Narrated by Matthew Lloyd Davies
K.J. Charles brings her wonderful Victorian-set romantic/gothic/mystery Sins of the Cities trilogy to a most satisfying conclusion with An Unsuitable Heir, in which missing heirs are found, peril is encountered, murder is a distinct possibility and love grows in the unlikeliest of places. I’ve found the trilogy utterly captivating and entirely delightful; the characters, the setting and the plotting are extremely strong throughout and given that I’m a fan of the sort of Victorian sensation novel which Ms. Charles has taken as her inspiration, I’ve relished the way she has incorporated key elements of the genre into the trilogy. While An Unsuitable Heir isn’t my favourite book of the three (that’s An Unnatural Vice), it’s nonetheless an exciting and fitting end to the series; and another excellent, vibrant performance from Matthew Lloyd Davies makes it a terrific listen.
As I’ve covered the individual plots of the other books in my reviews (linked below), I’m not going to attempt a comprehensive rehash here. I’ll just say that if you’re thinking of listening to this audiobook without reference to the others, I wouldn’t recommend it; the series really does need to be listened to in order. The romances are played out in each, but the overarching plotline of the search for the missing heir to the Moreton earldom runs through all three novels – and because of this, there will be spoilers for the earlier books in this review.
In An Unseen Attraction, we learned that the Earl of Moreton had married his countess bigamously, and that he had sired twins by his first wife, Emmeline Godfrey. The earl’s death means that the male twin is now the rightful Earl of Moreton – but nobody knows where he is. Or even if he is still alive. Murder, assault and blackmail amid the grimy, fog shrouded streets of London ensue, to be continued in An Unnatural Vice, in which crusading journalist Nathaniel Roy is forced to flee London in company with (fake) spiritualist Justin Lazarus when the latter is discovered to possess proof of the twins’ existence. It’s in this novel that we learn that Repentance and Regret – known as Pen and Greta – ran away from the religious community in which they had lived until the age of fourteen, and joined a circus; now they are the Flying Starlings, the famous music-hall trapeze act Clem takes the object of his affections to see in the first book.
With Nathaniel and Justin still in danger from whoever is killing anyone with knowledge of the truth about the Moreton heir, it’s up to private enquiry agent Mark Braglewicz to approach Pen Starling, tell him the truth and facilitate his assumption of the title, thus negating the threat to his friend’s life. To this end, Mark decides to approach Pen casually and without revealing his purpose, to make sure that he really IS the person he’s been looking for and to sound him out. Pretending to be lost in one of the densest pea-soupers London has ever seen, Mark manages to “accidentally” encounter Pen, whose restlessness at being cooped up due to the fog has led him to venture out to the local pub for a drink. Once they’ve reached their destination and Mark actually gets a good look at Pen for the first time, he’s gobsmacked. Pen is utterly beautiful; tall and athletic with long, thick hair, gold earrings and wearing just a touch of face-paint, he’s stunning and Mark is simultaneously captivated and frustrated; he would dearly love to pursue a relationship with Pen, but is stymied by his being the subject of an investigation and the means of protecting Nathaniel and Clem.
Still, the two converse for a while and agree to meet again. Pen is drawn to Mark by the other man’s no-nonsense approach and his honest admiration; for the first time, he feels as though he is understood, that here is someone who looks at him and sees Pen – not a man, not a woman, just Pen.
Mark is forced to make some difficult choices for the best of reasons; coming forward and claiming his birthright is the best way to keep Pen safe, get Nathaniel and Justin out of the firing line and to secure Clem’s livelihood. But Pen isn’t like anyone else Mark has ever met, and even more importantly, he absolutely does NOT want to be an earl, which will force him to live as someone he’s not. Today, we’d describe him as genderfluid or non-binary; back then there was no such term to describe someone who doesn’t always feel as though the body they inhabit is the body that aligns with their self-perception. And for Pen, being put into a box labelled “man” or “earl” is one of the scariest things imaginable.
As has been the case in the other stories in this trilogy, there is a lot going on, and it’s all superbly conceived and executed. The descriptions of even the most mundane things – like kippers! – add greatly to the richness of the setting, and the mystery element is incredibly well done, with the stakes raised even higher than before when it seems that claiming the earldom has not lessened the danger Pen faces from the still unknown killer. I thoroughly enjoyed the mystery and didn’t guess the identity of the murderer, but the focus on that aspect of the story does mean that the romance doesn’t feel quite as well-developed as in the other two novels. The pairing works very well – both Mark and Pen have been judged all their lives because they’re different, Mark because of his disability (he was born with only one arm) and Pen because of his fluid sexuality, and I adored Mark’s patience and his willingness to learn and let Pen set the pace of their relationship. There’s no question that they fall completely and deeply into love with each other, but we aren’t afforded the same sort of slow exploration of their developing romance as with the other couples in the series.
That said, I found myself appreciating and enjoying the romance more in audio, no doubt due to a thoroughly enjoyable and entirely convincing performance from Matthew Lloyd Davies, whose work on this trilogy (and the author’s previous Society of Gentlemen series) has been extremely good indeed. Listeners to both will have recognised that his characterisation of Mark is pretty much identical to that of Silas in the earlier novels, but ultimately, there’s only so much one person can do with his voice, and that gravelly, cockney-accented tone is as perfect for Mark as it was for Silas. The similarity didn’t bother me at all and besides, it’s the perfect tone for uttering certain blistering, percussive swear-words! The characters we’ve met before – Clem, Tim, Nathaniel and Justin, are all portrayed consistently with their earlier appearances, and I continue to adore Mr. Lloyd Davies’ interpretation of Phyllis, the splendidly flamboyant owner of the Jack and Knave pub. He also does a good job with Pen’s sister, Greta; this is the first time I’ve heard him portray a female character for any length of time, and he does it well and without resorting to falsetto. One thing I must mention is the scene in which Pen first makes the acquaintance of his family in company with the estate lawyers, Nathaniel and Justin. I think I counted ten different male characters in that scene and every single one of them is clearly distinguishable from the others, from Desmond Taillefer’s gruff, rasping tones and Nathaniel’s deep, resonant ones, to the two lawyers and Clem’s warm loveliness.
If you’ve enjoyed the other books in the trilogy, An Unsuitable Heir is a wonderful finale, and will not disappoint. The good news is that we’re to be treated to a number of K.J. Charles’ backlist titles in audio in the not too distant future, so while I’m sad to bid farewell to Clem, Nathaniel, Justin, Mark and Pen, I’m eagerly awaiting more in audio from this fabulous author.
TITLE: An Unsuitable Heir
AUTHOR: K. J. Charles
NARRATED BY: Matthew Lloyd Davies
GENRE: Historical Romance/Mystery
STEAM FACTOR: 6
REVIEWER: CazBuy An Unsuitable Heir by K. J. Charles on Amazon