premise of a dashing spy forced to conceal his true nature and purpose beneath the façade of a wastrel in order to protect his nearest and dearest is a trope that I enjoy when done well. Sadly, however, neither of those elements is particularly well-executed, and, together with weak characterisation and poor plotting, made for a plodding, insipid read overall.

Anthony Blake, Earl of Wilshire has been in love with his best friend’s sister, Sophia Elliot, for some time and is about to ask for permission to court her when his former boss and spymaster, Lord Braxton tells him that he must undertake one, last mission. Anthony, who was relieved to get out of the spying game a couple of years earlier upon assuming his title, is not best pleased at being drafted back into service, but when Braxton tells him of the theft of the Janus Document – which contains sensitive information about British agents, their families, their habits and every aspect of their lives, any of which could potentially be used as leverage against them – Anthony reluctantly agrees to retrieve it.

Two years later, still heartbroken over Anthony’s sudden departure and wanting to get away from her memories of him in England, Sophia lands in India, intending to spend some time there under the sponsorship of Lady Pilkington. She is, however, destined not to be able to use distance to lessen her attachment to Anthony because he’s recently arrived in Bombay on the next leg of his tour of carefree fun and frolic (as she thinks), and in reality still on the trail of the Janus Document. All Braxton could tell him about the theft was that he believed it had been perpetrated by someone who worked for him, Harold Miller. Anthony has received word that Miller’s uncle, a sea captain, is a guest of the Pilkington’s, hence his presence in Bombay. He believes the nephew may have passed the document to Captain Miller and intends to meet with him and interrogate him, but before he can do so, the captain is murdered and the contents of Lord Pilkington’s safe mysteriously disappear.

With the help of his friend, Captain Dylan Stuart of the First Light Cavalry, Anthony now has to find a murderer as well as the missing document, but in order to maintain his cover as a carefree wastrel, has to make it seem as though Stuart is conducting the investigation and he’s just along for the ride, which annoys him no end. Almost as much as it annoys him to see Sophia singled out for attention by other men.  And Sophia, who was deeply hurt by Anthony’s assertions (in his “Dear John” letter) that he viewed her as nothing more than a sister and good friend, twists the knife further when she asks him to help her to select a husband from among her admirers.

*sigh*

The problems with The Secret of the India Orchid are many, and add up to this; it’s a clichéd, dull book with no action, no sense of time or place and no romance to speak of.  Anthony and Sophia are in love from the beginning and stay that way; there is nothing in the writing to suggest their attitude towards each other has changed during their two year separation apart from Sophia’s slightly sarcastic responses to him when they meet again, and their relationship is pretty static.  All that happens is that Anthony finally tells her the truth (and I confess I did rather enjoy it when Sophia refuses to believe him at first) and they return to their former lovey-doveyness; and as characters, they’re bland and too good to be true.  In terms of the setting, other than the mention of curry, the odd Indian custom and the use of Indian names, there’s nothing to suggest the location and quite honestly, the book could have been set anywhere.  The mystery is weak and its solution depends on an overheard conversation; the identity of one of the perpetrators seems to be the result of drawing names from a hat, and the other is telegraphed from a mile away.

Ms. Campbell Allen’s writing is decent, but that can’t compensate for the books’ other deficiencies.  I read it so you don’t have to – give it a miss.

The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal by K.J. Charles


This title may be purchased from Amazon

A story too secret, too terrifying—and too shockingly intimate—for Victorian eyes.

A note to the Editor

Dear Henry,

I have been Simon Feximal’s companion, assistant and chronicler for twenty years now, and during that time my Casebooks of Feximal the Ghost-Hunter have spread the reputation of this most accomplished of ghost-hunters far and wide.

You have asked me often for the tale of our first meeting, and how my association with Feximal came about. I have always declined, because it is a story too private to be truthfully recounted, and a memory too precious to be falsified. But none knows better than I that stories must be told.

So here is it, Henry, a full and accurate account of how I met Simon Feximal, which I shall leave with my solicitor to pass to you after my death.

I dare say it may not be quite what you expect.

Robert Caldwell
September 1914

Rating: B+

As often happens, I’m doing things the wrong way around, because I’m finally reading this AFTER I’ve read Spectred Isle, which isn’t really a sequel, but which is set in the same world as the Simon Feximal stories. But better late than never.

The Casebook of Simon Feximal is a set of short stories featuring the eponymous “ghost hunter” and the man who becomes his long-term partner, both professionally and personally, Robert Caldwell. K.J. Charles has penned a set of extremely imaginative and, in many cases (I’ll never look at a butterfly the same way again!), downright scary stories that span a period of over twenty years during which Simon is summoned to deal with any number of hauntings, evil manifestations and things do a fair bit more than go “bump” in the night. When the pair first meet, Robert is making his living as a journalist and has employed Simon to exorcise the spirits that are causing the walls to bleed in the house he has just inherited. Simon sees his role as setting the ghosts free by allowing them to tell their stories rather than simply banishing them back to wherever they came from, and in this particular case, the story involves a promiscuous relative who appears to have expired coitus interruptus and who wants to complete his final sexual encounter 😉 Yes, I’m going to make the joke – K.J. Charles really knows how to start a book with a bang!

*ahem*

While these are all short stories, there are some plotlines that run through more than one story, like the machinations of the horrible Dr. Berry, the Machiavellian Mr. Parker and the mysterious Fat Man. I also loved the nods to the literary creations of other authors of mystery and suspense, especially Karswell, from M.R. James’ Casting the Runes (which, as Night of the Demon, is one of my favourite old horror movies!).

The ending is incredibly poignant and brought tears to my eyes – and by sheer coincidence, I happen to be staying something like twenty miles from Ypres, where the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele on 30 and 31 July 1917 is taking place as I write. In one of life’s odd coincidences, I had no idea that Robert’s final letter would be from Passchendaele in 1917 and it added an extra note of sadness as I closed the book.

This is a great collection of stories that can be dipped into (although I’d advise reading in order) – but I defy anyone to be able to stop reading once they’ve started. The relationship between Simon and Robert begins quickly but over the years they develop a beautiful, intense connection which is largely unspoken – but their bond is so strong that it really doesn’t need words.

If you’re a fan of paranormal romances, I don’t see how you can go wrong with this one.

A Momentary Marriage by Candace Camp

This title may be purchased at Amazon

James de Vere has always insisted on being perfectly pragmatic and rational in all things. It seemed the only way to deal with his overdramatic, greedy family. When he falls ill and no doctor in London can diagnose him, he returns home to Grace Hill in search of a physician who can–or to set his affairs in order.

Arriving at the doctor’s home, he’s surprised to encounter the doctor’s daughter Laura, a young woman he last saw when he was warning her off an attachment with his cousin Graeme. Alas, the doctor is recently deceased and Laura is closing up the estate, which must be sold off, leaving her penniless. At this, James has an inspiration: why not marry the damsel in distress? If his last hope for a cure is gone, at least he’ll have some companionship in his final days, and she’ll inherit his fortune instead of his grasping relatives, leaving her a wealthy widow with plenty of prospects.

Laura is far from swept off her feet, but she’s as pragmatic as James, so she accepts his unusual proposal. But as the two of them brave the onslaught of shocked and suspicious family members, they find themselves growing closer.

Rating: B+

A Momentary Marriage is the sequel to Candace Camp’s A Perfect Gentleman, which is where we were introduced to Sir James de Vere and Miss Laura Hinsdale as secondary characters with no love lost between them.  The prospect of a marriage of convenience between these two antagonists was an enticing one, and the idea of the coolly collected James being brought low by a strange illness lent an added piquancy to its appeal.  Like its predecessor, the novel has a mystery woven through the principal romantic storyline, and while I can’t deny I’m reaching the stage when I’m starting to get just a bit tired of the tacked-on mystery that seems to have become almost de rigueur in historical romances, this one is integral to the story and doesn’t overshadow the development of the central relationship.

James, his cousin Graeme (hero of A Perfect Gentleman) and Laura have known each other since childhood, and, as teenagers, Laura and Graeme fell in love.  But Graeme was the heir to an impoverished earldom and needed to marry an heiress; Laura was the daughter of a country doctor, and a match between them was impossible.  It was James who, eleven years before, had gone to Laura and told her that she needed to let Graeme go so he could move on and do what needed to be done; and Laura, while heart-broken and not particularly well-disposed towards James, knew what he said was true and broke things off with the man she loved.

James de Vere is handsome, wealthy, charming and enigmatic; he’s witty and insightful, but reveals little of himself and is the sort of man who buries his emotions deep and needs to maintain control.  He has no great love for his immediate family and bears ties of affection to nobody except his cousin and his mastiff, Demosthenes – Dem – who is his constant companion.  But for some months now, he has been suffering from a mystery illness which is gradually getting worse, and none of the doctors he has seen can identify it or decide upon a treatment.  The diagnoses run from a bad heart to brain fever to tumors, but the one thing the medical men do agree on is that James hasn’t long left to live.

He is preparing to leave London to spend the time left to him at his estate in the country when Graeme persuades him to seek advice from Doctor Hinsdale.  James isn’t hopeful, but promises to do as his cousin asks, even though he’s tired and in pain and could do without making the detour to Canterbury.  Unfortunately, however, he arrives to discover that the doctor died two weeks earlier and that Laura has been left in straitened circumstances.  Knowing her to be a sensible, practical sort of woman, he makes a surprising suggestion that he believes will benefit them both.

James is the last person Laura expects to see, and the last man from whom she’d ever have thought to receive a proposal of marriage.  At first she isn’t sure he’s serious, but as he calmly points out, if she marries him, she’ll be a widow before long and he will make sure she is well provided for so she need never worry about debts or where her next meal is coming from.  He also tells her that he doesn’t want to leave everything he has to his grasping family; and that by marrying her, perhaps he is trying to atone for his past sins.  And, in a moment of blunt, heartbreaking honesty:

“Or maybe I just don’t want to face the end alone.”

Being James, however, he has to ruin the moment by following that up with a sarcastic rejoinder, but Laura sees the vulnerability beneath the insouciance and accepts his proposal, determining to help him however she can.

When Laura meets James’ immediate family, she starts to understand why he isn’t keen on the idea of bequeathing them any more than he absolutely has to, and why he has asked her to serve as one of the trustees of the fund he has set up to provide for them after his death. Once home, James begins to weaken alarmingly, his strength depleted by a serious fever and worsening symptoms.  Laura feels helpless, unable to find anything in her father’s medical books or notes that gives her any hope that James might recover, but she does everything she can to make him comfortable and tries not to give in to the despair she feels at the fact that this young, vital man she would like the opportunity to know better is slipping away from her.  She keeps his family at bay and fights for him every way she can, but his condition continues to deteriorate – until she makes an unexpected discovery that puts a completely different complexion on things.

As this is a romance, I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that James doesn’t die; and I’ve already mentioned that there’s a mystery to be solved, which, of course, relates to his illness and what caused it.  It’s quite an ingenious move on the author’s part, as she manages to give James a truly life-threatening condition while making it one from which he can plausibly recover.   But once he is on the mend, he and Laura are presented with a completely different problem.  She’d married him believing she would soon become a widow, but now they’re tied to each other for life, and Laura is sure she’s not the sort of wife James would have chosen had the circumstances been different.  Yet the time they spent together during his illness has created an unexpected intimacy between them, and now, there’s no denying the fact that they’re attracted to each other and have been for some time.

The evolution of the central relationship as it moves from mutual wariness and uncertainty to respect, affection and – eventually – love, is very well done, with some deeply affecting and lump-in-throat moments along the way. The couple comes a long way from their old animosity and realises that they may have been guilty of a number of misjudgements in the past, and one of the things I liked the most about the story is that they are generally open and honest with one another. The fact that James – a man who doesn’t trust easily – instinctively knows that he can trust Laura with anything and everything, says a lot about the strength of their growing friendship, and I enjoyed their mutual teasing and that they could say more or less anything to each other.  James doesn’t allow people to get emotionally close, either, and I was rooting hard tor Laura to break though those barriers and force him to confront the truth of his feelings for her.

A Momentary Marriage is a strongly written marriage of convenience story featuring a pair of attractive protagonists with great chemistry and a nice line in witty dialogue.  The identity of the villain of the piece is not too obvious (although a small secondary cast helps narrow it down), and while some of the supporting characters are somewhat stereotypical – the bitter sister, the fortune-hunting admirer, the disaffected younger brother – they serve as a good contrast to Laura, whose concern for and support of James is genuine and selfless.

If, like me, you’re a fan of this particular trope, and are always on the lookout for good, new examples of it, then I’d say A Momentary Marriage will likely fit the bill.