I have to start by saying what a fan I am of Will Darling, how much I adore him and enjoyed the first book in his series, Slippery Creatures. Hence, why I was keen to read Charles’s trad-pubbed romance, The Secret Lives of Country Gentleman. Would her unique voice and style be “standardized” for a wider audience, or could Charles retain everything that makes her self-published m/m romance unique? Also, with a selling point of “Bridgerton meets Poldark,” I was doubly intrigued. (I’m still mulling how much I liked this. But let’s consider Secret Lives on its own merit.) The publishers’ details for our orientation:
Abandoned by his father, Gareth Inglis grew up lonely, prickly, and well-used to disappointment. Still, he longs for a connection. When he meets a charming man in a London molly house, he falls head over heels—until everything goes wrong and he’s left alone again. Then Gareth’s father dies, turning the shabby London clerk into Sir Gareth, with a grand house on the remote Romney Marsh and a family he doesn’t know.
The Marsh is another world, a strange, empty place notorious for its ruthless gangs of smugglers. And one of them is dangerously familiar…
Joss Doomsday has run the Doomsday smuggling clan since he was a boy. When the new baronet—his old lover—agrees to testify against Joss’s sister, Joss acts fast to stop him. Their reunion is anything but happy, yet after the dust settles, neither can stay away. Soon, all Joss and Gareth want is the chance to be together. But the bleak, bare Marsh holds deadly secrets. And when Gareth finds himself threatened from every side, the gentleman and the smuggler must trust one another not just with their hearts, but with their lives.
Charles’s strengths in Secret Lives are her characterization and setting. Like Will Darling, Sir Gareth Inglis is diffident and humble…until he isn’t. That’s what I adore about both. Like Will, Gareth is infused with delightful humour and caustic banter (also his funny asides to the reader, yay for asides!). I chuckled at Gareth’s first glimpse of arriving in his newly-claimed inheritance: “Romney Marsh was hardly Kent; it was hardly anywhere at all. The population of the whole place looked to be about thirty, plus sheep.” I was, of course, fascinated, as I love desolate, flat landscapes with lots of weather, so I went down a Google rabbit-hole of Romney Marsh images. I thought it was beautiful! There truly are many, many sheep, though.
Charles makes initial impressions shift and change over the novel’s course, as Gareth discovers the marsh’s infinite variety of flora and fauna, paralleled to a sense of being home, for a character who never had a home, a neglected, rejected child and lonely adult. When Gareth muses, “He preferred his own home, and the little family that was forming there,” it was cause for reader-celebration. As Gareth bonds with the people his father left behind, mistress-and-SIL Catherine and daughter, Gareth’s half-sister, Cecilia “Cecy”, his sense of belonging grows. As he discovers his father was as awful as he first thought, he does take one thing from him, a natural historian’s fascination with the marsh insects; as Gareth builds interests, family, purpose, it’s easy to feel joyful for him. Charles’s descriptions of the marsh were beautifully rendered, evocative, and atmospheric. Gareth also shares a lovely friendship with Catherine and a humorously fraught one with his temperamental 17-year-old sister. Cecy does some growing of her own and it’s wonderful to see, by the end, Gareth gains family bonds, strong ones.
I have to admit I was less enamored of Charles’s romance: was it the romance, or was it Gareth’s love interest, Joss Doomsday. Joss never quite “came alive”. However, when Gareth gave him a piece of his mind, it’s a delight: ” “How the devil was I supposed to know someone I’d ‘met’ in London was living less than a mile from me, a fact you hadn’t troubled to communicate to me in the entire time I’ve been here, and Josiah Doomsday of all things? Why would I imagine anyone would be called that?’ ‘It’s a perfectly good name,’ Joss said, stung. ‘It’s an utterly ridiculous name. It sounds like a Gothic villain.’ ” Joss is, in so many ways, Gareth’s opposite; he has more family than he knows what to do with, he’s garrulous, popular, good-looking, assertive and, as Catherine calls him, a “prince” of the marsh. I enjoyed Joss’s struggle with family obligation even while Gareth develops family bonds: it was a lovely paralleling of the characters. I thought how Joss and Gareth worked out their roles in their relationship well done: Joss has to learn to trust Gareth’s ability to take care of himself and others and not be a control freak; he has to learn to stand up to his family and depend on someone other than himself.
Charles offers wonderfully rendered secondary characters, especially the sympathetically drawn Catherine, who forges a friendship with Gareth, who understands the marsh, its people, and Gareth too. Officer Bovey, the smugglers’ enemy, who turns out to be more decent and true than at first appears. Cecy, who runs like a bull and bursts into gulping, messy tears at the drop of a hat, also becomes a true and loving sister to Gareth. Gareth who deserves it all. And the marsh, changeable, dangerous, and beautiful all at once. And the ever-present danger of what it means to be a gay man in Regency England: the threat of exposure, fear combined with desire: I thought this was terrific. As were the politics: this is where Joss shines, where the local meets centralized power, where the weak meet indifferent authority, where fellow-feeling meets expedient:
…nobody gives a damn for the Marsh except Marshmen. The government and king don’t care if we starve. They put on the blockade but charge their rents and taxes same as ever, and they’ll let the sea or the French take us if that preserves their skins for another day. So we look after ourselves. And that means trading, and selling wool — some of it wool off the sheep that are going to be saved when old women and children will be let behind…
This is where the narrative is at its best, how Joss’s understanding of power and vulnerability change Gareth:
Gareth…had a vague sort of idea that country, king, and law were the foundations on which the nation was built, while nevertheless acknowledging that he had no intention of taking up arms for the country, the king was a mad German, and he’d spent much of his adult life happily breaking the law. Still, they were principles, even if they weren’t his principles. He’d thought this would be an easy fight to pick. He’d met plenty of radicals in London — men who wanted wealth redistributed, laws changed, the government made representative. Joss Doomsday, fervent patriot of a hundred square miles of marshland, was perhaps the most radical man he’d ever met.
As Gareth is transformed by Joss, Joss is by Gareth: “…the lanky outmarsh [Gareth] had made him see his own beloved home with new and sharper eyes. There was a whole world on the Marsh he’d never known and that they’d explored together, alone in their waterlogged Eden and sharing its discovery.”
In the end, Secret Lives dragged its resolution and Joss remained etiolated, but Charles is a fine writer, elegant and clear, a great “world-builder” (I’m looking forward to book 2), Gareth is wonderful, and the marsh drawn in its infinite variety and wild beauty. I don’t know if Miss Austen would be scandalized by queer Regency romance, I suspect not, as there’s an earthiness and truth to her that Austen prigs never quite get, she’d agree Charles’s Secret Lives is “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma. (Also, what a beautiful cover!)
KJ Charles’s Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen is published by Sourcebooks Casablanca and was released on March 7th. I received an e-arc from Sourcebooks, via Netgalley, for the purpose of writing this review, which does not influence my opinion.
6 thoughts on “Review: KJ Charles’s THE SECRET LIVES OF COUNTRY GENTLEMEN (Doomsday #1)”
I liked Joss more than you did (I also don’t think the ending dragged, myself), but yes: Gareth is all that and more, and Ms Charles is indeed a fine writer.
Whoa, I seconds ago left a comment on your blog-review. I tell you, there’s some woo-woo going on here between us that I’m really loving!!
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::continues chuckling:: I know!
There you are to my “south” and moi, to your “north”…miles and miles away and voilà!
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I have been hating technology for the past couple of weeks (day job), but when it works ::waving across the intratubes:: it’s amazing.
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It’s been wonderful, like the old canoe Twitter days. 😉
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