Hunting for a Highlander (Lynsay Sands)

Note: I received this book as an ARC in exchange for an honest review from the publisher. This book is scheduled for release by Avon on January 28, 2020.

Overall

I’ve read every historical romance Lynsay Sands has released, including all seven previous entries of the Highland Brides series. She’s an author who plays into specific tropes with an incredibly melodramatic style of writing. That’s not a criticism — as a soap opera lover, I love melodrama and there’s honestly not a lot of authors who can do it well. She’s one of them.

When I first started reviewing the Highland Brides series, I hadn’t yet identified why exactly I go back to Lynsay Sands over and over again because I don’t read a lot of authors who write in this style. And it’s because her melodramas are incredibly entertaining, almost always satisfying, and comforting. She writes lusty heroes and heroines who have a lot of sexual chemistry are always in the middle of murder mysteries, and I always know exactly what I’m getting when I pick up a Lynsay Sands novel.

The Buchanan brothers were introduced to us in The Highlander Takes a Bride when the sole sister of the rambunctious group, Saidh, gets married. There are seven brothers, and Hunting the Highlander is the fifth of their stories. Geordie is one of three unmarried Buchanan brothers who returns to the keep to find it filled with unmarried women looking for husbands to inherit their father’s land because they have no brother. This is a good opportunity for the Buchanans who have a lot of brothers but not a lot of titles.

Geordie seeks solace and silence by sleeping in a tree in the orchard only to be woken up one of the potential brides fleeing tormenters. We meet Dwynn Innes, heiress to a holding by the sea in the Lowlands.  Dwynn is not a typical beauty, but she and Geordie hit it off immediately and there’s not a lot of conflict as to whether they’re going to end up together. They’re immediately attracted to one another, but someone seems to want to cause Dwynn harm.

I really liked this book. I think that Geordie and Dwynn are probably my third favorite couple in the series (Ross and Annabel are always going to be number one). The attacks and attempted murder stuff is all fine and predictable. The most I can say in relation to that stuff is that it doesn’t drag the book down and it’s nicely paced. As always, both our leads get injured a lot which lets the other person confront their feelings. That’s a Sands trope I’m ready for.

I think my only critique of this book is the focus on Dwynn’s breasts. Her sisters lower all of her necklines to an excruciating degree (there are lots of times when we’re told her nipples are basically showing) and I feel like that doesn’t match the fashions of the time period. It’s a weird central theme that repeats until literally the end of the book. Early on, Geordie even sees Dwynn and only recognizes her because he’s looked at her breasts more than her face. It’s a discordant note in an otherwise delightful book.

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The Wallflower Wager (Tessa Dare)

I received this book as an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Overall

This is the third book in the Girl Meets Duke series, and one that I was particularly looking forward to having met Lady Penelope Campion in early installments. She was the delightfully sweet animal lover who made sham sandwiches that Emma and Alexandra made their beaus pretend to like. I’m a sucker for any book with a lot of animals, and this definitely did not disappoint.

She lives alone with a chaperone who should probably retire, surrounded by her animals, but her aunt makes it clear that Penelope can only remain in London if she makes an attempt to marry and rejoin society. Otherwise, she will be forced to return to her brother’s estate, a fate she can’t face. Her next door neighbor is ruthless business man Gabriel Duke who bought and restored the town home next door. He knows social climbers will jump at the chance to live next to a member of the ton like Lady Penelope. He agrees to help Penelope re-home her beloved animals and keep her in London.

Their meet cute is probably one of the most adorable you’ll ever read — Penny has adopted a parrot that flies away and ends up in the house next door in the middle night. Dressed in her night clothes, she goes to retrieve the parrot, thinking the house is empty, only to find her new neighbor in little more than towel, fresh from the tub.

I like this book. It’s cute, there are a lot of animals, and we get to see the returning supporting cast. I like Penny and Gabriel and their various adventures in re-homing many of Penny’s animals. Their romance is lovely, and Penny’s backstory is suitably tragic. It’s as well written as you’d expect a Tessa Dare book to be, and I promise you, if you love her writing, you will like this book.

I think the problem I have with this book is not the fault of Tessa Dare, but something a bit more subjective for me. Everything about this book is good — all of the dots line up, things connect, and it’s good. But I will probably never be able to re-read it.

I’ve always read my ARC books a few times to get the best review possible, but for content reasons, I won’t be able to read this one again. I’ll get into that in the spoilers.

Let me repeat that this book is good. I think that I’m just not able to be more objective than that, and I feel really bad. This is probably the reason books should have content warnings, to be honest. I wouldn’t have asked for this book as an ARC if I’d known the content. I still would have read it once because I adore Tessa Dare, but this is a topic I don’t ever read about more than I have to.

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The Pursuits of Lord Kit Cavanaugh by Stephanie Laurens

Overall

I missed this when it originally came out and didn’t hurry to read it, probably because I hadn’t totally loved the first book in this trilogy, The Designs of Lord Randolph Cavanaugh. It was fine, but nothing that made me look forward to the stories of Rand’s younger brother and sister. The Cavanaughs are the younger half-siblings of Ryder Cavanaugh, the hero from The Taming of Ryder Cavanaugh who married Mary Cynster. Their mother was Lavinia, the villain of Taming, so that makes this series slightly more interesting. After all, Lavinia was truly terrible but raised these kids. What would it be like to have such an utter sociopath as one’s mother?

Designs didn’t really address that and neither does Pursuits. I haven’t reread Taming in a few years (it’s on my list when I do the Cynsters next year) so I don’t remember much other than the big stuff. So I was a bit disappointed to see that thread wasn’t really pursued (ha) here. That being said, this is a sweet read that deviates a bit (in a good way) from the formula that I’ve come to expect from Stephanie Laurens.

When I think of Laurens’ books, I don’t think of characters or the romances. I generally return to her writing because I love her mysteries and her plots. She has a basic approach: her heroes are alpha males who pursue the heroines who generally need to be convinced to marry them. Her female leads are always strong-willed, intelligent, and a good match for the heroes. One of my favorite things about the majority of her romances is that hero values the heroine for that intelligence and they often work together side by side to solve the plot. Her Bastion Club was tour de force of these kinds of romances (save the terrible prequel, Captain Jack’s Woman, and the stalker in To Distraction).

This book isn’t quite the same. There’s more focus on the romance, actually, as our lead characters navigate a series of smaller mysteries as they get to know one another better. Lord Christopher “Kit” Cavanaugh is the second of Lavinia’s three sons and has come to Bristol to begin a yacht-building company. His new warehouse lease displaces a charity school run by vicar’s daughter Silvia Buckleberry, the maid of honor at his brother’s wedding. Silvia has a low opinion of Kit at first, but when he helps her relocate the school and goes on to sponsor it, she sees a different side of him.

Laurens also writes a lot of sex scenes in her books — I don’t generally review this stuff because it’s not really what I go to romance for so I end up skipping some of the scenes. But generally her leads have a lot of sex. Pursuits doesn’t have a kiss between her leads for almost two hundred pages, and then the single sex scene is in the epilogue. Instead of lust, Kit and Silvia work together to save the school, find out who’s sabotaging his business, and then who’s following her around Bristol. Silvia is a vicar’s daughter, and Kit respects that. I was surprised by how much I liked that approach. Kit and Silvia weren’t very interesting character on their own, but their romance was sweet and they worked well together. When he finally kisses her, it feels a lot more earned.

The mysteries themselves aren’t super engrossing, but they’re fun to read and follow. There are bits of this book that are a bit overwritten, but that’s part of Laurens’s style so I tend to discount that. This is a sweet book that is a bit outside her norm, and I really liked that.

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The Obsession by Nora Roberts

Overall

Every time I reread a new Nora Roberts release, I always go back and start reading some of her older work. I just finished Under Currents which I sort of liked but didn't love. It reminded me of The Obsession without the payoff or follow through. So I returned and reread The Obsession, including the first two parts which I usually skip -- the backstory of Naomi before she shows up in the Cove, basically. It's the same way I skip the first part of The Witness and start the book when Brooks shows up.

It's not because either of these parts are not well-written or important to the story, but when I reread romance novels, I'm usually more interested in rereading the romance part of it and in these stories -- the romance doesn't start until the hero and heroine are on the same page.

I like The Obsession, but it's not my favorite of these kinds of books (that's The Witness, literally my favorite NR book). I think the set up is really interesting -- the daughter of a serial killer grows up and is stalked by someone who is copying her father's crimes. The narrative follow through is decent (everything connects and there’s thematic resonance). I even like the supporting cast a lot.

I read a lot of reviews when this came out and saw some readers complaining about the excess of home restoration detail you get in this book. This is incredibly common in Nora Roberts’ novels. In the In the Garden trilogy and the recent Under Currents, we spent a lot of time with landscaping. In Birthright, we learned about archaeology. In The Witness, there was computer programming. The Inn Boonsboro trilogy was also heavy on construction and the local businesses (though that was partially an advertisement, heh).

It never drives me out of the story, to be honest, because I understand why it’s being written this way. It’s made very clear in the narrative that since the day Naomi graduated college, she’s been on the road. She’s moved around a lot. She arrived at the Cove, saw this house, and bought it. And this is the first home she’s had since her childhood.

So every time we stop to talk about Kevin and the work he’s doing or Lelo and the landscaping — it’s part of the construction of Naomi’s new life and the home she wants. The life she’s building. The life she’s not so quick to run away from when her past follows her there. It’s part of Naomi’s identity, and I’m okay with it. It works for me, but I can understand why it wouldn’t work for other readers.

The central narrative conflict is good and I like the resolution of the mystery. I like the romance, even if Xander isn’t really the most interesting of heroes. He’s fine—there’s nothing wrong with him. But there’s also nothing wrong with him, if that makes sense. He’s just someone who’s incredibly patient with Naomi but doesn’t seem to have any vulnerability of his own. He’s kind of a flat character in that I’m only interested in because I want Naomi to be happy.

This is one of those books that makes me very sad that Nora Roberts doesn’t write connected books in her hardback releases because I love Mason Carson, and I desperately want his HEA. He’s probably my second favorite character and I’m a bit sad we’ll never get more of him.

I like this book. It has almost everything I go to Nora Roberts for, with the exception of a truly dynamic second lead.

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Under Currents by Nora Roberts

Overall

Under Currents is a return to an old formula for Nora Roberts, one in which she has deviated from in her last two hardback releases, Shelter in Place and Come Sundown. Those releases read more like straight suspense mysteries with romance as a subplot. Both were good, but they showed Nora Roberts stretching her writing muscles and stepping out of her role as master romance writer. In Come Sundown, the main story was the tragic and disturbing kidnapping of a woman who was then kept in captivity for decades while Shelter in Place examined the survivors of a mass shooting. I liked both of these books, but I haven’t been driven to return to them.

Under Currents takes place on familiar ground. Like Carolina Moon, The Witness, and Obsession, we’re in a small town filled with vibrant characters, warm family ties, and the seediness that often lies beneath the thin layer of old-fashioned values. We follow the hero, Zane Bigelow Walker, primarily. He’s our protagonist for the first 130 some pages as we live through his abusive childhood and the night that changed his family and future forever. The heroine, Darby McCray, doesn’t show up until Chapter Eight. If you read Obsession and The Witness, you’re familiar with this narrative style.

I liked this book. I don’t know if I loved it. I think it’s because I just wasn’t sure what the plot was, and I didn’t know what to expect. I think that’s good in a lot of ways — having read so many of Nora Roberts’ novels, I was expecting a central plot that was hinted at in the beginning and then given to us at the climax. This was a lot more episodic in a way that I can’t quite say I was expecting.

We spend a lot of time with teen-aged Zane, then follow Darby as she sets up her landscaping business. Then we follow their relationship for a little while. Because we start with Zane, I expected his story to drive the plot. But it doesn’t. Nothing really does. And I don’t know if I like that. I guess their romance pushes the plot but I’m not sure their romance was all that interesting.

I think this is a book that I want to reread now that I know what to expect. I liked the setting and the supporting cast. Nora Roberts has a way of constructing characters that make you want to read more about them, and that’s no different here. Zane has two nephews who are quite charming, and another author might write their story later. But alas, Nora Roberts never returns to her characters in her single titles.

This is a good book and I’m sure a lot of people will like it. But it didn’t have enough of what I go to a Nora Roberts for — there wasn’t enough conflict in the romance and there wasn’t enough suspense in the mysteries. It kind of meandered in a way that didn’t entirely satisfy me. It’s well-written, and I like Darby and Zane. It just feels…thin.

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The Virtuoso by Grace Burrowes

Note: All of my GB reviews not only talk about the book but the way the book fits into the universe Burrowes built because so many of her characters flit back and forth. So I will be talking a lot about other books and the universe as a whole.

Overall

You know you’ve got an intricately connected universe when even the author doesn’t really know which order things happen in. The Virtuoso takes place before Jack in the universe, but it also takes place during Darius and after Nicholas. I knew that second part, but I had forgotten just how close to the end of Darius this particular book is set. So I reshuffled the list to be a bit more accurate, and will be going back to read Darius & Nicholas next. I’m not mad about this — it’s actually kind of fun to read this universe like it’s a puzzle. When I was reading Jack, a Lady Val showed up at the wedding and I remember thinking — wait, did Val and Ellen already get married?

I read The Virtuoso when it was released, but I wasn’t quite a Grace Burrowes fan yet. I didn’t reread either The Heir or The Soldier and none of the Lonely Lords series that feature Valentine had been released yet so I remember sympathizing with Valentine in this book, but honestly, you really need to be steeped in this character and have read all the previous times he’s shown up because when I finally got to Valentine in this book, I was so much more invested in him. Ellen also makes a brief cameo in an earlier book, David, in which she is close friends with Letty’s vicar brother, Daniel. He is not mentioned in this book, but has obviously quit the area.

Valentine Windham is introduced briefly to us in Douglas with the rest of the Windhams, but we get to know him in David when he becomes a confidante to both David and Letty. He shows up in a few other books, but it’s in David, The Heir, and The Soldier that we get our best look at him prior to this book. He’s a musical genius who depends on his extraordinary ability to play the piano to communicate. At the opening of this book, he is told by David that he might not be able to play the piano anymore due to an injury to his hand.

The opening line is David’s declaration, but it really doesn’t pack the same punch if you haven’t read the earlier books in the Windham series when it’s clear that playing the piano is how Valentine has managed to function given the devastating loss of two of his brothers, one right after another. Feeling trapped in town by this idea he can’t play piano, he decamps to Oxfordshire and an estate he’s won from the Baron of Roxbury, Freddie Markham. He takes with him Darius Lindsey, a hero of a later book and connected to several other characters we’ll read about at some point.

On the estate he finds Ellen FitzEngle, a widow with whom he shared an encounter with when he was doing David a favor. She’s briefly mentioned a few times in subsequent books, but this is the first time we get her name from Valentine. Ellen is the widow of the late Baron Roxbury, and Valentine finds her situation to be strange — why did her husband not provide better for her? Why is she tucked away in a tiny cottage?

Ellen offers some guidance and company while Valentine works to restore the estate, and they fall in love but she’s got secrets that might explain why someone is trying to destroy the house he’s rebuilding.

I adore this book. It really shows off the complicated and intricate universe Grace Burrowes has built, and you can always tell the books she’s already written from the deeply rich characters that return. Darius shows up just enough here to make one interested in his story (which I’m not looking forward to because it’s my least favorite trope in the history of romance), but Devlin also drops in as does Westhaven, Nick Haddonfield, and the Belmonts. Ironically, we see and hear more from Axel Belmont’s son, Dayton and Philip, than we did in either of the Belmont brothers’ books. Jack shows up as the magistrate, so we get to see him rebounding after the events in Axel. It’s got a great supporting cast.

The mystery is really fun too — the who is never in doubt, but the why remains a mystery throughout and it’s quite tragic. You might feel like Ellen is a martyr at points, but she’s a woman who is entirely alone in a world that does not treat women well. Her fear is palpable and completely understandable. I really love both of these leads and am completely invested in their own personal journeys as well their romance.

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Jack by Grace Burrowes

Overall

I had only read this book once and didn’t really remember the storyline all that well. After finishing Axel, where we met both Madeline and Jack, I have to say I wasn’t really looking forward to reading their book. Neither of them made an impression on me as a character I wanted to know more about.

Sir John Fanning (Jack) has taken over as magistrate, something Axel hinted about being a good idea in his book. He spent a lot of time in India (twenty years, putting him in his late thirties) and has returned with an Indian butler who was the brother of his wife, a half-Indian woman who died before Jack returned. His demanding mother is coming for a long visit and Jack wants to organize his household, so the Belmonts suggest Madeline Hennessy join him as his mother’s companion. Madeline reluctantly goes. At the same time, Jack is investigating a series a petty thefts that is plaguing the local area.

So for the most part, I ended up really liking this book and these characters. My chief complaint about Jack is that the most interesting part of his story happens in Axel, and that’s one of my big pet peeves. He tell Madeline that he abused opium, but he doesn’t really get into it. I really don’t appreciate when a main character’s back story is in another book.

But would that have bothered me if I hadn’t read Axel? Probably not. I think there’s enough in Jack to make it work and other readers won’t notice it. Jack’s story was somewhat important to the end of Axel, and as Jack was written much later, I’m almost positive Grace Burrowes did not initially plan to have him be a hero. So maybe that explains it.

Madeline is an incredibly empathetic character as her story is unraveled throughout the book. I forgot how much I liked her. She’s very strong but also ridiculously stubborn and proud. The trope of the housekeeper falling in love with the man of the house is probably one of my least favorite in romance fiction because it literally never happens the opposite way (I can think of maybe two or three off the top of my head) and as both Jack and Maddie point out — women are uniquely vulnerable in this time period and it is so easy to render them powerless.

But I appreciate that Jack did recognize this fact and made it clear that Maddie was to direct everything between. He asked permission every five minutes and always gave Maddie an out. Informed consent is pretty sexy.

I liked this book a lot. There are few things that bothered me just a little that stop this from being a full-fledged five star, but there’s a lot to like in this book and I’m glad I reread it.

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The Soldier by Grace Burrowes

Overall

There’s something about this book that has never worked for me. This is the third time I’ve read it from beginning to finish since it came out, and I’ve never been able to put my finger on why I don’t like it as much as I like her other books.

Devlin St. Just has just been created the first Earl of Rosecroft, taking over the estate of the villain from the The Heir, Anna’s brother whom Devlin killed in order to save her. He travels to the estate in Yorkshire where it has been neglected where he finds that the brother, once the earl of Helmsley, left behind an illegitimate daughter who is nominally in the care of a cousin, Emmaline Farnum. Emmie grew up as an illegitimate child left in the care of her aunt who was Helmsley’s mistress and Bronwyn’s mother. Devlin takes Bronwyn (Winnie) under his care and brings Emmie to stay at the estate to serve as her governess.

I think honestly the book collapses under its own weight. Devlin is suffering from what we would call PTSD today, but obviously not as well understood in Regency Britain. This is probably the best part of the book and one of my favorite things about Grace Burrowes’ writing is that she lets her heroes be emotional and vulnerable with each other. Toxic masculinity doesn’t play a role in her books.

But the problem is probably Emmaline. There’s a lot to like about Emmie. She’s incredibly generous and empathetic. She’s known real tragedy and pain in her life which allows her to be the person that Devlin desperately needs at this point in his life. She’s unselfish almost to her own destruction.

But there’s a piece of her story that simply fails for me and I’ll have to get it into specifically in the spoiler section. Suffice to say, she keeps a secret from Devlin that the author also keeps from the reader and I hate it. Because it requires Emmie to lie to Devlin, but in a few spots, Burrowes even lies to me as a reader. I mean, the secret is almost obvious which is why it’s ridiculous that the reader isn’t brought in earlier.

The supporting cast is pretty good—Douglas and Valentine play large roles here in Devlin’s recovery. I don’t entirely buy the depth and strength of Douglas and Devlin’s friendship but I enjoy it so much that it doesn’t bother me. Winnie is also very sweet, and thus far, Burrowes has avoided a lot of tropes of cute children in romance novels. The Windhams show up briefly, but not for long. The local vicar, Hadrian, will return in a later Lonely Lords book and shows up well.

Ultimately, this book fails for me because I can’t ever quite sympathize fully with Emmie. While the romance is well-developed, I am increasingly frustrated by Emmie and her ridiculous secret. The book is well-written and others will probably like it fine.

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The Heir by Grace Burrowes

Overall

The Heir was my first Grace Burrowes book and it remains one of my favorites, I think, because I’ve always been able to closely identify with the hero, Gayle Windham, better known as Westhaven. He carries the weight of his entire family on his shoulders and feels the obligations and duty of being the eldest child, the one that has to deal with eccentricities of his parents and play mediator in his family. It’s literally my life.

Reading it its proper place in the universe deepens my appreciation for the supporting cast, as I hoped it would, and now reading over a set of scenes in the middle of the book when Westhaven recuperates from an illness at the estate of Douglas and Gwen Allen (Douglas), I can remember being kind of bored and a little frustrated. Those scenes are filled with backstory and callbacks. I wondered why these people I hadn’t met before would care so much about Westhaven but after having read Douglas, it’s easier to understand that they’re showing up more for Gwen because of how the duke treated her then.

The Heir tells the story of Westhaven maybe a year or so after the events of Douglas. In that book, Westhaven agreed to propose to Gwen in order to wrest control of the ducal finances from his father. Here, we see him bearing up under that pressure and doing what he can to protect himself and his last living legitimate brother from the machinations of their father, Percy Windham, Duke of Moreland, who appears to stop at nothing in his quest to marry off Westhaven and secure the next generation. Westhaven has a new housekeeper who is not only taking care of his house but making it a home. Anna Seaton is a housekeeper with secrets and a soft heart, as well as generous well of empathy and clearly a deep desire to find a home where she can finally be safe.

The housekeeper and her employer is a familiar and well-worn romantic trope that I like less and less every time I read it. Maybe because I’m more well-versed on the power dynamics that makes that kind of relationship not great in real life. But I can make it work in my head as long as there’s a sense of equality between the two leads as people. Anna might work for Westhaven, but she’s not particularly cowed by his title or his family’s place in society.

This is my favorite of the Windham novels, and my favorite Burrowes book overall. There are a few minor issues that bug me more every time I read it, but nothing that really stops me from enjoying the book. I like the comfort and security that Westhaven and Anna share when they’re at his townhouse or anywhere else alone together.

I think this book benefits a great deal from following those that set up this story. Having met Victor in Douglas and understood a measure of the grief that befell the Windhams with his death and the death of Bart, the original heir, it does become easier to empathize with them, even the duke to a certain extent. Valentine played a large supporting role in David, and it was nice to see him back here again, still struggling with the loss of his brothers and the expectations of his family.

Without the benefit of books like David and Douglas, and even Andrew (to set up his appearance here), this book’s supporting cast suffers because that depth and nuance are missing for me. I felt that when I read the book the first time in 2010. If you read this book on its own, it’s still fine. The romance and plot are interesting and the cast are fine.

But so much is opened up when reading it in order that I can’t recommend reading it without the bare minimum of reading Douglas first. That wasn’t an option when The Heir was originally published, but it is now.

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Axel by Grace Burrowes

A Note

The order in which I’m reading this universe comes directly from the FAQ section of Grace Burrowes’ website, which puts all four of the Jaded Gentlemen entries directly after the events of David. However, it appears as though the events in The Heir and The Soldier have taken place during the time period in which Matthew and Axel take place. So I’m actually going to step back from her official order and read the first two books in the Duke’s Obsession series next.

Overall

I liked this book but I think I liked it a little less than the two previous books in the series. The murder mystery is interesting until it’s not. The characters of Axel and Abigail are sweet, but not particularly interesting. The romance is well done, but since I’m not really all that interested in the characters, it has a little less resonance. This is largely a personal objection, and I’m sure other readers are going to like this book better than I did. Everything one loves about Grace Burrowes is here — the writing style, the characterization, etc. — it’s just not all that interesting to me.

The supporting characters are here, obviously ones we’ve already met in their own books or those that are going to be leads later. Nick Haddonfield shows up again, and while I still like him, I’m less convinced by his presence and friendship with Axel and Abigail than I was with David Worthington showing up in the first five books. I wonder if I would be more annoyed if I hadn’t read his book already and I know exactly why he’s stalling returning to London. He finally does so after this, but it’s still ten more books before I get to his entry. We’re not at Ian and Daniel Mackenzie levels of intrusion, but I’m glad I know for a fact that Nick disappears for a while.

We also get a heavy dose of Matthew, enjoying his marital bliss with Theresa, but other than that, there aren’t a lot of returning characters which makes this a unique book in a lot of ways. This is probably the first book since Gareth kicked off this strand of the timeline in which there aren’t three or more returning characters or future major leads.

The things I didn’t like about this book are a bit spoilery, so I’ll get into the details later, but they made the book drag a bit for me personally. Otherwise, it’s a well-written and constructed book that will probably work for like 80% of the world.

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