Title: An Unsuitable Heir by KJ Charles
Published by: Random House LLC
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewed by: Alex
What to Expect: KJ Charles wraps up the Sins of the Cities trilogy with with a trapeze artist named Pen who won’t compromise gender identity for sake of an earldom and a detective who acknowledges Pen’s true self while knowing he might have to convince Pen to do exactly that in order to save Pen’s life.
A private detective finds passion, danger, and the love of a lifetime when he hunts down a lost earl in Victorian London.
On the trail of an aristocrat’s secret son, enquiry agent Mark Braglewicz finds his quarry in a music hall, performing as a trapeze artist with his twin sister. Graceful, beautiful, elusive, and strong, Pen Starling is like nobody Mark’s ever met—and everything he’s ever wanted. But the long-haired acrobat has an earldom and a fortune to claim.
Pen doesn’t want to live as any sort of man, least of all a nobleman. The thought of being wealthy, titled, and always in the public eye is horrifying. He likes his life now—his days on the trapeze, his nights with Mark. And he won’t be pushed into taking a title that would destroy his soul.
But there’s a killer stalking London’s foggy streets, and more lives than just Pen’s are at risk. Mark decides he must force the reluctant heir from music hall to manor house, to save Pen’s neck. Betrayed by the one man he thought he could trust, Pen never wants to see his lover again. But when the killer comes after him, Pen must find a way to forgive—or he might not live long enough for Mark to make amends.
While I haven’t read the entire KJ Charles oeuvre, the stories I have read are about careful, thoughtful lovers in the Victorian age. Interesting time to be queer. It’s an age with visible homosexuality and an age gearing up toward the 1885 legislation that will make private acts between consenting men blatantly illegal. The same legislation that will land Oscar Wilde in gaol in 1896.
But the Victorian era, known for sexual repression, was categorized by an awful lot of talk about sex and, thanks to one sexologist Havelock Ellis, created a term called sexual inversion, which was used to describe a reversal of gender traits as an inborn mechanism. The term was used across the spectrum of homosexuality and gender identity but perhaps it was most closely descriptive of transgenderism—a term that was introduced a century later.
(Don’t get too excited about this guy Ellis. He was also a proponent for Eugenics. Jerk.)
I rudely interrupted myself. What was I saying?
Who doesn’t have the language to describe how odd it feels to have large hands and broad shoulders, despite the fact they have uncommon body awareness to fly on the trapeze. It was interesting to consider a character who know who they were (Pen’s identity wasn’t in question for himself) but because of this lack of common vocabulary (which is remains topics of many Twitter threads today), Pen was wary of the constant requirement to adhere to a standard that simply didn’t suit them.
Who sees Pen authentically. Conversely, Pen sees Mark (a one-armed Polish man who has long ago worked out how to perform daily tasks, though others see him as defective) for who he is as well. This ongoing discussion and validation is nice to see. In fact, KJ Charles often writes about the perspective of those who are seen as ‘others’ or ‘outliers’ to standard white bread society. She writes with a lot of kindness and patience and, I suspect, with the hope of raising awareness so we (as a whole) can elevate how we treat those around us.
I was invested. And as much as I didn’t quite fall in love with this couple as much as Nathaniel and Justin, I did (on more than one occasion) pick up my e-reader just after closing it just to read another few lines, which became some more pages, which became chapters.
This trilogy demonstrates why KJ Charles has such a dedicated following. If you don’t pick up this series, pick up another; the choice on whether or not to read her books is a no-brainer.
What you may not like: As referenced above, there is such care put into how her lovers treat each other, how they navigate each other’s ‘otherness’ — not just accepting their lover but constantly, consistently, repetitively accepting their lover. Unfortunately, this wore down my interest, possibly because I was already onboard with these concepts. Similarly, in book #3 (which this is), there was a lot of revisiting of what had happened in prior books. Perhaps it was necessary for those who read the prior books in the series some time ago. I felt it could have been more subtle.
There is also one point in which Pen seems to have adopted a new pronoun but because it was said by Mark rather than Pen themselves, I was uncomfortable. This is in part because there were several instances in this story in which Mark proceeded to move against Pen’s explicit wishes (which is likely the other reason I didn’t love them together). It is very difficult to run roughshod over a lover’s wishes and is, perhaps, unforgivable to many readers. I’m still mulling it over (Though in real life? No. I’d be raising hell if that happened to a friend of mine. No forgiveness, know what I’m saying?)
What you will love: The authentic Victorian London experience – complete with smells, fog, livelihood, trendy words, and lots (and lots) of tea. The relationships supersede the mystery but, even so, the plot was interesting, especially as it grew over the course of the three books. Mostly, I loved the community, how each character remains imperfect, but also perfectly, wonderfully loved. Because, really, her characters are perfectly, wonderfully lovable.