The Scot Beds His Wife (Victorian Rebels #5) by Kerrigan Byrne (audiobook) – Narrated by Derek Perkins

This title may be purchased from Audible

They’re rebels, scoundrels, and blackguards – dark, dashing men on the wrong side of the law. But for the women who love them, a hint of danger only makes the heart beat faster.

Gavin St. James, Earl of Thorne, is a notorious Highlander and an unrelenting Lothario who uses his slightly menacing charm to get what he wants-including too many women married to other men. But now, Gavin wants to put his shady past behind him…more or less. When a fiery lass who is the heiress to the land he wishes to possess drops into his lap, he sees a perfectly delicious opportunity.

A marriage most convenient

Samantha Masters has come back to Scotland, in a pair of trousers, and with a whole world of dangerous secrets from her time spent in the Wild West trailing behind her. Her only hope of protection is to marry – and to do so quickly. Gavin is only too willing to provide that service for someone he finds so disturbingly irresistible. But even as danger approaches, what begins as a scandalous proposition slowly turns into an all-consuming passion. And Gavin discovers that he will do whatever is necessary to keep the woman he has claimed as his own.

Rating: Narration – A: Content – B-

In The Scot Beds His Wife, author Kerrigan Byrne returns to the Scottish Highlands and the Mackenzie clan, this time focusing on Gavin St. James, Earl of Thorne, brother of Liam, the Marquess Ravenscroft (The Highlander) and half-brother of Dorian Blackwell (The Highwayman). [His mother was the old Marquess’ second wife and Gavin’s title comes through her side of the family, for anyone who is wondering (because it’s the sort of thing I wonder about!)]. Like his brothers, Gavin also suffered horribly at the hands of his cruel, depraved father; in fact, in the high-stakes, high-drama prologue which has become a trademark of this series, Ms. Byrne revisits the events of the prologue of The Highlander in which the debauched, ruthless old Laird forced his sons to torture a whore. When his father discovers Gavin pouring his heart out to his mother afterwards, he beats him and then literally throws him from the window and leaves him to the biting cold; bruised and with a broken collarbone, Gavin can do nothing but lie out there and listen to the beating his father then gives his mother until his best friend, Callum, finds him and gets him away.

As one would expect after an experience like that, Gavin is determined to disassociate himself from the Mackenzie family once and for all, and it’s this long-time driving force that leads him to want to purchase the abandoned neighbouring estate of Erradale. He currently manages the distillery owned by his older brother Liam – whom he once idolised and now hates – and wants out; Gavin has set his sights on cattle farming, and the extra land and the stock currently roaming Erradale will be just what he needs to get started while he waits for the Queen to grant him emancipation from the Mackenzie family.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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A Good Day to Marry a Duke (Sin and Sensibility #1) by Betina Krahn

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Daisy Bumgarten isn’t thrilled to be trying to catch a duke’s attention while dressed like a flower pot caught in a swarm of butterflies. But, after all, when in Rome (or in this case London society). . . . Since her decidedly disastrous debut among New York’s privileged set, the sassy Nevada spitfire’s last chance to “marry well” lies across the pond, here in England. If she must restrain her free spirit, not to mention her rib cage, so be it. She knows she owes it to her three younger sisters to succeed . . .

Now, under a countess’s tutelage, Daisy appears the perfect duchess-in-training . . . Until notorious ladies’ man Lord Ashton Graham, a distraction of the most dangerous kind, glimpses her mischievous smile and feisty nature—and attempts to unmask her motives. Daisy has encountered snakes on the range, but one dressed to the nines in an English drawing room is positively unnerving—and maddeningly seductive. When a veiled plot emerges to show up Daisy as unworthy of the aristocracy, will Ashton be her worst detractor? Or the nobleman she needs most of all?

Rating: B-

Betina Krahn is one of those authors I’ve been meaning to read for ages and haven’t got around to.  Most of her books were published before I got into reading romance in a big way, and she’s one of several authors whose backlists I mean to explore … when I get the time.  Happily for me, however, Ms. Krahn has embarked upon a new historical romance series entitled Sin and Sensibility, affording me the chance to sample something new from her. In the first book, A Good Day to Marry a Duke, we find an American heiress crossing the Atlantic – as did many so-called ‘dollar princesses’ in the late nineteenth century – in order to marry a titled gentleman.  She sets her sights upon the young and somewhat gauche Arthur Graham, Duke of Meridian, but she reckons without the havoc wreaked upon her emotions (and her libido) by his younger brother, Ashton, widely known as a rake of the highest order.

Daisy Bumgarten – and honestly, that name?  Are we supposed to think the heroine is a joke before the story even starts? – comes from a family whose money is so new that even the nouveau riche of New York society look down on them.  When Daisy scandalises all the other ladies present at the Bellington Hunt by wearing trousers under her skirts, riding astride, taking all the fences alongside the men and swigging spirits from her uncle’s flask, her mother is horrified and furiously points out that not only has Daisy ruined her own reputation by her reckless behaviour, but she has also scuppered her sisters’ reputations as well.  Daisy – at last – realises the enormity of what she’s done and decides she must make amends, so two years after the disastrous hunt, she travels to England with her uncle Redmond (Red) Strait and, having secured the sponsorship of the Countess of Kew, prepares to enter society and snare herself a duke. What better way to make it up to her mother and restore her sisters’ chances of marrying well?

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

A Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock #2) by Sherry Thomas (audiobook) – Narrated by Kate Reading


This title may be downloaded from Audible.

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 has had great success helping with all manner of inquiries, but she is 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: Narration – A+ : Content – A

This second book in Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock series is one of my most awaited releases of this year, and it fulfilled all my expectations. A Conspiracy in Belgravia picks up the day after the previous book, A Study in Scarlet Women concludes, and while might not be absolutely necessary to have read or listened to that in order to fully appreciate this latest instalment, I’d strongly recommend it, as one of the real delights of both books is the way the author presents and develops her characters. While we’re given enough information here to work out who is who and how everyone relates to one another, it’s not the same as experiencing it first hand in book one.

Please note that as this is an ongoing series, there are spoilers for the previous book in this review.

Listeners of A Study in Scarlet Woman will know that Charlotte, having thoroughly disgraced herself, ran away from home and is now living with Mrs. John Watson, a former actress and widow of an army officer. She and Charlotte have gone into the private investigation business together; Charlotte presents herself as the sister of Sherlock Holmes, an invalid with an exceptional talent for detection who listens to his clients from his sick bed while his “sister” speaks to them from the sitting room next door. Only a very few people know that Sherlock doesn’t exist, and the aim is to keep it that way.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Frail by Susannah Ives

This title may be purchased from Amazon

London socialite Helena Gillingham’s world is turned upside down when her father takes his own life after his fraudulent crimes are revealed. Cast from society and suddenly penniless, Helena must relocate to the Welsh mountains, only to learn that her new neighbor is none other than the notorious madman Theodotus Mallory. But is Theo really as mad as London society says?

Theo, tormented by the horrors he witnessed during the Crimean War, has finally found serenity in living a simple life tending to his gardens. Helena’s unexpected presence shatters that peace, for he harbors the devastating secret that led to her misfortunes. Now she is destitute and frightened because of him… and he can’t deny his mounting attraction to the beautiful young woman. Can he pursue a life with Helena, all the while knowing his role in her downfall?

Rating: B-

I’ve read a few books by Susanna Ives over the past couple of years and have come to the conclusion that she is at her best when she’s doing something a little different to the norm in historical romance. Her début novel, Rakes and Radishes turned the reformed rake trope on its head, and Wicked My Love was an entertaining enemies-to-lovers story featuring a gregarious hero and an awkward, maths genius heroine.  In fact, the least successful of the books of hers I’ve read was one in which she pursued a more conventional storyline (How to Impress a Marquess), so when I read the synopsis for Frail, I was pleased to see that Ms. Ives has opted once again to follow a less well-trod path by centering the story around a romance between a hero with PTSD who likes to garden, and a socialite heroine brought low by her father’s criminal activities.

Theo Mallory, second son of the Earl of Streswick, returned from fighting in the Crimea a very different man to the sociable, charming one who left.  He knows he is a disappointment to his father, who is anxious and awkward around him, clearly not knowing what to do or say, and Theo can’t blame him; sometimes he doesn’t know what to do or say either.  His return from the war angry, frustrated,  unable to sleep, suffering hallucinations and nightmares that he tried to quiet by indulging in drink, drugs, women and violence was difficult for all of them, his family’s belief that they could somehow find a doctor who could ‘cure’ him irritating him as much as it made him feel guilty that their hopes were dashed time after time.  Things were going from bad to worse, the earl starting to wonder if an asylum was the safest place for his unpredictable son, when Theo retreated to a property in Snowdonia, North Wales, where he has lived quietly for the past five years, pursuing his love of gardening and regaining his equilibrium and his sense of self.  He still suffers bad memories and bad dreams, but he has learned to cope and feels he has at last found his place in life.

Returning to London after five years away is difficult for him, but he is led to do so in order to meet with an officer from Scotland Yard to whom he has given evidence of a fraud being perpetrated on a number of former soldiers with whom Theo had served by a London banker named John Gillingham. At the urging of his father and stepmother, Theo attends a ball with them – and comes face to face with Gillingham’s beautiful, vivacious daughter, Helena, who teases him a little and then, most unconventionally, asks him to dance with her. Already off-balance in the hot, crowded ballroom, Theo’s control slips further during their dance as he finds it impossible to contain his anger at this “vain, ignorant and selfish girl”, whose beautiful gowns have been paid for with money swindled from former soldiers and hard-working people.  He accuses her of being cruel and uncaring and stalks away, leaving Helena wondering what on earth she has done to deserve such treatment, and feeling vaguely sorry that such a handsome young man should be so clearly unbalanced.

A day or so later, however, Helena’s life is shattered when her father commits suicide, leaving her alone and with nothing.  She comes to understand the truth; that her father had committed a massive fraud and took his own life when threatened with exposure – and that he has escaped the consequences while leaving her to face scandal and public vitriol.  Helena has no close relatives; her ‘friends’ no longer want to know her and her only means of supporting herself it to sell everything she can.  Months pass, she is running out of things to sell and will shortly have to leave her home, and still she has no inkling of what to do or where to go – when she remembers her cousin Emily in Wales, who happens to be a neighbour of Theo Mallory’s.  She writes to Emily more or less begging her to take her in, and is relieved to receive a letter filled with kind words and compassion, inviting her to make her home with Emily and her daughter.

Helena is not well-received by the majority of the local villagers, many of whom either lost money, or know someone who lost money in her father’s scam.  Emily, who is liked and respected by all, proves to be her staunch champion, as does Theo, who surprises Helena by showing himself to be relaxed, confident and comfortable in both himself and his surroundings – in short, a completely different man to the one she’d met in London.

Helena, having at first believed that the best thing she could do for the woman who has shown her such kindness and generosity would be to leave the village, gradually finds herself settling into the rhythm of daily life there, and doing what she can to prove herself worthy of Emily’s faith in her.  As she spends more time with Theo, she finds herself drawn to his quiet strength and truly, deeply moved by the beautiful gardens and outside spaces he has created, places she is able to find the sort of peace and tranquillity she craves.  Theo starts to let Helena know him, telling her something of his wartime experience and of his subsequent illness and the effect it has had on his family.  These are two people struggling to come to terms with traumatic experiences who come understand something of the other’s pain and to enjoy each other’s company.  A strong mutual attraction develops between them, but as Theo realises he is falling in love, he has to ask himself if Helena – who has no idea of his part in her father’s downfall – could possibly love the man ultimately responsible for it.  He is torn between a desire to tell the truth and his desire for Helena, and in his desperation, makes some poor decisions that could ultimately cost him dear.

Theo and Helena are both strongly characterised and Ms. Ives does a splendid job in conveying the perilous nature of Helena’s situation following her father’s death.  Her disconnectedness and fears for her future are palpable, as are her disorientation and confusion when she arrives in Wales.  I also appreciated that she doesn’t fall into the trap of having Theo suddenly and miraculously cured by the love of the right woman.  It’s true that he finds a degree of comfort in Helena’s presence and finds himself going to those dark places in his mind less frequently, but it’s clear that the mental scars he bears are not going to heal easily or completely.

Frail is not a fluffy, easy read; the emotions are messy, complicated and often strung taut as a bow-string, and the author doesn’t sugar coat some of the descriptions of Theo’s hallucinations.  But ultimately, it’s one of those books where the execution doesn’t quite live up to the intriguing premise.  The first part of the book is stronger than the second, and the pacing in the middle is a little stodgy as things get bogged down in the preparations for an event that it is hoped will smooth Helena’s path to acceptance by the locals – which then seems to happen rather easily.  There is a rather needless subplot concerning Emily’s pregnant maid-of-all-work, some of the language in the love scenes is a bit clumsy, and the disclosure of Theo’s involvement in Gillingham’s downfall takes place so late in the book that the entire final section feels rushed and the ending abrupt.

Even with those provisos, I’d say that Frail might suit readers looking for a slightly darker, more emotionally fraught story than is usually found in historical romance.  I can’t give it a wholehearted recommendation, but if you’re on the look-out for something a little different to the norm, it’s worth your consideration in spite of its flaws.

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.

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.