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Is their real-life love story doomed to be a tragedy, or can they rewrite the ending?
Finely dressed and finely drunk, Charlie Price is a man dedicated to his vices. Chief among them is his explicit novel collection, though his impending marriage to a woman he can’t love will force his carefully curated collection into hiding.
Before it does, Charlie is determined to have one last hurrah: meeting his favorite author in person.
Miles Montague is more gifted as a smut writer than a shopkeep and uses his royalties to keep his flagging bookstore afloat. So when a cheerful dandy appears out of the mist with Miles’s highly secret pen name on his pretty lips, Miles assumes the worst. But Charlie Price is no blackmailer; he’s Miles’s biggest fan.
A scribbled signature on a worn book page sets off an affair as scorching as anything Miles has ever written. But Miles is clinging to a troubled past, while Charlie’s future has spun entirely out of his control…
Set in Victorian London, Jess Everlee’s The Gentleman’s Book of Vices tells the story of a bookshop owner – whose super-secret alter-ego is the writer of some of the finest and most sought-after erotica currently to be found under counters and in back rooms – and the most devoted admirer of said erotica, a young gentleman whose dedication “to his vices” has finally landed him in the sort of financial trouble from which there is only one way to escape. The romance between these two polar opposites – one staid and rigidly controlled, the other vivacious and happy-go-lucky – is very well written, with emotions that leap off the page, two complex, well-crafted protagonists and a strongly written group of secondary characters. Taken as a whole, it’s a very impressive début novel – and it would have received a flat-out A grade had it not been for the ending, which is rushed, simplistic, and just doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the novel.
Charlie Price has sampled all the vices London has to offer, but his dissolute life is about to change. His usually indulgent parents have, in the past, helped him out of the financial trouble he’s got himself into, but they’re no longer prepared to do so without his agreeing to “take a respectable job and settle down like a ‘proper, healthy fellow’” and prove he’s changed his ways. An introduction to the Merriweather family – most particularly, their unwed daughter, Alma – swiftly followed, and Charlie now works at Merriweather’s bank and is to be married to Alma in eight weeks time. He’s resigned himself to having to lock away his box of scandalous little treasures – his erotic novels, nude sketches and sculptures of illicit lovemaking – possibly forever, and as a kind of last hurrah, he’s determined to get his favourite author of illicit smut – the incredibly elusive Reginald Cox – to autograph his favourite book. But those who write the kind of filth Cox specialises in must necessarily guard their identities, and Cox has proved very difficult to pin down.
Luck is on Charlie’s side, however, when his close friend, the mysterious Jo, comes up trumps with a name.
While running a bookshop really wouldn’t have been Miles Montague’s choice of career – and quite honestly, he’s not all that good at it – he inherited it from his dead lover and keeps it out of a sense of duty even as the bills mount up and he has to continually add to the business funds from the money he earns from his writring. He’s solitary by nature, which is probably just as well given his secret occupation, and has jealously guarded that secret, which is why he’s so panicked when a young man comes into the shop just after closing time one day, and makes it clear he knows exactly who ‘Reginald Cox’ really is. Immediately suspecting he’s about to be blackmailed, Miles curtly asks the man to name the price he wants for his silence – but Charlie (for of course, it is he!) quickly tries to correct that assumption and to calm him down. All he wants, he says, is for ‘Reginald’ to sign his (very well read) copy of the book, Immorality Plays. Stunned, disbelieving and furious, Miles refuses and tells Charlie to get out – which he does, but not before pulling Miles into a blistering kiss and slipping his card down the front of Miles’ trousers.
It’s only later, once Miles’ panic has receded, that he has a chance to think clearly and realises that the charming Mr. Price had been telling the truth – and that he’s given Miles plenty of information he could use against him if Miles wished to. Realising he over-reacted, Miles signs the book, and the next day, heads off to Charlie’s house carrying both the book (wrapped, of course) and a good bottle of wine by way of apology.
There’s an intense spark of lust between the pair from the get-go, and the very next day – after an amusing scene in which Miles is mistaken for a sommelier and ends up offering suggestions as to which wine and cake Charlie and Alma should have at their wedding (although in Victorian England, there would only have been one sort of wedding cake on offer – the traditional heavy fruit cake that’s still the norm today) – Charlie takes Miles upstairs to see his ‘collection’. One thing leads to another, but they’re disturbed by footsteps in the hallway before they can have sex on the floor – and Miles is spooked. He doesn’t do this, he isn’t this reckless – with very good reason – but there’s something about Charlie that is completely irresistible, and he doesn’t say no when Charlie says he’ll come to Miles’ place on Friday evening.
Miles and Charlie fall hard and fast for each other and very soon are engaged in a passionate affair. They’re open and honest from the start and don’t even try to hide the fact that there’s more to what’s happening between them than sex, so that what starts out as a mostly light-hearted sunshiny-rake-brings-love-and-life-back-to-grumpy-introvert-with-tragic-past romance quickly develops into a story that really tugs at the heartstrings. The conflict in the romance is both realistic and heartbreaking; in fact, it’s one of a handful of books I’ve read recently where I actually felt the relationship was in serious jepoardy in the final chapters (even though I knew there would be an HEA), and Ms. Everlee does a really good job of articulating the very real difficulties that Charlie and Alma – and Miles – are facing.
I have to applaud the author for the way she writes Alma, who is never demonised. Instead, she’s a clever and charming young woman who is caught between a rock and a hard place, just as Charlie is and, as a woman, has even fewer options open to her. She and Charlie obviously care a great deal for each other, and he wants to give her a good home and perhaps even children (if he can manage it), but like many well-to-do men of the time, doesn’t intend to give up his ‘other’ life. And the thing is, I couldn’t actually dislike Charlie for that; he genuinely likes Alma and wants her to be happy and secure, but also needs to to carve out a little time to be true to himself as well – and the sad thing is that he knows that ‘a little’ is all he’s ever going to be able to have. He wants to continue to see Miles after he’s married, but Miles refuses, not only because he doesn’t want to be a part of that sort of betrayal, but also because he knows that eventually Charlie will have less and less time for him and that such gradual dwindling will hurt much more than a clean break. He also clearly sees how this marriage will slowly kill Charlie, draining away his liveliness and humour and everything that makes him him – and can’t bear the thought of watching that happen.
Miles and Charlie are flawed, complicated individuals who come vividly to life, especially Charlie, who really is a ray of sunshine, so engaging and loveable that it’s easy to understand why people are so drawn to him. Their romance is beautifully written, with plenty of humour, affection and tenderness, and the sexual chemistry between them is scorching.
There’s a great cast of secondary characters, too, with a lovely found family element and sense of community in the group of friends at The Curious Fox, the molly house Charlie frequents.
As I said at the beginning, this would have been an A grade review if it weren’t for the book’s ending, which is just a little too pat. And while the author does a pretty good job of evoking a strong sense of time and place, there are a few things that jar, like the use of a street name without “Street” or “Road” (which is a dead giveaway that the author is American – we would say “Holywell Street” and not just “Holywell” for example), the way Charlie’s butler speaks to him and a few turns of phrase that feel too modern.
Still, The Gentleman’s Book of Vices is an extremely accomplished and throughly engrossing début novel and one I definitely recommend to anyone looking for a new voice in queer historical romance. I gather this is the first book in a series, and am looking forward to reading more from this talented author.