01 July 2021

Cool Book: Subtle Blood by K.J. Charles


Cover art for the Will Darling Adventures trilogy by K.J. Charles 
The Will Darling Adventures by K.J. Charles
Cover Art by Tiferet Design
Series description from Charles' website:

A m/m romance trilogy in the spirit of Golden Age pulp fiction. It’s the 1920s and tensions are rising along with hemlines. Soldier-turned-bookseller Will Darling finds himself tangled up in spies and secret formulas, clubs and conspiracies, Bolsheviks, blackmail, and Bright Young Things. And dubious aristocrat Lord Arthur ‘Kim’ Secretan is right in the middle of it all: enigmatic, unreliable, and utterly irresistible.

The Subtle Blood, Book 3 of K.J. Charles' Will Darling Adventures, just came out a few days ago. It is a wonderfully blazing and hugely satisfying conclusion to the series.

I'd only discovered Charles, who has been writing for no small while, this past year after seeing a sharply written, witty retweet of hers on Twitter. And although I do not typically read in the romance genre, Reader, I followed her immediately and started in with Book 1 of the series, Slippery Creatures. (See my reaction to it here.)
NPR's Maya Rodale pronounced Subtle Blood a "sexy, elegant and romantic murder mystery" and it is every bit that. We leap right back into things with the murder of a man at a gentleman's club, the suspected killer being the older brother of the charming and devious Lord Arthur "Kim" Secretan. 
Kim and his friend and lover, Will Darling, the rough and tumble, capably murderous WWI soldier turned bookseller, set out to exonerate Kim's brother despite the likelihood that he very much did the deed. At risk are Kim and Will's practical and romantic futures. There is derring-do, political and social intrigue (historically accurate while providing fierce commentary on our modern time), and lots of energetic as well as tender, on-page sex. The plot is believable and strong though I found myself occasionally feeling a bit rushed. 
A challenge in writing a series is how to maintain character consistency while permitting the character to change through the course of the action. Charles struggled with this (she talks about it here). There would be a Twitter comment here and there that suggested Kim's development was not easy to work out or write out. At first I wasn't sure if she'd pulled it off. 
Will comes across as a well-grounded bloke and Kim a flip moneyed man-about-town in Book 1 (Slippery Creatures). In Book 2 (The Sugared Game) Kim needs to flit about to resolve the problem and Will anchors the doings, but neither seem to be entirely facing each other, or rather, seem unprepared to deal with doings outside of the plot, as it were. They haven't dealt with each other.
"Yet I must thank you for admitting that you are thieves rather pretending that your work is in a respectable profession . . . Rascal thieves, Here’s gold. Go, suck the subtle blood o’ the grape, Till the high fever seethe your blood to froth, And so ’scape hanging. . . ."
~ Shakespeare. Timon of Athens, Act 4, Sc. 3
In Subtle Blood the ravens come home to roost. Kim must deal with his rather appalling family and his own need for at least one family member's approval. Will finds that the pragmatic, just-endure-today approach that let him kill during the war killing without remorse, with pride even, does not work when it comes to love. Kim matures and finds his metier. Will follows but more slowly. And for once, it is Kim who leads here in self understanding and kindness for all that he still struggles with the pain of what he has to do and who he is.

Kim's one-time
fiancée, Phoebe Stephens-Prince, now Lady Waring, and Darling's long-time good friend, Maisie Jones, who is a Paris designer now, play secondary but pivotal roles in this last tale. They are strong women and, while supportive of the gents, do not shrink from forcing Kim and Will (and, surprisingly, Kim's father) to deal with the consequences of their actions and, in Will's case, to grapple with the emotional realities of loving a man beyond one day at a time.
The series ends with Charles' promised happily ever after (HEA) and, in theory, that's that. But where Will and Kim end up suggests sequels might be possible. Personally, I'd go for a series with Phoebe & Maisie as the leads. How Charles handles Kim and Phoebe's broken engagement and Maisie's reinvented self and identity seemed to me a tad predictable but it does set them up for their own books.
For all that the Will Darling books are romance, they are not sweetness and light. People have pasts and they hurt as a result. There are difficult situations, death, and considerable mayhem. Charles considerately posts content warnings on her website here.

Subtle Blood is available as an ebook via these many vendors and in paperback form.

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