Spectred Isle (Green Men #1) by K.J. Charles

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Archaeologist Saul Lazenby has been all but unemployable since his disgrace during the War. Now he scrapes a living working for a rich eccentric who believes in magic. Saul knows it’s a lot of nonsense…except that he begins to find himself in increasingly strange and frightening situations. And at every turn he runs into the sardonic, mysterious Randolph Glyde.

Randolph is the last of an ancient line of arcanists, commanding deep secrets and extraordinary powers as he struggles to fulfil his family duties in a war-torn world. He knows there’s something odd going on with the haunted-looking man who keeps turning up in all the wrong places. The only question for Randolph is whether Saul is victim or villain.

Saul hasn’t trusted anyone in a long time. But as the supernatural threat grows, along with the desire between them, he’ll need to believe in evasive, enraging, devastatingly attractive Randolph. Because he may be the only man who can save Saul’s life—or his soul.

Rating: A

K.J. Charles gets her new Green Men series of paranormal historical romances off to a terrific start with Spectred Isle, an utterly captivating mix of adventure, mystery and romance all bound up in old English folklore, myth and magic.

Randolph Glyde is the last member of an old English family whose lineage goes back centuries.  Throughout the ages, the Glydes have been charged by successive monarchs with the protection of England from supernatural entities. Known as the Green Men, theirs is an ancient duty and an ancient magic that borrows powers from the land, but now their numbers are severely depleted and England is vulnerable to attack from mystical forces.  The First World War and the concurrent occult War Beneath devastated many families and the Glydes were no exception, as the government, not content with conventional weapons – tanks, guns and bombs –  recruited as many occultists and arcanists as they could and set them to unleashing their very specialised form of warfare on the enemy.  Of course, the other side had the same idea, and the resulting war irrevocably damaged the veil between the world of the supernatural and the human world; it now lies in shreds and Randolph – whose entire family was wiped out in one devastating engagement – is one of the few left alive who is able to track down and repel the various creatures and malignant entities that are passing through the veil with increasing frequency.

Saul Lazenby is an Oxford educated archaeologist who was stationed in Mesapotamia (modern Iraq) during the war, but who was dishonourably discharged and has struggled in the years since to find employment owing to his deeply tarnished record and reputation.  He is grateful for his position as assistant to Major Peabody, an eccentric who believes London to be a hotbed of magical powers, and whom Saul privately thinks is a harmless crackpot. Still, working for him is better than starving in the streets, and Saul obediently sets out to investigate the Major’s latest theory concerning an ancient burial stone located in Oak Hill Park just north of London.  Before he can locate it, however, an old oak tree bursts into flame for no apparent reason – and Saul finds himself being abruptly interrogated by a rude, disdainful and obviously aristocratic man who – just as abruptly – disappears when a few more people arrive on the scene.

This is only the first of several seemingly accidental meetings between the two men, in which they view each other with hostility and suspicion.  Saul thinks Randolph is following him; Randolph wonders if Saul’s appearances at the sites of exploding trees, ghostly manifestations and other strange happenings means he is somehow connected to or even responsible for them.

But soon, Randolph has to admit that perhaps there is a method in this madness and that Saul has some, as yet unknown, part to play in England’s defence against attack from beyond the veil. Through Saul’s PoV, the reader is initiated into Randolph’s magical world as the pair are drawn into the investigation of supernatural occurrences that appear to be somehow related to the life – and death – of Geoffrey de Mandeville, a villainous, twelfth century nobleman.

K.J. Charles does a wonderful job of building a sense of expectation, menace and urgency throughout the early parts of the novel and beyond, gradually broadening out her focus into an intricately plotted story that weaves a magical spell of its own on the reader.  The world-building is absolutely fantastic and the characterisation – of secondary characters as well as the two principals – is superbly rich and detailed.  The magic in this story is brilliantly conceived and it’s obvious that a considerable amount of research has gone into creating the specifics of this pagan-Earth magic. It’s not simple and it’s not at all benign; it’s dangerous and malevolent and devious, and those who fight it have to experience pain and sacrifice in order to become worthy of that task.

The romance between Saul and Randolph is beautifully developed as these two men, both of them lonely and haunted, draw closer and fall in love.  Moving from suspicion and scepticism to a tentative truce, friendship and more, the relationship develops very naturally and never feels rushed or forced.  I really felt for Saul and what he’d been through; his desire for love and affection cost him very dear, but he carries doggedly on, bearing his scars quietly and refusing to let his past define him.  And while Randolph seems, at first to be an overbearing, arrogant git, it soon becomes clear he’s nothing of the sort.  Well, he’s arrogant, yes, but he’s also rather charming underneath the bluster, possessed of a very dry wit and completely dedicated to the tasks with which he’s been invested.  I loved watching them as they readjusted their opinions of each other and recognised that here, at last, was someone with whom they could let down their guards and be themselves.  The chemistry between them is scorching and the love scenes are extremely sexy, but there’s no doubt that they also possess a strong emotional connection and are deeply attached to one another.

While the storyline featuring Randolph and Saul is wrapped up by the end of the book, I’m hoping we’ll see more of them as the series progresses and they continue the fight to keep England safe from whatever is trying to get through from the other side.  Sceptred Isle is funny, clever, sexy and spooky (seriously – the bit where our heroes are stuck on the road gave me the willies!) and I couldn’t put it down.  It’s an out-and-out corker of a tale and is very highly recommended.

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


This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

A note to the Editor

Dear Henry,

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

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

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

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

Robert Caldwell
September 1914

Rating: B+

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

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

*ahem*

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

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

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

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

An Unnatural Vice by K.J. Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Matthew Lloyd Davies

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

In the sordid streets of Victorian London, unwanted desire flares between two bitter enemies brought together by a deadly secret.

Crusading journalist Nathaniel Roy is determined to expose spiritualists who exploit the grief of bereaved and vulnerable people. First on his list is the so-called Seer of London, Justin Lazarus. Nathaniel expects him to be a cheap, heartless fraud. He doesn’t expect to meet a man with a sinful smile and the eyes of a fallen angel – or that a shameless swindler will spark his desires for the first time in years.

Justin feels no remorse for the lies he spins during his séances. His gullible clients simply bore him. Hostile, disbelieving, utterly irresistible Nathaniel is a fascinating challenge. And as their battle of wills and wits heats up, Justin finds he can’t stop thinking about the man who’s determined to ruin him.

But Justin and Nathaniel are linked by more than their fast-growing obsession with one another. They are both caught up in an aristocratic family’s secrets, and Justin holds information that could be lethal. As killers, fanatics, and fog close in, Nathaniel is the only man Justin can trust – and, perhaps, the only man he could love.

Rating: Narration – A- Content – A

An Unnatural Vice is the second book in K.J. Charles’ Sins of the Cities series, a trilogy set in late Victorian London which revolves around the search for the missing heir to an earldom. Each book features one central couple whose romance is complete by the end, but the overarching story of blackmail, bigamy and murder is carried through each one, so while it’s possible to enjoy the books on their own, I’d recommend starting with book one, An Unseen Attraction to get the best out of the series.

Almost six years earlier, Nathaniel Roy lost the love of his life in a freak accident. Since then – and with the loving support of a number of good friends who include Clem Tallyfer (main protagonist of An Unseen Attraction), he’s put the pieces of his life back together, and channels his focus into his career as a journalist, dedicated to exposing the plight of the poor and shedding light on the shady practices of big business. Emotionally, however, he is frozen, still mourning his sunny-natured, gentle lover and has never, in the years since Tony’s death, felt attraction or desire for another man.

Until the night he sets eyes on Justin Lazarus for the first time.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

An Unnatural Vice (Sins of the Cities #2) by K.J. Charles

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

In the sordid streets of Victorian London, unwanted desire flares between two bitter enemies brought together by a deadly secret.

Crusading journalist Nathaniel Roy is determined to expose spiritualists who exploit the grief of bereaved and vulnerable people. First on his list is the so-called Seer of London, Justin Lazarus. Nathaniel expects him to be a cheap, heartless fraud. He doesn’t expect to meet a man with a sinful smile and the eyes of a fallen angel—or that a shameless swindler will spark his desires for the first time in years.

Justin feels no remorse for the lies he spins during his séances. His gullible clients simply bore him. Hostile, disbelieving, utterly irresistible Nathaniel is a fascinating challenge. And as their battle of wills and wits heats up, Justin finds he can’t stop thinking about the man who’s determined to ruin him.

But Justin and Nathaniel are linked by more than their fast-growing obsession with one another. They are both caught up in an aristocratic family’s secrets, and Justin holds information that could be lethal. As killers, fanatics, and fog close in, Nathaniel is the only man Justin can trust—and, perhaps, the only man he could love.

Rating: A

The feeling that washed over me when I finished An Unnatural Vice isn’t one I experience all that often, but I suspect we all know what it is; that wonderful sense of awe and sheer elation that settles over you when you’ve just read something incredibly satisfying on every level.  A great story that’s excellently written and researched; characters who are well-drawn and appealing; a book that stimulates intellectually as well as emotionally… An Unnatural Vice has it all and is easily one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

The Sins of the Cities series has been inspired by author K.J. Charles’ love of Victorian Sensation Fiction, stories full of intrigue, murder, blackmail, missing heirs, evil relatives, stolen inheritances… I’m a big fan of the genre, and I absolutely love the way the author has brought its various elements into play in terms of the plot and overall atmosphere. The events in An Unnatural Vice run concurrently with those of book one, An Unseen Attraction, so while this one could be read as a standalone I’d definitely recommend reading the series in order.

Handsome, well-educated and wealthy, Nathaniel Roy trained in the law, but now works as a crusading journalist, dedicated to exposing social injustice and waging campaigns against industrial exploitation.  His editor has asked him to write an article about the mediums who prey on the wealthy, and as part of his research, he arranges to attend a séance held by the so-called Seer of London, Justin Lazarus.  Highly sceptical and determined to expose him as a fraud, Nathaniel is nonetheless fascinated by the man’s skill at what he does while being frustrated at not being able to work out how the hell he is manipulating the various objects in the room without touching them.  Worse still, however, is the unwanted spark of lust that shoots through him when he sets eyes upon the Seer for the first time, a visceral pull of attraction he hasn’t felt in the almost six years since he lost the love of his life; and the way Lazarus seems able to see into the very depths of Nathaniel’s soul is deeply unnerving and intrusive. He hates it at the same time as he is fascinated by the things Lazarus tells him and finds his convictions shaken and his thoughts consumed by the man over the next few days.

As far as Justin Lazarus is concerned, the gullible and credulous who make up the bulk of his clientele get exactly what they deserve and he refuses to feel guilty over giving them what they want – deceit and lies and sympathy – while they watch the people around them steal, whore or starve in the streets.  But a sceptic like Nathaniel Roy represents the sort of challenge Justin can’t pass up; he isn’t surprised when the man requests a second, private, meeting, and he uses it to push all Roy’s buttons, opening up the not-fully healed wounds of his grief while playing on the lust Justin had recognised at their first meeting.  The air is thick with suppressed desire and not-so-suppressed loathing as the two men trade barbs and insults – and even Justin recognises that this time, he’s probably gone too far and made an implacable enemy.

Mutual enmity notwithstanding however, Nathaniel and Justin are destined to be thrown into each other’s orbits once again when Justin receives a visit from two men who are trying to locate the children of a woman named Emmeline Godfrey who, they tell him, had been part of their “flock” until they ran away aged fourteen.  Justin recalls the desperate woman who visited him a year earlier asking about her twins, and the men want him to find them.  Sensing an opportunity, Justin puts on a show without telling them anything and thinks that’s that – until he remembers seeing an advertisement in the newspaper offering a reward for information about the same twins, giving Nathaniel Roy’s name as the person to contact. Always on the lookout for a way to make money, Justin decides to approach Roy with what he knows – but their discussion quickly descends into an erotically charged slanging match in which the mutual lust and hostility that has hung in the air between them since their first meeting boils over into a frenzied sexual encounter.  Despite having been turned inside out by “one of the better fucks of the nineteenth century”, Justin is still keen to focus on what he can get for his information, while Nathaniel just wants him gone, berating himself for having been so damned stupid as to have let things go so far.

Readers of the previous book will recall that Emmeline Godfrey was the name of the woman the now-deceased Earl of Moreton married in secret some years before contracting a later, bigamous marriage.  This means that the male twin is now the rightful earl, but with money and estates at stake, someone is going to great lengths to silence those who could reveal the truth – and now, Justin Lazarus has unwittingly put himself in the firing line.  A solitary man who has built a life in which he answers to and depends on nobody, Justin has no-one to turn to when he finds himself on the run from the men threatening him – no-one, that is, apart from the man who despises him and has sworn to expose him as a fraud – Nathaniel Roy.

On the most basic level, this is an enemies-to-lovers romance, but in the hands of K.J. Charles it is so much more than that.  Nathaniel is a man who is going through life by the numbers and doesn’t quite realise it; frozen by grief, he doesn’t expect ever to feel love or desire again and certainly not for a shifty bastard like Justin Lazarus.  Nathaniel finds it difficult to understand why a man gifted with such perspicacity and insight would choose to make a living by cheating the weak and vulnerable; but when Justin turns to him for help and Nathaniel glimpses the clever, amusing and desperately lonely man lying beneath the tough, prickly exterior, he is unable to deny the truth of his feelings any longer and admits to himself that he is coming to love Justin in spite of everything.  Justin is unapologetic and suspicious at first; born in a workhouse to a mother he never knew, his has been a hard life and he’s done what he had to in order to survive. He’s made something of himself through hard work, quick wits and sheer strength of will and doesn’t want to be beholden to anyone.  He tries to push Nathaniel away and dismisses his assertions that Justin is a better man than he believes himself to be, but Nathaniel’s obvious belief in him gradually starts to break down his emotional barriers.  The chemistry between the pair is off the charts, but amid all their snarling, vitriolic banter, come moments of real tenderness and understanding and watching these two damaged and very different men fall for each other is gut-wrenchingly beautiful. By the end of the book there is no doubt that they are deeply in love and in it for the long haul.

The writing is exquisite and the book is full of incredibly evocative scenes, whether it’s the descriptions of the thick, poisonous pea-souper that envelops London or the excitement of the opening séance, which is a real tour-de-force.  The mystery of the missing Taillefer heir is smoothly and skilfully woven through Justin and Nathaniel’s love story and the ending brilliantly sets up the next book, An Unsuitable Heir, due for release later this year.  But while the mystery is certainly intriguing, the real heart of the book is the complicated, messy but glorious romance between two bitter enemies.  An Unnatural Vice is a must-read and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

An Unseen Attraction (Sins of the Cities #1) by K.J Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Matthew Lloyd Davies

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Lodging-house keeper Clem Talleyfer prefers a quiet life. He’s happy with his hobbies, his work – and especially with his lodger Rowley Green, who becomes a friend over their long fireside evenings together. If only neat, precise, irresistible Mr. Green were interested in more than friendship…

Rowley just wants to be left alone – at least until he meets Clem, with his odd, charming ways and his glorious eyes. Two quiet men, lodging in the same house, coming to an understanding…it could be perfect. Then the brutally murdered corpse of another lodger is dumped on their doorstep and their peaceful life is shattered. Now Clem and Rowley find themselves caught up in a mystery, threatened on all sides by violent men, with a deadly London fog closing in on them. If they’re to see their way through, the pair must learn to share their secrets – and their hearts.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – A-

An Unseen Attraction is the first in K.J Charles’ new Sins of the Cities trilogy of historical romantic mysteries set in the late Victorian era. She has taken as her inspiration the pulp fiction of the day; the Victorian sensation novel as penned by authors such as Wilkie Collins, Sheridan le Fanu and Mary E. Braddon. As a big fan of that particular genre, I was rubbing my hands with glee whilst awaiting this first instalment, and am happy to report that the wait was well worth it.

English born, Anglo-Indian Clem Tallyfer keeps a respectable lodging house for skilled artisans in Clerkenwell, which was, even in Victorian times, an area of London where multiculturalism flourished. Clem is quiet, unassuming and content with his lot; he enjoys his work and he’s good at it because he’s good with people. He’s a decent, kind man with a good-heart and an optimistic outlook… although he does find one particular resident rather troubling, the Reverend Lugtrout, an habitual drunkard who gets aggressive and rude when under the influence, but whom he is powerless to evict. The lodging house is owned by Clem’s brother, and Clem’s position is conditional on Lugtrout’s living there. He doesn’t know why, or even how his brother knows Lugtrout, but Clem can’t do other than accept the situation and put up with the man’s unpleasant behaviour.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

An Unseen Attraction (Sins of the Cities #1) by K.J Charles

an-unseen-attraction

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Lodging-house keeper Clem Talleyfer prefers a quiet life. He’s happy with his hobbies, his work—and especially with his lodger Rowley Green, who becomes a friend over their long fireside evenings together. If only neat, precise, irresistible Mr. Green were interested in more than friendship. . . .

Rowley just wants to be left alone—at least until he meets Clem, with his odd, charming ways and his glorious eyes. Two quiet men, lodging in the same house, coming to an understanding . . . it could be perfect. Then the brutally murdered corpse of another lodger is dumped on their doorstep and their peaceful life is shattered.

Now Clem and Rowley find themselves caught up in a mystery, threatened on all sides by violent men, with a deadly London fog closing in on them. If they’re to see their way through, the pair must learn to share their secrets—and their hearts.

Rating: B+

K.J. Charles announced a while back that her new Sins of the Cities series of historical romances would feature stories in the mould of Victorian Sensation Fiction:

“… channelling my love for Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Dickens in his wilder moods, and the other glorious writers of complicated plots with scandals, secrets and shenanigans up the wazoo.”

To say I was excited at the prospect of something like this coming from one of my favourite writers is a gross understatement; I read a steady diet of books by those authors – and others – throughout my twenties and thirties, so I eagerly snapped up An Unseen Attraction, eager to see how Ms. Charles would employ the conventions and stylistic features of that particular genre of fiction in her story.  And she does not disappoint.  It’s all here – swirling Pea-Soupers, sinister figures lurking in the dark, a long-buried family secret, manipulative relatives who are not what they seem…  and an endearingly innocent protagonist and the stalwart love of his life who support each other through life-threatening events and unpleasant revelations.  The main difference, of course, is that those characters are both male, and the author has done a fabulous job in translating the traditional role of the artless heroine who is – unknowingly – under threat from the machinations of an evil relative to a male character who is similarly circumstanced.

That character is Clem Talleyfer, who keeps a quiet, respectable lodging house in Clerkenwell which was, even in mid-Victorian times, an area where multiculturalism flourished.  Clem is English, but was born to a white father and Indian mother, and he feels comfortable there, where –

There were Jews, Italians, Indians, Germans, Arabs and Africans and Chinese and more, all going about their own business like everybody else.

He has kept the lodging house for about eight years, and is good at it because he’s a “people person”; he’s a good listener and a kind, compassionate man with a good heart.  He’s quiet, reserved and methodical; he doesn’t like crowds or noise and finds it difficult sometimes to organise his thoughts, but he takes pride in his work – although he wishes the drunken Reverend Lugtrout, who lives at the house at the behest of Clem’s brother, who owns the place, would take himself somewhere else.

He has never understood his brother’s stipulation about Lugtrout having to live there, but there isn’t much he can do about it as the man has never shown any inclination to leave.  But when he is murdered and left unceremoniously on Clem’s doorstep, things take an abruptly menacing turn, threatening not only Clem’s safety, but that of the man he has come to love, Rowley Green, the taxidermist who rents the shop next door.

Rowley is a small, generally unprepossessing man, who lives a quiet, generally unprepossessing life and likes it that way.  But he can’t deny the pull of attraction he feels towards the handsome Clem, with his beautiful eyes, dark skin and oddly charming manner.  Clem is similarly smitten with the neat, precise Mr. Green, who is never impatient with him and who is comfortable with silence.  Their habit of taking tea together of an evening leads to a genuine friendship and eventually to more in a way that feels natural, unhurried and, quite simply, lovely.  The depth of understanding between them is apparent, and even though they both have their faults and sometimes make missteps, they are strong enough and confident enough in themselves and in their love for each other to be able to weather those storms.

The descriptions of London’s East End with its dingy streets and dangerous alleyways, the Pea-Soupers (fogs) and the local watering-holes and shops are all very evocative and put the reader right there on the rain-soaked cobbles next to the gutters running with all sorts of unsavoury muck.  The author offers some interesting perspectives on Rowley’s profession; while it may have something of an “ick” factor nowadays, taxidermy was very popular in the Victorian era and the way in which Clem and Rowley’s thoughts about it are so often in sync is another way of showing how perfect they are for one another.

I’m not going to say any more about the plot – which is superbly constructed and in which the author has not only made several nods to nineteenth century sensation novels, but has also somehow given the whole thing an understated quality that makes events all the more plausible.  I will say, though, that while the mystery is wrapped up as far as Clem and Rowley are concerned, there is a cliffhanger at the end which is obviously going to be picked up in the next book, so be warned that you might not want to read the last page until the next book comes out in June!

An Unseen Attraction is a terrific book and one I’m more than happy to recommend.  K.J. Charles is a superb storyteller and has once again crafted both an intriguing and engrossing story and a tender romance between two well-drawn protagonists whose unique personality traits inform their emotional and sexual relationships.  Add to that the way she so thoroughly immerses the reader in the sights, sounds and smells of Victorian London,  and the strong cast of secondary characters – some of whom will star in future books  – and it’s fair to say that she’s got another winning series on her hands.

Wanted, A Gentleman by K.J. Charles

wanted-a-gentleman

This title may be purchased from Amazon

By the good offices of Riptide Publishing
KJ Charles’s new Entertainment

WANTED, A GENTLEMAN
Or, Virtue Over-Rated

the grand romance of

Mr. Martin St. Vincent . . . a Merchant with a Mission, also a Problem
Mr. Theodore Swann . . . a humble Scribbler and Advertiser for Love

Act the First:

the offices of the Matrimonial Advertiser, London
where Lonely Hearts may seek one another for the cost of a shilling

Act the Second:

a Pursuit to Gretna Green (or thereabouts)

featuring

a speedy Carriage
sundry rustic Inns
a private Bed-chamber
***
In the course of which are presented

Romance, Revenge, and Redemption
Deceptions, Discoveries, and Desires

the particulars of which are too numerous to impart

Rating: B+

This new novella from the pen of K.J. Charles is a Regency Era road-trip undertaken in order to foil the elopement of an heiress and her unsuitable beau.

The couple has been corresponding secretly by placing messages in the pages of the Matrimonial Advertiser, a news-sheet dedicated to publishing what we would today call Lonely Hearts advertisements, and run by Mr. Theodore Swann, a jobbing writer who owns and runs the paper as well as scribbling romantic novels on the side.

Into his dingy City office one day, bursts Mr. Martin St. Vincent, a well-built, well-dressed and obviously well to-do black man, who is trying to discover the identity of the man who has been corresponding with the seventeen year-old daughter of his former owner. He’s blunt and not in the mood for humour, small-talk or any of Theo’s sales patter – and quickly cuts to the chase by asking Theo to put a price on his assistance.

Before he can discover the man’s identity however, the young lady elopes with her swain, and the family turns to Martin for help. A former slave, his relationship to the Conroys – who, by the standards of the day treated him well – is a difficult one, but he used to play with the young woman when she was a child and read her stories… and it’s for her sake that he agrees to try to find her and bring her home safely.

Realising he’ll need help – and having been reluctantly impressed with Theo’s quick wits and sharp tongue (among other things) – Martin asks Theo to go with him – and after they have agreed on a large fee, Theo agrees.

This is a novella of some 150 pages, but K.J Charles does such a superb job with the characterisation of her two principals and adds such depth to their personalities and stories that I came away from the novella feeing – almost – as though I’d read a full-length novel. There’s a spark of attraction between the two men from the start, and this builds gradually as they travel and get to know each other better, but what is so wonderful is the way the relationship between them grows alongside it. Martin is a former slave, and while he doesn’t feel he owes anything to his former master, he can’t help resenting the fact that he has been very lucky when compared to so many others:

“I was kept in the household, and freed on such generous terms that I have been able to prosper ever since, and how can I resent that?”

“That sounds to me the kind of generosity that could kill a man.”

“It is. It sticks in my throat like thistles, it chokes me.”

And Theo gets it. He sees Martin as a person, he believes he’s entitled to be angry:

“I, uh, feel strongly about gratitude. Forced gratitude, I mean, the kind piled on your debt as added interest. To be ground underfoot and then told to be thankful the foot was not heavier – I hate it.”

Their conversations are insightful and often humorous, showcasing many of the things I enjoy so much about this author’s work. Her research is impeccable and I always like the way she doesn’t just gloss over the social issues of the day. There wree moves towards abolition in England at this time, but there were still many people making money out of slavery; there was serious social inequality and no safety net for those who couldn’t afford even the most basic of life’s necessities; yet all these issues are addressed in a way that is not preachy or dry history lesson. Instead they arise naturally out of the direction taken by the story, the lives of the characters and the situations in which they live.

Both protagonists are attractive, likeable characters, although Theo is probably the more well-developed of the two, with a bit more light and shade to his persona. He’s quick witted, devious and sarcastic; and I really liked that his lady novelist alter-ego, Dorothea Swann, gives Ms. Charles the opportunity to make a few tongue-in-cheek observations about romantic fiction but also allows Theo to save the day.

Wanted, A Gentleman is beautifully written, the dialogue sparkles and Theo and Martin simply charmed me.

My only complaint is that the book ended too quickly.