Published by: Riptide Publishing
Genre: Historical Romance
Order at: Amazon
Reviewed by: Erin
What to Expect: An enemies-to-lovers road trip romance!
What I love about KJ Charles is that it’s clear from her writing how much research she does, but not in a way that makes you feel like you’re reading a research paper. (This will be relevant in my review of her upcoming novel An Unseen Attraction, in where there is sooooo much taxidermy. But I digress.) Even in a novella featuring settings which are familiar to your average romance reader – London, carriages, inns, the typical mad dash to the Scottish border – and still manages to immerse the reader in facets of history you don’t typically see in romances.
Theodore Swann runs the Matrimonial Advertiser, which is a publication of, well, personal ads. Older men looking for younger women, poor men looking for rich women, women in Difficult Situations looking for any husband, fast. He also makes a living as a gothic novel writer, scribbling stories long into the night. He’s deep in debt to his cousin and uncle, crushing debt that he can never be free of. He works and sometimes goes to the pub and works some more. His one goal is to make as much money as possible, in hopes of getting out from under his uncle’s yoke.
Martin St. Vincent is a well-to-do, formerly enslaved black man. He is a mess of complicated feelings, rigidly disciplined, and very well-dressed. In other words? He’s your ideal romance hero. He’s trying to save the daughter of his former owners from a disastrous marriage, which leads him to Theo’s door. Martin was sold to a family at age four, then raised as a house slave. He was treated as a favored pet, spoiled and given an education. He was freed when he came of age, and given a hundred pounds upon his freeing. He feels like he should be grateful, but who can be grateful for being owned? But how can he not, when so many had it worse? (Note: These are Martin’s thoughts, not mine.) These thoughts twist around and around in his head and his gut, leaving him adrift and feeling like he doesn’t quite fit in the world.
KJ Charles does a good job showing that while it’s understandable that Martin’s feelings are conflicted, it is unequivocally abhorrent for one human being to own another, and that being treated well as a slave is nothing to be grateful for. She delineates quite clearly that the institution itself is abusive, cruel, and dehumanizing, and the behavior of individual slave owners is irrelevant. She doesn’t make Martin’s owners kind and generous to forgive them; she does it to highlight the cruelty of slavery.
Martin and Theo end up on a road trip for convenient plot reasons, where they flirt and bare their souls to each other, a little bit at a time. This leads to some pretty damn hot sex, then it all comes crashing horribly down in the worst way possible. There was a whole chapter I was reading through my fingers, because…ouch. Brutal ouch.
This book feels so much longer than it is. Charles packs layers of characterization and lots of action into a small space. It’s deeply emotionally satisfying, and she does the thing she does so well, which is shining a light into some small (or not so small) piece of London history. It’s a terrific book that makes you think, makes you sweat, and gives you a truly swoon-worthy hero in Martin.
And yet, I feel like some readers are going to balk at this book. Why? Because of Theo. Charles loves a rat bastard hero, she really does. She like heroes who aren’t always tall, aren’t always built, aren’t always heroic, and sometimes aren’t very likeable. Then? She dares us to like them. Theo is grasping, greedy, and conniving, with a shady past. He’s the polar opposite of sweet, stand-up good guy Martin. Saying more would spoil the book, but I think that there is going to be a lot of discussion about whether people can buy Theo as a hero. (I bought him fully, though I have a personal soft spot for folks in economic distress.
All in all, this is a fascinating, fun road trip book with two unique heroes. It’s KJ Charles, so you know it’s meticulously researched, well-written, and filthy dirty. What more can you ask for?
What you might not like: As mentioned above, Theo.
What you’ll love: This is a book that takes you along for a ride, literal and figurative. You won’t be able to put this one down! Martin is darling, the sex is smoking hot, and you get to see a London you don’t often see in romance novels.
Erin is a full time contributor to Binge on Books. She is a voracious reader and reviewer who has been been reading romances since she stole them from under her neighbor’s mom’s bed while she was at work. You can read all her reviews here.
Connect with Erin on Twitter: @booksandjoe