Spellbound (Magic in Manhattan #1) by Allie Therin

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

1925

New York

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

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

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

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

Rating: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Static by L.A. Witt (audiobook) – Narrated by Michael Ferraiuolo

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

After two years together, Alex has been dreading the inevitable moment when Damon learns the truth: Alex is a shifter, part of a small percentage of the population able to switch genders at will. Thanks to a forced implant, though, Alex is suddenly static – unable to shift – and male. Overnight, he’s out to a world that neither understands nor tolerates shifters…and to his heterosexual boyfriend.

Damon is stunned to discover his girlfriend is a shifter and scared to death of the dangers the implant poses to Alex’s health. He refuses to abandon Alex, but what about their relationship? Damon is straight, and with the implant both costly and dangerous to remove, Alex is stuck as a man.

Stripped of half his identity and facing serious physical and social ramifications, Alex needs Damon more than ever, but he doesn’t see how they can get through this.

Especially if he’s static forever.

Rating: Narration: A; Content: A-

I think it’s safe to say that the premise of L.A. Witt’s Static is one of the most original I’ve come across. It’s set in a world very like our own with one major difference – shifters are known to exist, but instead of being able to assume animal shapes, these shifters are able to change gender at will. Some are straight, some are not; some are happy to spend their lives as one gender, some gravitate towards one but do shift sometimes, and others – like Alex in this story – are non-binary which, in Alex’s case, means spending roughly half the time as male and half as female. But while the existence of shifters isn’t a secret, many of them choose to keep their ability under wraps due to the overwhelmingly negative perceptions of them by the “static” public, and the amount of prejudice they encounter.

Damon and his girlfriend have been in a relationship for a couple of years now, and although it’s not been without its ups and downs (Alex can be very moody and sometimes drinks heavily) they love each other and Damon would like them to get married – although Alex keeps dodging the issue. When she doesn’t answer his calls one morning, Damon is immediately worried about her; she went to visit her parents the night before, and he knows she finds those visits incredibly difficult – so he heads over to her house to check on her, and is astonished when a young man opens the door.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Ferry of Bones and Gold (Soulbound #1) by Hailey Turner (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When the gods come calling, you don’t get to say no.

Patrick Collins is three years into a career as a special agent for the Supernatural Operations Agency when the gods come calling to collect a soul debt he owes them. An immortal has gone missing in New York City and bodies are showing up in the wake of demon-led ritual killings that Patrick recognizes all too easily from his nightmares.

Unable to walk away, Patrick finds himself once again facing off against mercenary magic users belonging to the Dominion Sect. Standing his ground alone has never been a winning option in Patrick’s experience, but it’s been years since he’s had a partner he could trust.

Looking for allies in all the wrong places, Patrick discovers the Dominion Sect’s next target is the same werewolf the Fates themselves have thrown into his path. Patrick has been inexplicably attracted to the man from their first meeting, but desire has no place in war. That doesn’t stop Patrick from wanting what he shouldn’t have. Jonothon de Vere is gorgeous, dangerous, and nothing but trouble – to the case, to the fight against every hell, and ultimately, to Patrick’s heart and soul.

In the end, all debts must be paid, and Patrick can only do what he does best – cheat death.

Rating: Narration: B+; Content: B

I’ve been snapping up and enjoying the audiobooks in Hailey Turner’s military/sci-fi Metahumans series and was pleased to discover that last year, the author had begun a new Urban Fantasy series called Soulbound, set in and around a recognisably familiar New York City and featuring characters with magical and supernatural abilities. I added book one, A Ferry of Bones and Gold, to my TBR mountain but surprise, surprise, haven’t got to it yet, so I was delighted to see it come out in audiobook format with Gary Furlong – a narrator I enjoy listening to – at the helm.

Patrick Collins, a mage working for the Supernatural Operations Agency (which seems to be a kind of supernatural FBI), isn’t pleased when he gets a call from his boss cancelling his vacation and sending him instead to New York City, where a spate of ritualistic killings (the bodies are mutilated and have astrological symbols carved into their eyelids) seems to be ramping up as the Summer Solstice approaches. A former combat mage-turned-supernatural law enforcement agent, Patrick is assigned to investigate the most recent murders and immediately senses the presence of dark, demonic magic pointing to the involvement of the Dominion Sect, a cult set on stealing the godhood from one of the ancient gods and then transferring it to their leader.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Salt Magic, Skin Magic by Lee Welch (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Leslie

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Lord Thornby has been trapped on his father’s isolated Yorkshire estate for a year. There are no bars or chains; he simply can’t leave. His sanity is starting to fray.

When industrial magician John Blake arrives to investigate a case of witchcraft, he finds the peculiar, arrogant Thornby as alarming as he is attractive. John soon finds himself caught up in a dark fairy tale, where all the rules of magic – and love – are changed.

To set Thornby free, both men must face life – changing truths – and John must accept that the brave, witty man who’s winning his heart may also be about to break it. Can they escape a web of magic that’s as perilous as love?

Rating: Narration – A- : Content – A-

This original and entertaining fantasy romance was one of my favourite books of 2018, so I was delighted when I learned I’d be able to experience it again in audio format performed by a narrator I’ve enjoyed listening to on several occasions; it’s always nice to know something you’re looking forward to is unlikely to be a huge disappointment! Salt Magic, Skin Magic is set in a Victorian era in which magic is known about and practiced, and author Lee Welch does a terrific job, right from the opening lines, of pulling the listener into the tale, creating an atmosphere of menace and uncertainty that immediately grabs the attention.

Soren Dezombrey, Viscount Thornby, was happily kicking up his heels living a life of luxury and dissolution in London until his father, the Marquess of Dalton, burst into his home one morning and forced him to return to Raskelf Hall, the family seat in Yorkshire. That happened eighteen months earlier, and Thornby has been unable to leave ever since. He’s not physically restrained in any way, but something stops him each time he gets near the estate boundary; he feels panicky, he’s assailed by all sorts of doubts and fears, his mind keeps telling him there’s something else he should be doing (like the Victorian equivalent of “have I left the iron on?”) – he literally CAN’T leave.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

 

Iron and Magic (Iron Covenant #1) by Ilona Andrews (audiobook) – Narrated by Steve West

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

No day is ordinary in a world where technology and magic compete for supremacy…. But no matter which force is winning, in the apocalypse, a sword will always work.

Hugh d’Ambray, Preceptor of the Iron Dogs, Warlord of the Builder of Towers, served only one man. Now his immortal, nearly omnipotent master has cast him aside. Hugh is a shadow of the warrior he was, but when he learns that the Iron Dogs, soldiers who would follow him anywhere, are being hunted down and murdered, he must make a choice: to fade away or to be the leader he was born to be. Hugh knows he must carve a new place for himself and his people, but they have no money, no shelter, and no food, and the necromancers are coming. Fast.

Elara Harper is a creature who should not exist. Her enemies call her Abomination; her people call her White Lady. Tasked with their protection, she’s trapped between the magical heavyweights about to collide and plunge the state of Kentucky into a war that humans have no power to stop. Desperate to shield her people and their simple way of life, she would accept help from the devil himself – and Hugh d’Ambray might qualify.

Hugh needs a base; Elara needs soldiers. Both are infamous for betraying their allies, so how can they create a believable alliance to meet the challenge of their enemies?

As the prophet says, “It is better to marry than to burn”.

Hugh and Elara may do both.

Rating: Narration – A : Content – B+

With the popular and long-running Kate Daniels series drawing to a close, Ilona Andrews has begun a new series set in the same world, featuring one of the major secondary characters from those books. Iron and Magic is the first in the Iron Covenant series, and takes, as one of its principal characters, Hugh d’Ambray, the villain from the Kate Daniels series. When I picked up a review copy of the book several weeks ago, I hadn’t realised it was a spinoff, and when I found out, was worried I might not be able to follow the story. Fortunately, however, those concerns were unwarranted; I asked a friend for a bit of background, but otherwise, this book works fairly well as a standalone, and there is enough information and backstory given for the newbie not to feel lost.

Hugh d’Ambray had, for almost his entire life, enjoyed a position of peculiar privilege as the right-hand-man of Roland, the god-like being who rules the magical world. As the Preceptor of the Iron Dogs, Hugh was warlord, assassin and enforcer; but when we meet him at the beginning of Iron and Magic, his life has been turned upside down. Cast out by Roland, the life he’d known has been ripped away, and he’s in a downward spiral of despair and hopelessness. Deprived of his sense of self, no longer certain of his place in the world and no longer immortal, Hugh is not even trying to adapt to his change in circumstances; he’s down for the count and seemingly intent on living at the bottom of a bottle.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Iron and Magic (The Iron Covenant #1) by Ilona Andrews

This title may be purchased from Amazon

No day is ordinary in a world where Technology and Magic compete for supremacy…But no matter which force is winning, in the apocalypse, a sword will always work.

Hugh d’Ambray, Preceptor of the Iron Dogs, Warlord of the Builder of Towers, served only one man. Now his immortal, nearly omnipotent master has cast him aside. Hugh is a shadow of the warrior he was, but when he learns that the Iron Dogs, soldiers who would follow him anywhere, are being hunted down and murdered, he must make a choice: to fade away or to be the leader he was born to be. Hugh knows he must carve a new place for himself and his people, but they have no money, no shelter, and no food, and the necromancers are coming. Fast.

Elara Harper is a creature who should not exist. Her enemies call her Abomination; her people call her White Lady. Tasked with their protection, she’s trapped between the magical heavyweights about to collide and plunge the state of Kentucky into a war that humans have no power to stop. Desperate to shield her people and their simple way of life, she would accept help from the devil himself—and Hugh d’Ambray might qualify.

Hugh needs a base, Elara needs soldiers. Both are infamous for betraying their allies, so how can they create a believable alliance to meet the challenge of their enemies?

As the prophet says: “It is better to marry than to burn.”

Hugh and Elara may do both.

Rating: B

I read and enjoyed Ilona Andrews’ recent Hidden Legacy trilogy and was keen to read more of the authors’ work, so I nabbed a review copy of Iron and Magic without realising it’s a spin-off of the popular, long-running Kate Daniels series. Which I haven’t read. But I was intrigued by the blurb, which promises an uneasy alliance between a disgraced warlord and a magical being who should not exist, and when I realised that the aforementioned warlord was actually the villain in the Daniels books, I was even more intrigued – I do love it when a bad guy is transformed into a hero.

For anyone – like me – who hasn’t read the other series, I’ll try to give a bit of background information without getting too bogged down (and here I’ll say “Thank You” to my fellow AAR reviewer, Maggie Boyd for giving me a few pointers). Iron and Magic is the first book in the new Iron Covenant series, and is set in the Daniels universe, in a near future in which technology and magic vie for supremacy. When the tech is up, magic doesn’t work and vice versa, and there’s no way of telling when a magic wave will hit or how long it will last. Hugh d’Ambray, the Preceptor (leader) of the Iron Dogs was once the right hand of Roland, the god-like being who is Kate Daniels’ father, but has been cast out and is no longer in Roland’s good graces or under his protection. When we encounter Hugh at the beginning of the book, he’s been on a massive bender, he’s heartsick, directionless and heading downward in an ever increasing spiral of hopelessness and despair. The life he knew has been ripped away from him, along with his sense of self and his place in the world, and he’s a complete mess when he’s found by some of his men who tell him that the Iron Dogs are being wiped out by the Golden Legion, the necromancers who ‘operate’ Roland’s army of mindless vampires and are led by Landon Nez – who hates Hugh. Who hates him right back. The pair had been Roland’s two enforcers, and with Hugh’s exile, Nez’s power has increased. The news is bad – from a force of thousands, the Iron Dogs now number only three hundred, and clearly, Nez is intent in wiping every last one of them from the face of the Earth.

Hugh built the Iron Dogs into more than a fighting force; he forged a brotherhood, “a family, where each of us stands for something greater”. Hugh’s realisation that the remainder of his men need him to lead them finally sobers him up, and his determination to do what he can for the loyal Dogs who have always followed him is the first indication that this character – seen as a ruthless killer, a conscienceless butcher – is redeemable.

Sending out one of his inner circle to gather the rest of the Dogs, Hugh sets about solving their most immediate problem, which is finding a suitable base.  Berry Hill in Kentucky is a definite possibility, a small settlement on good farm land near a lake, occupied by families with children, and a few witches and stray druids – who need protection from Nez because Roland is after their land.  The Dogs need somewhere to live and the denizens of Berry Hill need protection; it sounds perfect.  But the only way to hold off Nez is by a show of strength, so they’ll need any alliance they work out to look completely watertight… and the best way to do that is the ages-old method of marriage.  Once Hugh gets over the shock, he realises he has few other options; they’re running out of food and they need somewhere to regroup… he might as well meet with their Lady – the White Warlock – and see they can hash out.

It’s clear from the first time we meet Elara Harper that she’s possessed of a powerful magic, but mostly her powers are kept fairly vague and we’re not told exactly why her enemies have branded her an Abomination; but this is a series, so I expect things will become clearer in subsequent books.  She’s not wild about the idea of marrying a complete stranger either, but she will do whatever needs to be done to keep the people of Berry Hill safe.   She and Hugh are alike in many ways – strong, stubborn and determined – so there’s no way they are ever NOT going to strike sparks off each other.  They quickly find out how to push each other’s buttons and take delight in needling one another and I loved their constant snarky, and innuendo-laden bickering.

She gritted her teeth and put her hand into his.“Oh look, my skin isn’t smoking,” Hugh murmured.
“You’re overdoing it with the PDAs.”
“We’re newlyweds. If I threw you over my shoulder and dragged you into the woods, that would be overdoing it.”
The image flashed before her. “Try it. They won’t even find your bones.”
“Oh, darling, I don’t think you’ll have any trouble finding my bone.”

I particularly enjoyed the way in which the Dogs and Elara’s people begin to work together against their common enemy; I love scenes of strategising and watching the good guys figuring out how to outwit the bad guys, and the plot itself is well-constructed and executed, with plenty of action, laced with mysticism and magic.  The fight-scenes and set-pieces are very well written and paint a vivid picture of the action in the mind’s eye; there are a few gruesome scenes, but nothing fans of this series or of urban fantasy in general are unlikely to have come across before.

Ultimately, however, it’s the central characters who really dominate and propel the story, and I’m definitely invested enough in knowing what happens next to want to read future books in the series.  From reading reviews of the Kate Daniels novels, I gather that Hugh was something of a one-note character; Roland’s enforcer who was quick to violence and was without remorse.  If that’s the case, then the authors have done an excellent job here of growing and rounding-out his character without giving him a personality transplant.  He’s still quick to violence and he still doesn’t baulk at killing or doing whatever he must to ensure victory, but here, he’s making his own choices, and they’re based on things other than what Roland wants.  Hugh is fighting for a cause, for the people he cares about and who rely on him for safety and protection; but even though he’s come to understand how far Roland used and manipulated him, he constantly struggles with feelings of loss and abandonment.

Elara is a fascinating character and I’m looking forward to finding out more about her and her magic.  She’s as ruthlessly pragmatic as Hugh, and as determined to protect her people as he is to protect his; they clash, but can see that they are stronger united and are able to work together to achieve the desired end.  They have great chemistry and it’s clear they’re strongly attracted to each other, but it’s too early for declarations; by the end of the book they’ve developed a genuine mutual respect and have arrived at a truce of sorts, and I’m looking forward to future developments.

Iron and Magic is a strong start to a new series, and I’m looking forward to the next instalment.

Unmasking Miss Appleby (Baleful Godmother #1) by Emily Larkin

unmasking-miss-appleby

This title may be purchased from Amazon

She’s not who she seems…

On her 25th birthday, Charlotte Appleby receives a most unusual gift from the Faerie godmother she never knew she had: the ability to change shape.

Penniless and orphaned, she sets off for London to make her fortune as a man. But a position as secretary to Lord Cosgrove proves unexpectedly challenging. Someone is trying to destroy Cosgrove and his life is increasingly in jeopardy.

As Charlotte plunges into London’s backstreets and brothels at Cosgrove’s side, hunting his persecutor, she finds herself fighting for her life—and falling in love…

Rating: A-

It’s no secret that my least favourite trope is the one in which the heroine passes herself off as a man. I find it too difficult to believe that nobody would notice she wasn’t one, even within the idealised setting of a romantic novel. That’s not to say that some authors haven’t managed to pull it off with a reasonable degree of success; most recently, Eva Leigh made a good job of it in Forever Your Earl, by having the heroine be as aware as the reader of the difficulty of a woman pretending to be a man and making others believe it and went on to use the premise to make some insightful social comment.

In Unmasking Miss Appleby, Emily Larkin goes one step further than disguising her heroine by the use of theatrical costume and make-up; she has her heroine able to actually transform herself into a man by virtue of a magical power bestowed upon her.

Okay, okay – I completely recognise the incongruity of saying I find it hard to believe in a woman simply dressing as a man, but I’ll go along with a woman who can turn into one. But it’s a very clever idea, because once that fantastical premise is accepted, Ms. Larkin is able to create the sort of easy friendship between her protagonists that would not have been at all possible between a man and a woman, and can allow her heroine to see and hear things and to go to places a female of the time would never have been allowed to see, hear or visit. Even with that said, though, had the story not been well-thought out and well-written I would probably not have been able to accept the magical element so readily, but as it stands, the plot is well-developed, the romance is delicious, and it all adds up to a compelling and thoroughly enjoyable read.

Charlotte Appleby was orphaned at twelve and taken in by relatives who proceeded to use her as an unpaid tutor and governess for their children and then as a general dogsbody. She is resigned to a future of drudgery because there is no other course open to her; the prospect of working as a governess or companion does not appeal, and the jobs which do, and which will provide a good income are those open only to men. She has no money and nowhere else to go, and at her age and with no dowry, marriage is extremely unlikely. But on the day of her twenty-fifth birthday all that changes when she returns to her room to discover a strange woman sitting there. The woman explains that she’s a Faerie and that, owing to a good deed performed by one of Charlotte’s ancestors for one of the Fey (as detailed in The Fey Quartet of prequel novellas), Charlotte is offered the choice of a number of different, fantastical gifts. She could have the ability to fly, to foretell the future or read minds, for instance – but after thinking it through quickly she opts for the ability to transform her appearance at will, assured that such metamorphosis applies only to her exterior and that she will remain herself inside.

Charlotte proceeds to turn herself into Mr. Christopher Albin and secures employment with Marcus Langford, the Earl of Cosgrove, whose secretary was badly injured when they were set upon in the street just days earlier. Cosgrove is a widower whose beautiful wife is known to have cuckolded him, and who continues to be the subject of gossip by those who suspect him of having mistreated her, and perhaps even of murdering her.  In the months since her death, he has been the subject of an anonymous hate campaign; the windows of his London home are repeatedly smashed, piles of excrement are deposited on his doorstep, and now it seems as though someone is out to do him bodily harm, as the attack on him and his secretary was not simply the work of opportunist footpads.

Cosgrove is also an active member of parliament who takes his responsibilities very seriously and who is an avid and vocal supporter of the abolitionist movement.  Thus, the field of suspects as to who could be behind the attacks upon him is fairly large – is it political opponents or his late wife’s brother, who has never scrupled to make clear his intense dislike?  Or could it be his dissolute cousin and heir, a young man who lives well beyond his means and expects Marcus to fund his gambling, drinking and whoring habits?

The relationship that develops between the earl and his young secretary is rather delightful.  Marcus takes Albin under his wing in an older brother-ish kind of way, and their burgeoning friendship allows Charlotte an insight into the male mind in a way she could never have gained as a woman.   Marcus talks to Albin frankly about sex, takes him to a brothel (not as a patron, I hasten to add!), says what he thinks, swears and generally behaves as he would with any male acquaintance, which is all very liberating for Charlotte.  And she gets to see how the other half lives, to experience the freedom and confidence afforded simply by virtue of possessing a penis.

The problem, of course, is that that particular appendage starts to sit up and take notice whenever her handsome employer is around, and Charlotte is terrified that he’ll notice and throw her out on her ear.  She’s never before experienced feelings of arousal or desire and isn’t sure what to do – all she knows is that she has to find a way to conquer them. Remembering an offhand remark Cosgrove made about a man’s need to sometimes scratch an itch, she embarks upon a bold course of action in an attempt to get him out of her system so that she can continue to work alongside him.   I don’t want to give too much away, but the romance works beautifully, and Ms. Larkin does a terrific job of showing (not just telling) Marcus gradually falling for Charlotte (in her true form) through a series of meetings that begin as one thing and end as another.  Marcus is a gorgeous, sexy hero who positively shines throughout the story as a man of action, intelligence and principle, and Charlotte plays her dual role admirably; an excellent foil, friend and sounding board as Albin, and the woman with whom Marcus seeks comfort, tenderness and pleasure as herself.

The two main plotlines – the romance and the search for who is seeking to destroy Marcus – are very well integrated, with no sudden shifts in tone or strained contrivances.  And while the fantasy element to the story is fairly low key, the author doesn’t just forget it once she’s embedded Charlotte as Albin; the ability to transform her appearance plays an important part in the search for Cosgrove’s enemies.  The one thing I’d take issue with is how easily Cosgrove accepts Albin’s ability to turn into various animals, but given everything that’s happened up to that point and how much stress he’s under, I guess he can be allowed a metaphorical shrug and to accept the help that his secretary’s strange gift allows.

Emily Larkin (who has also written as Emily May and Emily Gee) writes with a great deal of elegance and perception, and has crafted an unusual and charming story to kick off her new Baleful Godmother series.  If you’re looking for a high-concept fantasy romance, then pass on by, because this isn’t it.  But if you’re after an emotionally satisfying, quirky and sensual romance, then I’d say this is definitely worth your time.  I’m certainly going to be looking out for the next book in the series, and Unmasking Miss Appleby is now securely tucked onto my keeper shelf.