An Unseen Attraction by K.J. Charles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
An Unseen Attraction is the first installment in the fantastic, engrossing Sins of the Cities series by K.J. Charles. Though these three closely interconnected books center on a deadly interfamilial feud over succession to an earldom and one of England’s greatest fortunes, this novel centers two working-class heroes who are wonderfully sweet and loveably flawed.
In addition to an engrossing central mystery, which unfolds over the course of the series, each book focuses on a different relationship. The intrigue is compelling even though the build-up and middle installments of the trilogy are stronger than the finale, which seems a little forced/rushed. In An Unseen Attraction, however, the action and romance are perfectly paced. Charles deftly introduces the family and other key players, but she primarily focuses on Clem, a bastard, biracial second son of an Earl and an upper servant of Indian heritage. After growing up mostly on the margins of this illustrious family, when the story opens, Clem is running a boarding house in London owned by his half brother, the Earl of Moreton. The arrangement suits the handsome, Anglo-Indian Clement just fine. Clem is sweet and good and intelligent, but has what we would now recognize as information processing issues, and that undermines his confidence. Those challenges give many people, his family especially, an excuse to underestimate and abuse him even more than they already would because of his ethnicity and illegitimacy. Running the boardinghouse allows Clem to use his strengths, his fastidiousness, patience, sensitivity and emotional intelligence, and maintain some semblance of independence. It also puts Clem in a position to meet and cultivate a slow burning but steamy relationship with a boarder, Rowley Green, a man who understands and fully appreciates him.
The one catch is that the house comes with a permanent and difficult tenant, who is somehow connected to and protected by his older brother. Clem has orders to see that the reverend always has a place there rent free and feels satisfied about it. Not long into the book, however, bad things start to happen around the dissolute reverend. His room is ransacked and though no valuables seem to be missing, he’s in a real upset over it. Not long after that things get far worse. These events threaten the stability that Clem has worked so hard to establish in his precarious position. His tenant is hiding something, and Clem’s brother also seems to be hiding something as well. It may be obvious to Clem’s new friend Rowley (and possibly to readers as well) that there is more to the relationship between the Earl and the clergyman than the brother is disclosing, but the secret is not easily guessed.
Beyond the bare bones of the narrative, what really matters here is the specificity and care Charles takes with setting--the finely drawn detail around Victorian culture and the natural and built environment of London-- and, above all, character. Clem and Rowley are indelible and vivid protagonists. They aren't aristocrats or hyper-masculine heroes, and that is a relief. They are ordinary, kind, fallible men made extraordinary in their connection, care and commitment to each other in the face of societal sanction. For Rowley it's simple: '“I’d like to make you happy,” Rowley said softly. “However that might be done.”' That is no small thing to Clem, a man used to either being overlooked or appreciated for his looks and little else: “Rowley, there are lots of people who think I’m worth looking at. Not so many who think I’m worth listening to. Not like you.”
Their love isn't showy. It can't be given their context. But in K. J. Charles's hands, it's undeniable and, in its own quiet way, profound:
I love you. Such small words to make such a huge change. Not the kind of change other people had, with a wedding in fine clothes and people cheering, but a change that would do very nicely for the two of them. Mr. Talleyfer and his lodger, privately and unobtrusively domestic, left to themselves. It was very close to Rowley’s idea of paradise.
Well, it's almost paradise. For the remainder of the series, we learn more and more about what the connection is between Clem's brother and the troublesome former reverend, and why it’s worth blackmailing and murdering people over. The underlying conflict spawns a sprawling but cohesive and mostly comprehensible mystery involving murder, legitimacy, inheritance and class and racial conflict. It’s really very good. An Unseen Attraction is an excellent introduction to a trio of books that I believe constitute a minor masterpiece (I'm not sure I've used that word before)— thoughtful and convincing both on the romantic and suspense elements.
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