Beguiled (Enlightenment #2) by Joanna Chambers

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Two years after his last encounter with cynical nobleman Lord Murdo Balfour, David Lauriston accidentally meets him again in the heart of Edinburgh.

King George IV is about to make his first visit to Edinburgh and Murdo has been sent North by his politician father to represent his aristocratic family at the celebrations.

David and Murdo’s last parting was painful — and on Murdo’s part, bitter — but Murdo’s feelings seem to have mellowed in the intervening years. So much so, that he suggests to David that they enjoy each other’s company during Murdo’s stay in the capital.

Despite his initial reservations, David cannot put Murdo’s proposal from his mind, and soon find himself at Murdo’s door—and in his arms.

But other figures from David’s past are converging on the city, and as the pomp and ceremony of the King’s visit unfolds around them, David is drawn into a chain of events that will threaten everything: his career, his wellbeing, and the fragile bond that, despite David’s best intentions, is growing between him and Murdo.

Rating: B+

Beguiled is the middle book in Joanna Chambers’ Enlightenment trilogy of novels set in early nineteenth century Edinburgh, and I’ll say right off the bat that this is a series in which the books really do need to be read in order.  The romance between the studious advocate, David Lauriston, and the hedonistic Lord Murdo Balfour develops across all three books, plus there is an overarching secondary plotline running through them  – so there will be spoilers for book one, Provoked, in this review.

Provoked ended with Murdo and David parting and not really expecting to see each other again.  They move in very different circles, and while there’s no question that their brief ‘fling’ had affected them both deeply – in David’s case perhaps more deeply than he was willing to admit – both of them believed that a longer term relationship between them was impossible.  In the two years since they last met, David has continued to build his advocacy practice and has gained himself a reputation for diligence and efficacy that means that he is kept busy by a steady stream of work.

David is more confident and more self-assured than he was when we first met him.  He hasn’t forgotten Murdo, and realises now that he has learned something from their brief time together, which I suppose can be best expressed as “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone”.  Still, he is mostly content, although very concerned over the failing health of his mentor, Mr. Chalmers, whose daughter, Elizabeth, has recently married and moved away.  In Provoked, it was clear that both father and daughter had hopes of David, but while he was very fond of Elizabeth and was also struggling to really and thoroughly accept his sexuality, David felt that taking a wife would be hypocritical and wasn’t prepared to do as other men in his situation did (and as Murdo had declared was his intention) and marry a woman while continuing to take male lovers.

Beguiled opens with Edinburgh in uproar preparing for the visit of King George IV to the city.  While not a popular monarch (on either side of the border!) the genius of Sir Walter Scott has somehow managed to, at least temporarily, build bridges and heal breaches, meaning that the visit is generally looked upon with enthusiasm.  David is instructed to attend the King’s visit to the university and must therefore purchase a set of new clothes for the occasion –and is stunned when he arrives at the tailor’s shop to discover Lord Murdo Balfour attending a fitting also.

Over a drink later on, the men talk and express their regrets over the way things ended between them before, and as they prepare to part for the evening, Murdo makes it clear that he would like to see David again during the month or so that he will be in Edinburgh.  David can’t give him an answer – on the one hand, he is as irresistibly drawn to Murdo as he ever was, but on the other, he is reluctant to get involved again knowing that he will eventually have to say goodbye once more.

Because the story is told entirely from David’s PoV, we never get into Murdo’s head, but the author does a terrific job of showing us both what David sees and, more importantly, what he doesn’t see.  He sees that Murdo is slightly mellower than the last time they met; that he is less guarded and less prone to cynicism when he is with David than he was before.  What David doesn’t see – and what is abundantly clear to the reader – is how deep Murdo’s feelings for David really go.  Beneath the layers of aristocratic hauteur beats the heart of a romantic, and one who is more than half-way in love.  Murdo notices changes in David, too; he is “more amenable”, Murdo tells him, more open to allowing himself to feel pleasure without guilt, and David can’t argue:

“… I don’t think I’m precisely wrong either.  Not any more.  Not since… you.”

While Murdo and David continue to spend time together when they can, and become both emotionally and physically closer, David is also troubled by the situation of Elizabeth Chalmers, who is miserable in her marriage to a husband who is physically abusive.  Her father (who knows he is dying) has asked David to do whatever he can to look after her, and now that David has seen her with her husband, and seen how all the life and joy has been sucked out of her together with the bruises that are evidence of her husband’s mistreatment of her, David is more concerned than ever.

Ms. Chambers weaves her different plotlines together with great skill and also imbues the stories in this series with a very strong sense of place and time by means of subtle injections of social comment on the inequalities suffered by women and the poor.  The political situation in England and Scotland at this time was very volatile; George IV was not popular and two years earlier (as described in Provoked) an uprising by radical, disaffected Scottish weavers had been brutally put down and lead to several executions and transportations.  The author also highlights the situation endured by so many women who were, like Elizabeth, the helpless spouse of a controlling, brutal husband; under law, a wife was her husband’s property and nobody had the right to interfere in anything that went on between them.

Beguiled is a strong second instalment in this three-part story, but it does end on a cliffhanger, so you might want to make sure you have time to read the next book, Enlightened, straight afterwards.  All three titles have recently been re-published by the author following the demise of the original publisher (Samhain) and are certainly worth snapping up if you like character-driven romances with a strong emphasis on the history as well a sensual and well-developed central relationship.

A Gathering Storm (Porthkennack series) by Joanna Chambers

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

When grief-stricken scientist Sir Edward Fitzwilliam provokes public scorn by defending a sham spiritualist, he’s forced to retreat to Porthkennack to lick his wounds. Ward’s reputation is in tatters, but he’s determined to continue the work he began after the death of his beloved brother.

In Porthkennack, Ward meets Nicholas Hearn, land steward to the Roscarrock family. Ward becomes convinced that Nick, whose Romany mother was reportedly clairvoyant, is the perfect man to assist with his work. But Nick—who has reason to distrust the whims of wealthy men—is loath to agree. Until Fate steps in to lend a hand.

Despite Nick’s misgivings, he discovers that Ward is not the high-handed aristocrat he first thought. And when passion ignites between them, Nick learns there’s much more to love than the rushed, clandestine encounters he’s used to. Nevertheless, Nick’s sure that wealthy, educated Ward will never see him as an equal.

A storm is gathering, but with Nick’s self-doubts and Ward’s growing obsession, the fragile bond between the two men may not be strong enough to withstand it.

Rating: A-

Joanna Chambers’ A Gathering Storm is the sole historical entry in the Porthkennack series of queer romances written by five different award-winning, best-selling British LGBTQ+ romance authors. All the books – the others are by Charlie Cochrane, J.L. Merrow, Alex Beecroft and Garrett Leigh – can be read in any order and are standalone titles; the link is the setting of Porthkennack, a charming Cornish seaside town with a long and sometimes sinister history.

The story opens as Sir Edward Fitzwilliam Is travelling from Dublin to Anglesey on the night of a fierce, electrical storm.  The storm is at its height when Edward – Ward – experiences a strange phenomenon; he hears his twin brother, George, assuring him that all will be well at what Ward later realises must have been the moment of his brother’s death.  From that moment on, Ward becomes consumed by the idea of recreating the conditions that allowed the communication and devotes himself to the task, even though the wider scientific community – of which he had been a respected member – disapproves of his efforts to contact the departed and denounces him.

Following his disastrous public defence of  a sham medium in opposition to some of his highly respected colleagues, Ward retreats to the small seaside town of Porthkennack in Cornwall, where he purchases a plot of land close to a place known locally as ‘the Hole’, an eighty-foot-high cavern that stretches from cliff-top to seabed.  Stories of the supernatural cling to the place, but Ward’s interest is of a more scientific nature; he believes that the conditions experienced in that location during a storm will help him in his quest to recreate those he experienced on the night his brother communicated with him ‘from beyond the veil’.

But in order to prove that communication with the spirit world is possible, Ward also needs subjects willing to take part in his experiments, preferably people who have recently suffered a bereavement.  He asks his solicitor if he can help him find such people, but even though Ward offers to pay well, the locals are naturally sceptical; and once rumours begin circulating about his using mesmerism and electric shocks (he doesn’t) not even the promise of payment can induce anyone to sign up.

On a visit to a local tavern in hopes of drumming up some interest, Ward meets Nicholas Hearn, land steward at the neighbouring Roscarrock estate.  Nick is half Romany and, while it’s never publicly acknowledged, is the illegitimate grandson of his employer, old Godfrey Roscarrock.  Nick’s gypsy mother is widely believed to have been clairvoyant, and when Ward learns of this, he is convinced that Nick is the very man to assist him with his experiments – but Nick isn’t interested, or at least, he isn’t interested in what Ward is trying to do, although he is fascinated by the man himself.

But circumstances have a way of changing unexpectedly, and not long after their initial meeting, Nick is manoeuvred into striking a bargain with Ward and agreeing to help with his experiments until the end of the summer.  Over the ensuing weeks, the men fall into an unlikely friendship at the same time as the undercurrent of attraction that has been evident since their first meeting continues to bubble and simmer until it reaches a fever pitch they can no longer ignore or resist.

The romance between these two polar opposites – one fair, wealthy and privileged and the other a dark, reserved outsider – is incredibly well done and really quite beautiful. The sexual tension and the strength of the emotional connection the men share just leap off the page, and I really appreciated the way Ms. Chambers is able to put their romantic relationship on an equal footing in spite of their difference in social standing.  Ward has never been in love, but is sexually experienced while Nick had a lover, but the opportunities to thoroughly explore the physical side of that relationship were few.  But while Ward is rather deliciously naughty, the one thing he doesn’t have experience of is kissing – and the scene in which Nick shows Ward just how gloriously intimate a kiss can be is wonderfully tender and passionate.

They are very well-drawn, three-dimensional characters, both of them fervent about their beliefs and both stubborn to a fault.  Ward was born into an aristocratic family and, while not an uncaring person, doesn’t realise the degree to which his privileged position distances him from other, ‘ordinary’ people. Nick, on the other hand, is neither fish nor fowl; his position as a land steward raises him above the farmers and working men of the village, yet even though he is the grandson of the one of the most powerful men in the area, Nick’s illegitimacy and his Romish blood mean that he is not gentry either.  Ms. Chambers does a terrific job in exploring these differences, showing Ward and Nick recognising the need to make adjustments to their way of thinking and acting if they are to make a future together. Nick’s situation as being ‘between classes’ makes him particularly easy to empathise with; he feels he doesn’t really belong anywhere, and that sense of isolation is often compounded by his own, somewhat introverted nature.  Ward, on the other hand, comes across as a bit of a snob at first, although it soon becomes clear that his sometimes dismissive attitude is as much to do with his absorption in his work and an inability to read social cues as it is to do with his upbringing.

There is a small, but strongly characterised secondary cast, and the uneasy relationship between Godfrey Roscarrock and Nick is particularly well done. Nick resents the older man; even though he has given him a good position, Nick sometimes wonders if he wouldn’t have been better off if he’d been left as he was, a gypsy bastard left to run with his mother’s folk – yet it’s obvious that Roscarrock has some degree of affection for his unacknowledged grandson, and sees in him a man like himself, a man whose love of the land is deeply entrenched.

I should probably point out here that in spite of Ward’s obsession with communicating with the dead, this book is primarily an historical romance and the paranormal aspect of the story is a background detail.  It’s an important, very well researched and quite fascinating background detail, but that’s nonetheless what it is, so anyone coming to the book expecting a strong paranormal element may be disappointed.

A Gathering Storm is a wonderful love story, and at the same time, a subtly nuanced exploration of the nature of obsession and grief.  I’ve gone back and forth over a final grade for the book because while I enjoyed it very much, the final chapter is somewhat rushed, and there are a couple of pacing issues in the middle.  Ultimately, however, neither of those things would deter me from re-reading it, which means it belongs on my keeper shelf.

Unnatural (An Enlightenment Story) by Joanna Chambers

unnatural2

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Captain Iain Sinclair. Perfect son, perfect soldier, hero of Waterloo. A man living a lie. The only person who really knows him is his childhood friend, scientist James Hart. But they’ve been estranged since Iain brutally destroyed their friendship following a passionate encounter.

Iain is poised to leave the King’s service to become an undercover agent in India. Before he leaves his old life behind, he’s determined to reconcile with James. An invitation to a country house party from James’s sister provides the perfect opportunity to pin the man down.

James has loved Iain all his life, but his years of accepting crumbs from Iain’s table are over. Forgiving Iain is one thing—restoring their friendship is quite another.

In the face of James’s determined resistance, Iain is forced to confront his reasons for mending the wounds between them. And accept the possibility that James holds the key to his heart’s desire—if only he has the courage to reach for it.

Rating: B-

Unnatural spans a period of about fifteen years, and charts the development of the relationship between Captain Iain Sinclair and James Hart. The cover announces it as “An Enlightenment Story”, meaning that it takes place within the same fictional universe as Ms Chambers’ excellent Enlightenment trilogy; and fans of those books will no doubt be pleased to learn that Murdo Balfour and David Lauriston make cameo appearances in the story owing to Murdo’s friendship with Iain.

Iain and James meet when aged thirteen and nine years respectively, at Wylde Manor, the Hart family home. James has already developed a case of hero-worship over the older boy, and is delighted when Iain shows an interest in the insects that James has been observing at the lake, and listening to him when he explains that he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a naturalist when he grows up.

Having witnessed this promising beginning, we skip forward to 1824, when it becomes clear that something has gone disastrously wrong between James and Iain. Having found the army in peacetime not to his taste, Iain has just resigned his commission and accepted a post with the East India Company – one that could prove dangerous given that he will be undercover and acting as an agent for the British government. He will be leaving in a matter of weeks, and realises there is something he needs to do before he goes. He has received his annual invitation to Holmewell, the home of James’ sister and her husband, and although it has been some years since he has accepted, this year is different. He can’t leave England without at least trying to repair his friendship with James and this could be his only opportunity.

Much of the story is told in flashback, a narrative device I enjoy when done well as is the case here. We are witness to various key events in the lives of James and Iain and shown how two such firm friends have reached a point at which they are so dreadfully estranged. It’s true that perhaps the reason is somewhat clichéd – Iain doesn’t want to risk their friendship by turning it into a romantic relationship – but it is also understandable, especially given the historical setting and Iain’s background as the son of an authoritarian father who has never shown him the slightest bit of familial pride or fatherly affection. James’ friendship is, to Iain, the one pure thing in his life, and he feels guilty enough about the fact that he is living a lie and hiding his sexual preferences without (as he thinks) destroying the one relationship in his life that really means something to him.

The problem is, that by NOT taking things in a different direction, Iain has lost James anyway – and now he has one last chance to attempt to put things right between them. They haven’t set eyes on each other for two years – and it’s obvious that James isn’t going to make it easy for him.

James is a beautiful soul, a loving, open-hearted young man who, in spite of the mores of the time, refuses to see his attraction to other men as “unnatural”, and who wears his heart on his sleeve much of the time. This could, of course, have been very dangerous, and is one of the major areas of conflict between him and Iain, who is the exact opposite. A decorated soldier, a hero of Waterloo and an accomplished flirt, Iain is a real “man’s man”, one whom nobody would ever suspect of preferring his own sex. He is attracted to James, but continually denies his feelings for him; and finally, James reaches a point at which he has had enough. He loves Iain but can’t live in limbo any longer; James knows he deserves someone who loves him wholly and unconditionally, and if Iain can’t be that person, then James needs to get over him and move on.

Unnatural is a gently-paced, character-driven story in which the relationship between the protagonists evolves slowly but satisfyingly. The sex scenes are romantic and sensual rather than raunchy, and the reader is clearly shown that these are two people who care deeply for each other. I enjoyed reading the book, although there are a couple of points where Iain’s guilt over his sexuality and his continual refrain of “I don’t want to ruin our friendship” gets annoyingly repetitive. The bulk of the conflict in the story comes as a result of Iain’s hang-ups and there isn’t much dramatic tension in it apart from that. But even with those caveats, I’d recommend Unnatural to anyone looking for a well-constructed and sweetly romantic m/m historical.

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