Last year, I totally fell in love with Laura Florand's novels. This year, I think KJ Charles is going to be my new book crush.
I first heard about KJ Charles at Portable Pieces of Thought. I bought The Magpie Lord a short time after reading rameau's review, then promptly forgot about it, even after Anachronist offered to loan me the second book in the series. The Magpie Lord would probably still be sitting unread on my Kindle if it hadn't been for a listicle on m/m romance writers I agreed to write for Book Riot. I found myself racking my brain for a scifi-fantasy m/m title, scrolling through my endless list of ebooks, when I happened across The Magpie Lord and remembered how much Anachronist enjoyed it.
Basically, The Magpie Lord is like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, only sexy, entertaining, NOT 600 pages too long, and with a romantic subplot that didn't make me want to shoot someone.
The Magpie Lord was a really fun, fast, and delightful read. I loved Lucien and his bestie, Merrick, and the fact that they had an extensive and very exotic backstory set in China. Lucien is your basic rake, but he's a rake whose actions are grounded in a personal history and are more about independence than rebellion. Stephen was also a great character, with a complex history involving Lucien's family. I loved that his sense of justice was more important to him than personal grudges. Not to mention that his historical crush on the first Lord Crane (aka the eponymous Magpie Lord) was kind of adorkable.
The ending felt rushed and too conveniently resolved, but for the most part The Magpie Lord was a really good book. I bought the second book in the series as soon as I finished it! (Kindle's really kind of evil when it comes to that.)
After I completed The Magpie Lord, I was going through Charles' Amazon page and ran across Think of England. Unlike Charles' Charm of Magpies series, this is a historical novella set in Edwardian England. Former army captain Archie Curtis gets himself invited to a house party at a remote country estate, all so he can poke into the affairs of the house's owner, whom he suspects sold defective weapons to the army. While at the house party, he meets Daniel da Silva, an effeminate poet who is clearly Up To Something.
I've Come to Stay, both of whom I adore, needless to say. The female characters were also really sharp and completely awesome.
But my favorite thing about this book is how Charles references and roots Think of England in Edwardian adventure novels. Both H. Rider Haggard and E. Phillips Oppenheim are mentioned by the characters. Archie's uncle was the inspiration for Haggard's Allan Quatermain, and Archie finds himself thinking that if this was an Oppenheim novel, Daniel would be the villain. And he's totally right–in fact, the set-up for the book (obscure country house, no good being done there) was reminiscent of Oppenheim's The Great Impersonation. I love it when books are in conversation with other books, and Think of England definitely is. For a history and book geek, it was a definite bonus.
After I finished Think of England, Anachronist told me I should read Non-Stop Till Tokyo, because she knows I can't resist books set in Japan. Non-Stop Till Tokyo is very different from the previous books by Charles listed here. For one, it's a contemporary thriller. For another, I would never describe it as "fun, fast, and delightful" like I would the previous two books. Not that it isn't good, but it is different in tone and pace.
My favorite thing about Non-Stop Till Tokyo were the descriptions of Japan. They were highly detailed and, as in Ink by Amanda Sun, it's clear Charles has spent extensive time in Japan and is very familiar with its language and culture. The picture she painted of Japan here was probably the best I've ever come across in a novel.
That said, while I enjoyed the book, there were times when it felt like it would never end. There were always things happening, and maybe that was the problem–too many challenges, not enough down time? In any case, the pacing was a little off.
The tone is also much darker and more cynical than Think of England or The Magpie Lord. Kerry's involvement with the Yakuza has some very real, very nasty consequences for herself and her friends. Even with a "happy ending," this isn't the type of book where the protagonists skip into the sunset scott free.
The other thing that really hooked me when Anachronist told me about Non-Stop Till Tokyo was that the hero was a former sumo wrestler! Fun fact: sumo wrestling is one of the few sports I will watch on TV. While I liked Chanko and thought his and Kerry's interactions were fun, but to be honest I didn't feel any romantic chemistry between them at all. That part of the book felt a bit forced, perhaps because Chanko's personality wasn't very detailed. He was basically a fat, grumpy bastard with a short temper who beat people up. He had the whole knight-in-shining-armor thing going on, but it seemed like Kerry won his trust over too quickly. (It would have actually been fun if he'd double-crossed her later in novel, but I'm not the one writing the book here, so.)
It was also kind of hard to picture Non-Stop Till Tokyo set in 2014–who puts information on a CD anymore? It felt like Charles had written this in the 1990s when people were still confused over what the Internet could do. Although I certainly wouldn't say no to a sequel of Non-Stop Till Tokyo–the possibility of which Charles left wide open–it's probably my least-favorite of the KJ Charles books I've read so far.
I'd definitely recommend Think of England if you're considering trying one of Charles' books, or The Magpie Lord if you're in the mood for some historical fantasy. Non-Stop Till Tokyo is also good, and a must-read if you're a sucker for books set in Japan like I am, but it's probably skippable if romantic suspense isn't your jam.
Do you have any new author crushes you'd recommend?
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