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Review: The Sugared Game by KJ Charles

I discovered KJ Charles in March 2019 – a friend had raved about The Henchmen of Zenda, and when someone whose taste in books allies very closely to your own, you listen to their raves. I actually began with a few other books first, but five books later I was ready to be a lifelong reader. The Henchmen of Zenda – a brilliantly entertaining take on The Prisoner of Zenda, only with the sympathy firmly in the henchmen’s camp – convinced me, if I needed any further convincing. Which I didn’t.

In the 18 months since being introduced to Charles’ work, I’ve read almost everything she’s published. I keep meaning to write about each of her series and standalones, but I’m not sure what I’d say beyond “another bloody brilliant book by K.J. Charles!”

Which brings me to The Sugared Game, the second in The Will Darling Adventures trilogy.  I could just say “another bloody brilliant book by K.J. Charles!” but that’s hardly helpful. So.

The first book of the series, Slippery Creatures, introduced us to Will Darling, a returned WWI soldier trying to adjust to civilian life, who has just inherited a bookshop from his uncle. He meets Kim Secretan, a very posh fellow with a difficult past who, it seems, can never be entirely trusted. Their sexual attraction is undeniable, but so is the fact that Will has fallen into a thick and deadly plot involving a criminal gang, the War Office, some even shadier goings on that Kim seems to be part of.

The Sugared Game continues the fabulously outré pulp fiction adventures that began in Slippery Creatures: the Zodiac gang with its code names and ruthless cohorts are still operating, despite the distinct blows delivered by Will and Kim in the previous book. The gang’s head, Capricorn, is still out there, though the focus this time is on the Aquarius.

Kim, as slippery a creature as ever tied an exquisite suit, has not been in touch with Will for a few months as the book opens, and Will is hurt and furious in equal measure, despite no declarations having been made. His best friend Maisie, however, has made fast friends with Kim’s fiancée, Phoebe (it’s complicated) and Maisie’s genius for clothing design is giving both women new opportunities.

Celebrating the new business potential at the High Low night club, however, Will is thrown unexpectedly into Zodiac dealings once more, and vulnerable, shifty, unreliable, gorgeous Kim is suddenly back in Will’s life. Inevitably, Will gets tangled up in this ruthless game – which he wouldn’t mind so much if Kim didn’t keep on hiding so much and lying the rest of the time. Their fragile intimacy – their mutual attraction and desire – could easily be the making or breaking of these men and the vicious gang they’re trying to dismantle (or just survive).

Charles once more delivers a cracking adventure story populated by gritty, really real people, despite the fantastical pulp/007 style plots. When Kim and Will clash, it’s not some silly misunderstanding that would be cleared up if only they would talk. (Though, yeah, Kim’s incapacity to do that isn’t a help.) The obstacles they have to overcome for the adventure, and for their personal lives, are real, embedded in personality, values, motivations that make sense and forces both internal and external. This makes the resolutions to both adventure and love story incredibly satisfying.

Slippery Creatures resolved one story line and took Kim and Will on a step forward in their relationship. The Sugared Game brings them on another step, while the Zodiac storyline is addressed in more detail along with consequences for Kim and Will as well as Maisie and Phoebe.

I’m eagerly looking forward to the third in the trilogy, Subtle Blood, due out later this year. I have no doubt that Kim, Will, Maisie and Phoebe will be tangled up in deadly adventures once more, facing believable and difficult personal issues, and that the conclusion will be as hard-fought-for, and as deeply satisfying, as everything she writes.

Buy The Sugared Game

Buy Slippery Creatures

Review: Octavius and the Perfect Governess by Emily Larkin

Emily Larkin has released a new book in her wonderful Regency-era Baleful Godmother series, and is taking the series in a new direction after a series of short stories called the Pryor Prequels.

The series began when a woman and her three daughters save a faerie child from drowning. It’s fae mother rewards them with wishes that will follow the family line – as each female descendant reaches a particular birthday, they will be granted a wish. But the Fae are scary folk, and Baletongue will trick them if she can.

Previous books have followed the female descendants, but the Pryor Prequels trace how one descendant transferred her wish to the male line, and the terrible consequences of that wish.

Now, in the first novel following that thread, we have Octavius Pryor, a wealthy young man from a family of men with special, faerie-gifted powers. His grandfather is very strict, however, on the rules of how such gifts can be used, because of what his mother wished.

Octavius in fact has chosen the same wish that Miss Appleby did back in Unmasking Miss Appleby, the book that got me hooked on this series. Like Charlotte Appleby, Octavius has chosen the gift of metamorphosis.

In Unmasking Miss Appleby, Charlotte changes into a man in order to escape her restricted life; here, Octavius first changes shape into a woman as a forfeit on a bet with his brother and cousins, and visits Vauxhall Gardens with them at night. There he discovers just how unpleasant man can be, and how little power women have in his world.

When Octavius adopts a female shape again in order to teach the vile Baron Rumpole a lesson for the attempted assault, he encounters Miss Toogood, the governess Rumpole has engaged to teach his two daughters. He determines at once to find a way into Rumpole’s household in order to protect this courageous, kind woman from the fate that has befallen other women in Rumpole’s household staff.

There follows a novel of Larkin’s usual deft charm, wit and pace. She gives the subject matter the seriousness and drama it deserves, with Octavius learning and absorbing the lessons of how the privilege of been male and wealthy are not extended to others, and how those privileges can be used to abuse others. The characters are nicely drawn, likeable but flawed, and the obstacles to their love are those of circumstance and genuine conflict rather than foolish misunderstandings that could be fixed if people would just talk.

I particularly enjoyed Octavius and his cousin and friend teaching Miss Toogood self defence – this isn’t going to be a story about a damsel in distress, but of two people with agency, learning and becoming stronger together.

The shapeshifting element of Octavius and the Perfect Governess brings an interesting undercurrent, seen also in Unmasking Miss Appleby, of body dysphoria and characters that are not transgender but whose feelings may reflect some experiences of being transgender. This is the element that first engaged me with this series and I enjoyed reading about it from the male-to-female perspective.

I’m looking forward to more books in this series – and there are hints that there may be another gay romance in the set.

You can read an excerpt of the book on Emily Larkin’s website.

Buy Octavius and the Perfect Governess

Review: Ghost Story by GV Pearce

The latest book from Improbable Press gives us a piquant blend of love story, character study and spoooookiness.

This Holmes/Watson tale has an original contemporary London/York setting and opens with John and Sherlock, married for several months now, on what ought to be a belated honeymoon but which John knows to be a case – a case which Sherlock said he wasn’t pursuing. Already it’s clear that while they love and adore each other, there’s rockiness ahead.

Sherlock’s not the only one keeping secrets, however. From the very first chapter we know that John sees ghosts, and has done since he was a child. He can’t tell anyone – people would think him unbalanced – so he avoids thinking about it whenever possible. That is not as often as he’d like.

Ghost Story is both a great little Holmesian mystery about the missing Gloria Evans: it’s a fantastically spooky tale of a man haunted by ghosts and the traumas of his past; his relationship with a man who seems equal parts obliviousness and devotion; and a study of the cracks in a loving relationship when the deceptions pile up, whatever the motivations.

The unravelling of those secrets and why they’re being kept are part of a beautifully texture of a low-key case that feels very intense in terms of its impact.

A couple of the scenes are deeply affecting and gorgeously evocative. Gloria’a abandoned flat, where greenery has invaded the spaces; the streets and buildings of York; the banks of a river; the flashbacks to John’s childhood and the attack on the ambulance convoy in Afghanistan – all of these are described so splendidly that I could almost scent the atmosphere – Gloria’s flat particularly.

One of the many things I love about Ghost Story is how it becomes gradually clear that the spirits that John encounters are not the only ghosts of the title.

John and Sherlock are both a little ghost-like themselves, not quite anchored in the world or entirely present for each other. Sherlock flits in and out of John’s life for a while, through the flashbacks of how they met and their first case, and he still keeps secrets and disappears without explanation. At the same time, in avoiding confrontation and acceptance of his unwanted gift, and the secret that he’s therefore keeping himself, combined with the effects of his war injuries, John is absent in key ways too.

It’s a beautiful theme that threads through the whole and makes the conclusion – in which the resolutions for the hauntings and John and Sherlock’s relationship are linked – particularly satisfying.

GV Pearce has written us a wonderfully atmospheric, beautifully paced book – it may take a little time for case/relationship/ghostiness to come to a head, but every step is deeply involving and the reader is fully engaged with wondering how all the elements will turn out. It is in turns poignant, charming, funny and unsettling, but it’s deftly wound together in a conclusion that satisfies without being heavy handed.

I hope Pearce considers another book for Improbable Press – in this universe or any other they care to write in. I’ll pounce on it the minute I can!

Buy Ghost Story

Review: In Her Footsteps from Lonely Planet

Lonely Planet has been doing some lovely themed books recently, and the latest is this lush tome – In Her Footsteps (though it appears in Goodreads as The Feminist Tour).

Over 30 writers contributed to the 200+ entries about influential women throughout history and across the globe. Some entries are particularly lively, and some lovely illustrations by Lauren Crow among the photographs.

I knew of a lot of these women, but by no means all, so it was fantastic to read through the entries under Activists, Artists, Pathbreakers and Icons and expand my knowledge.

“…let the artist have the last word on her own work”

Not every entry is for a really admirable person – people can be notable trailblazers for not-good reasons too, like Borgias and Medicis – but every entry tells about a woman who made a significant mark in her own world, and often in the wider world too. Women from all over Europe, Asia, Oceania and the Americas.

Michelle Obama and Jo Cox are listed; Murasaki Shikibu who wrote the first novel in around 1012AD and Mary Shelley; Pussy Riot and Wu Zetian, China’s only female emperor; aviatrix Bessie Coleman and Samoan longboat rower Zita Martel. Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai; Grace Darling and Moomin creator Tove Jansson.

I was delighted to find plenty of queer representation among the entries, and several trans women as well: women like Anne Lister, Lile Elbe, Christina of Sweden, a famously bisexual 17th century queen and of course Sappho.

Really, the only thing I found frustrating about the book was the lack of a map. For each entry, the writer has suggested a place where you might visit – from Egyptian ruins associated with Nefertiti and a statue of Mata Hari in Leeuwarden in the Netherlands, to the Apollo Theatre in Harlem in honour of Ella Fitzgerald and the Gabriela Mistral Museum in Vicuna, Chile.

“the girl who practically invented emo”.

As I’m off to Europe for a 6 week trip at the end of April, I would have found a world map a bit more useful to see what sites on my route I could visit to learn more about significant local women. There’s an index which mentions countries and cities at the back, but I do so like a nice map.

That quibble aside, In Her Footsteps is a gorgeous hardcover book, and even if International Women’s Day is over for now, you can celebrate incredible women every day buy picking up this book and using it as a guide to read more about the women who fill its pages.

Buy In Her Footsteps: