Kerrigan Byrne certainly knows how to open a book with a bang! The prologue to The Hunter (second book in her Victorian Rebels series) is one of the most gripping and emotionally draining things I’ve read in some time. In it, we are introduced to the hero of the novel, Christopher Argent, as a young boy living in Newgate Prison with his mother, a prostitute and thief. Born behind bars, Argent has never been outside the prison walls; but as we are later to learn, his is the sort of imprisonment that never ends – an imprisonment of the mind.
Readers of the previous book in the series, The Highwayman will recall that Argent is a close associate of Dorian Blackwell, and that the two had become part of a close knit gang in Newgate, looking out for each other and eventually – through intimidation and violence – becoming the rulers of their kingdom behind bars. Since their release, Argent has been at Blackwell’s side, instrumental in the establishment of the Black Heart of Ben More’s criminal empire, his ruthlessly efficient methods of dispatching their enemies quickly earning him a reputation as one of England’s most deadly assassins.
Over the years, Argent has killed so many people that he has amassed a fortune he doesn’t know what to do with – but killing is all he knows. Like Blackwell in the previous book, he has suffered incarceration, privation, hardship and abuse; he watched his mother die in horrific circumstances and learned to use his rage to hone his skill, studying ancient martial arts with a master who taught him how to focus his considerable energies and to dispense with the unwanted complication of emotion. Now, he’s an empty shell of a man, a frighteningly proficient killer for whom his latest contract – to kill an actress named Millie LeCour – is just another day at the office.
Millie is the most celebrated actress in London, performing to sell-out houses and receiving wild acclaim for her performance as Desdemona at London’s Covent Garden Theatre. Beautiful, clever and talented, she holds audiences spellbound night after night, unaware that there is a man lurking in the shadows who is there to do more than simply enjoy the play.
Calling himself Bentley Drummle (an alias I was surprised a member of the acting fraternity didn’t immediately spot as coming from Great Expectations), Argent gains access to an after-show-party and proceeds to flirt with Millie, charming her and very quickly managing to separate her from the crowd. But for the first time ever, he can’t bring himself to do the job he has been paid to do. He is confused and disturbed by Millie’s effect on him; she makes him feel many things he doesn’t recognise – and one he does. Desire. He wants her badly, but that cannot be allowed to interfere with his purpose, and he makes another two unsuccessful attempts to kill her, frustrated, and angry at himself because he doesn’t understand why he is unable to carry out his instructions.
Coming to realise that there is something suspicious about the contract on Millie’s life, Argent in effect switches sides, vowing to protect her and her nine-year-old son, Jakub, from those who are out to harm her. But his motives are far from altruistic. He makes a deal with her – he will keep her and Jakub safe if she will spend one night with him, a proposal to which she agrees for reasons which do not just relate to her need for protection from her enemies.
From the moment she first sees him, a large figure in the dimness of the theatre, Millie is fascinated by Argent. His auburn hair and icy blue eyes are striking and his large, muscled body is surprisingly graceful – but more than the strong physical attraction she feels for him, she senses the darkness inside him and is compelled to find out what makes this puzzling, seemingly unknowable man tick.
There is much to enjoy in the novel which is superbly written and in which the author’s descriptions of the various London locations is so evocative as to put the reader right there, within the walls of Newgate, backstage at Covent Garden or amid the grime of the London backstreets and fighting pits. Like its predecessor, the story is high on emotion and angst, perhaps sometimes a little TOO high, but it is nonetheless a gripping tale, and a worthy successor to the earlier book. However, I can’t deny that I had an issue with the fact that the plot basically hinges on the insta-lust between Argent and Millie, which is the root cause of his failing – for the first time ever – to kill his intended victim. In fact, much is made of the fact that he has never before merely attempted an assassination or reneged on a contract; and the way he goes from being a conscienceless killer (whose past victims have included women, although never children) to wondering why someone wants Millie dead doesn’t quite fit, given he has never worried about it before. That said, the author does a very good job of humanising him as the story progresses, showing him to be a man struggling to define the things he is beginning to feel for Millie, and with his own feelings of disgust and inadequacy when it comes to deserving the regard she obviously has for him.
Millie is a strong, likeable heroine, who refuses to accept Argent at face value, believing that somewhere deep inside is a man worthy of love and kindness. I enjoyed the relationship established between Argent and Jakub as well; it possesses a strong element of realism because Christopher is awkward and unused to communicating with children, even though it’s clear that the boy’s situation – being brought up by his mother, alone – resonates with him.
There’s also an intriguing sub-plot concerning a crazed serial-killer who dismembers women and steals their children; we are given a glimpse of the happily married life of Dorian and Farah from book one, and we also get to reacquaint ourselves with Chief Inspector Morley of Scotland Yard (I’m now rather hoping he’s going to get a book of his own at some point).
I struggled a little with the grading for The Hunter, because while I enjoyed it, I at times thought that perhaps Argent was just too broken for there to be a real chance at redemption. Even so, I appreciated the fact that Ms Byrne doesn’t taken the easy way out and turn him into a man completely transformed by the love of a good woman. What she does do is show us that there’s hope for him and that he’s on the way to becoming something more than he was.
Also, there are problems with the pacing around the middle of the story in which there’s a bit too much navel-gazing on Argent’s part about his being a monster unworthy of love – and the ending, which has not just one, but two “Millie-in-Peril” set pieces, is perhaps just a little too stretched out.
Taking those issues and the insta-lust into account, and balancing them against the terrific writing, beautiful descriptive prose and strong characterisation, I’m giving the novel a B grade overall. Ideally, I need a grade between a B and a B+, because that’s where I feel the book belongs; not quite the same standard as The Highwayman (to which I gave a B+), but still a cut above many of the other historical romances currently on the market. Overall, though, I’m sure fans of the previous book will enjoy this one, and to anyone looking for something a bit darker and grittier than the norm in historical romance, I’d say The Hunter is definitely something you might want to check out.