Tuesday 20 September 2022

CBR14 Book 23: "The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes" by Cat Sebastian

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 5 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Gaslight (Marian was lied to and manipulated by the duke, book also set in the Georgian era)

Spoiler warning! I'm going to do my best to review this book without spoiling major plot points from The Queer Principles of Kit Webb or this book, but if you want to remain fully unspoiled, you'd probably want to skip this review until you've actually read the book. Which you should (read the book, I mean), it's absolutely marvellous.

Marian Hayes, believed to be the Duchess of Clare until the truth about her husband's first marriage comes out, is on the run. The Duke of Clare was critically injured during a highway robbery, and Marian is not going to stay behind at the duke's estate to wait for the loathsome man to actually die, nor to be asked intrusive questions about the incident where the duke ended up with a bullet in his gut. Unfortunately, Marian doesn't have a lot of people to turn to in her hour of need, and so ends up fleeing her husband's deathbed aided by none other than the man who revealed the truth about the duke's bigamy in the first place - Robert "Rob" Brooks, scoundrel, con artist, former highwayman and currently Marian's (not exactly unwilling) kidnapping victim.

Rob has been on the wrong side of the law for most of his life, and what was supposed to be a rather simple blackmailing plot turned into a months-long correspondence with his blackmailing victim. It also involved her tailing him through the seedier side of London during various nighttime jaunts, and culminated in her drugging him and leaving him tied to a bed just as he was about to assist his former best friend and Marian's sort of stepson-in-law rob the Duke of Clare. So when she shows up in the rooms she rented to keep him captive (he managed to get out of her rather inept knots without too much trouble), covered almost head to toe in blood, utterly furious and infuriatingly enchanting, what's a charming rogue like Rob supposed to do? Leave her to fend for herself?

Marian insists she needs to check on the safety and welfare of her father and she and Rob set off, picking pockets, drinking, bickering (on Marion's part), and flirting (on Rob's part), trying to stay ahead of the law and completing the process that began with their unusual correspondence. Rob was pretty smitten with Marian even before he really spent any time with her. During their unorthodox road trip, his feelings deepen and increase. Marian, on her part, has never exactly been what was considered the feminine ideal. She is deeply disillusioned by her relationship with the Duke of Clare, which wasn't exactly a romantic dream even before she discovered that he was a bigamist with a wife alive somewhere, either in the French countryside or somewhere in England. She's acerbic, sarcastic, deeply practical, and believes herself to be pretty unlovable, her best friend Percy's affections notwithstanding. That living golden retriever Rob, with his good looks, and cheerful demeanour, not to mention a flirtatious look and/or word for everyone claims that he loves her, she has trouble both believing herself worthy and in returning his affections as she feels he deserves. 

An additional potential complication in the relationship between Rob and Marian is that, while Marian survived her very difficult pregnancy and the birth of her daughter Elizabeth (who is safely in the care of Kit and Percy, for those of you worried about Marian haring off without her baby), it's also clear that she would not necessarily survive another pregnancy and therefore traditional intercourse could have life-threatening consequences for her. While the Duke doesn't seem to have cared about his young wife's safety at all, Rob is all about respect and consent and is more than creative enough to make sure that he and Marian can enjoy themselves without Marian ever having to be at risk. Both in this and in the rather wounded and seemingly spiky heroine, this book reminded me of The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan, where a rather abrasive (on the surface) heroine has experienced a lot of trauma in marriage and finds true love with a clever, handsome man who utterly adores her. I didn't even know that this was a trope I cherish, but it clearly is when handled deftly by a good writer.

I'm sure this book isn't going to be 5 stars for everyone. The opening correspondence between Rob and Marian is excellent, as is their banter throughout, but I can see that some might find the somewhat disjointed road trip narrative, not to mention Rob and Marian's subsequent further forays into criminal endeavours and trying to find justice for the little people by threatening the rich (it was only after reading a comment on another's review of this on the Cannonball Read that I actually realised that Rob and Marian are obviously meant to be inspired by Robin Hood and Maid Marian, at no point while actually reading the book did this cross my mind). Meanwhile, I had trouble putting the book down, and on the occasions when I had to do so, to eat, sleep, do actual paying work, or take care of my family, I still kept thinking about Rob and Marian and wanting to spend more time in their company. To me, this was a pretty perfect read, and will in high probability be one of my top three reads of the year. So glad I finally read these books. 

Judging a book by its cover: I absolutely adore this cover, the way Marian is basically jumping into Rob's arms. It's passionate and playful at the same time and makes me smile every time I see it. I know I gripe a lot about cartoony covers, but this is basically perfection. Love it! 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday 19 September 2022

CBR14 Book 22: "The Queer Principles of Kit Webb" by Cat Sebastian

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

CBR14: Rec'd (this has been recommended by multiple Cannonballers and pretty much every romance review blog I can think of)

Edward Percival "Percy" Talbot, Lord Holland, returns to England after several years abroad in Europe to discover that his mother died in his absence, and his deeply unpleasant father hastily remarried, to Percy's best friend from childhood, Lady Marian Hayes, who also had time to birth Percy a baby sister. Furthermore, Marian reveals that a blackmailer has contacted her with proof that the Duke of Clare was already married when he married Percy's mother, and subsequently Marian. Neither Percy nor the baby Elizabeth are the duke's legal offspring and Marian has unwittingly married a bigamist. 

It's not as if Percy or Marian have the funds or any intention to pay off the blackmailer, but Marian hatches a scheme that involves robbing the duke, to steal the journal of Percy's late mother (which the duke apparently keeps in an inner pocket at all times. The journal would give them enough material with which to blackmail the duke themselves to secure financially independent futures for all three (Percy, Marion and baby Eliza). 

To assist them in their outrageous plot, Percy is tasked with recruiting Christopher "Kit" Webb, formerly (allegedly the highwayman 'Gladhand Jack', now a respectable (and seemingly rather boring)) owner of a coffee house. Nevertheless, on his many trips to the coffee house to observe Kit, Percy begins to find him rather fascinating. 

Kit has retired from his life of crime, crippled by a leg wound and rather disillusioned once his partner in crime died on the job. Now he runs a respectable coffee house along with his former fence, Betty, a formidable young woman who not only makes sure he takes care of himself but keeps him from slipping too far into depression and self-pity. Kit wants nothing to do with the hare-brained plot of some bored aristocrat until he finds out who Percy actually wants to rob. Due to his leg, Kit can't actually do the job himself, but he offers to train Percy to do the robbery himself. Initially, Kit assumes that a pampered nobleman like Percy would have no fighting experience, and this proves true when it comes to hand-to-hand combat. When it comes to fencing, on the other hand, Percy is way more proficient than Kit expected.

A soon-to-be disgraced noble and a working-class former highwayman might not have a lot in common, but even in their early meetings, there's palpable chemistry between Percy and Kit. One of the reasons the Duke of Clare has always been so disapproving of his son is Percy's obvious disinterest in women altogether. Kit doesn't seem to have felt desire for men before Percy, but spends more time being conflicted about being a class traitor (and later, when he discovers who Percy's father actually is, about falling for the son of the man who ruined his life). 

While Percy and Kit are busy trying to prepare for the heist on the duke of Clare, it's obvious that Marian, Percy's best friend, is up to schemes of her own. She keeps showing up in Percy's bedroom late at night, dressed in breeches, and handing him bags full of small items to fence to get them money. As the story progresses, it becomes obvious to Percy that she seems to have kept corresponding with their blackmailer, as well, for reasons that are opaque to him. The identity of the blackmailer is revealed over the course of the story and said person has ties to Kit and Betty, which is not exactly surprising when one considers their criminal pasts (and Betty's ongoing source of income - working for Kit at the coffee shop is clearly her side-hustle). I'm very glad I waited until both this and its companion novel about Marian was out, so I didn't have to wait for Marian's story. I had originally rated this five stars, but after starting The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes, which I found almost painful to have to put down and stop reading, it became clear that that novel has the edge for me. 

Nonetheless, I very much enjoyed this (I don't think I've come across a Cat Sebastian book yet that I didn't really like). I can now join the throng of people who have recommended this book. 

Judging a book by its cover: I obviously love the beautiful minty green of the cover, it's one of my favourite colours. However, I must admit, the cover artist could possibly have done a better job at making both of the characters a bit more masculine-looking. When I first saw this cover, I assumed it was a f/f romance, with the women in breeches, because both the people look so feminine to me. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Tuesday 6 September 2022

CBR14 Book 21: "The Sugared Game" by K.J. Charles

Page count: 292 pages
Rating: 4 stars
CBR14 Bingo - Shadow (spies and all sorts of murky shenanigans throughout the story)
This is book two in a series, and it really doesn't work very well on its own. To start from the beginning, read Slippery Creatures first.

Will Darling has settled more comfortably into his role as a London bookseller but has seen nor heard anything from the mysterious Lord Arthur "Kim" Secretan for several months. He has done his best to forget all about the man and get on with his life, agreeing to take his dressmaker friend Maisie to a nightclub, to dance and drink and forget their troubles. At the club, Will encounters an old army mate, who now works as a waiter after returning from the war. He reveals that not everything is above board at the club, and Will's observations while he's there only confirm the impression. 

It's only after his visit that Kim suddenly appears in his bookshop again, claiming to have stayed away from Will to protect him, but now needing his help to unravel and unmask yet another dangerous conspiracy. Part of Will wants to tell the handsome aristocrat to go to the devil and take his spy plots with him, but another part is pretty thoroughly smitten with both Kim Secretan and the perilous lifestyle he leads, so of course, he agrees to help, keeping the full truth of the investigation from Maisie and Lady Phoebe (Kim's fiancee), at least until the two women find themselves inextricably threatened by sinister forces.

Will is naturally very exasperated and a bit sick of Kim's proclivity for secrecy and double-dealing, but quietly running a bookstore and being a respectable citizen who doesn't end up in fights and break into places in the dead of night is also pretty boring, so when Kim comes knocking, it doesn't take long for Will to agree to help him once more. He has a lot less patience with Kim's secrecy this time around, but once the full truth of the matters Kim has been hiding is revealed, Will can understand why the man has been keeping his card extremely close to his chest, and why he's been worried about endangering others by sharing the secret. 

In Kim's absence, Will's friendship with both Maisie and Lady Phoebe has also further developed and he's come to be very fond of both women, as well as feel deeply protective of them. He thinks it's wonderful that Phoebe wants to go into business with Maisie and give her a chance to take her eye for couture to Paris, yet also worries that interacting too much with the wealthier classes will end in disappointment for his friend. As it happens, the secrets that Kim's keeping this time around very much have a chance to ruin not only Maisie and Phoebe's business plans, but could end up with one or both of them in lethal danger. 

While I found the pacing of this second book somewhat more uneven than that of the first and, like Will, had less patience for Kim's shifty behaviour, in the final third of the book, when everything is revealed (and you understand what Kim has been forced to keep entirely secret, not able to burden anyone with the terrible knowledge he holds) and there's a thrilling race to see how things are going to turn out, I was on the edge of my seat, so to speak, and very excited to see how everything would play out. The actual ending is bittersweet but very realistic. I'm decided a little bit to read the final volume of the series, mainly because I don't want to be done with these characters just yet. However, having now remembered how much I enjoyed the story when writing this review, I suspect book 3 will be moving swiftly to the top of my TBR list. 

Judging a book by its cover: This cover doesn't have me imagining that one of the characters is in a wheelchair, so that's a step up. I like the men in profile, and I very much like the silhouettes of the women at the centre (I'm assuming they're meant to be Maisie and Lady Phoebe). The art deco details are still excellent. Mainly, I find myself annoyed by the huge sideburns on our dude to the right (Will?) Can't tell you why, I just don't like them. 
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.