Desert Isle Keeper
A Gathering Storm
Joanna Chambers’ A Gathering Storm is the sole historical entry in the Porthkennack series of queer romances written by five different award-winning, best-selling British LGBTQ+ romance authors. All the books – the others are by Charlie Cochrane, J.L. Merrow, Alex Beecroft and Garrett Leigh – can be read in any order and are standalone titles; the link is the setting of Porthkennack, a charming Cornish seaside town with a long and sometimes sinister history.
The story opens as Sir Edward Fitzwilliam Is travelling from Dublin to Anglesey on the night of a fierce, electrical storm. The storm is at its height when Edward – Ward – experiences a strange phenomenon; he hears his twin brother, George, assuring him that all will be well at what Ward later realises must have been the moment of his brother’s death. From that moment on, Ward becomes consumed by the idea of recreating the conditions that allowed the communication and devotes himself to the task, even though the wider scientific community – of which he had been a respected member – disapproves of his efforts to contact the departed and denounces him.
Following his disastrous public defence of a sham medium in opposition to some of his highly respected colleagues, Ward retreats to the small seaside town of Porthkennack in Cornwall, where he purchases a plot of land close to a place known locally as ‘the Hole’, an eighty-foot-high cavern that stretches from cliff-top to seabed. Stories of the supernatural cling to the place, but Ward’s interest is of a more scientific nature; he believes that the conditions experienced in that location during a storm will help him in his quest to recreate those he experienced on the night his brother communicated with him ‘from beyond the veil’.
But in order to prove that communication with the spirit world is possible, Ward also needs subjects willing to take part in his experiments, preferably people who have recently suffered a bereavement. He asks his solicitor if he can help him find such people, but even though Ward offers to pay well, the locals are naturally sceptical; and once rumours begin circulating about his using mesmerism and electric shocks (he doesn’t) not even the promise of payment can induce anyone to sign up.
On a visit to a local tavern in hopes of drumming up some interest, Ward meets Nicholas Hearn, land steward at the neighbouring Roscarrock estate. Nick is half Romany and, while it’s never publicly acknowledged, is the illegitimate grandson of his employer, old Godfrey Roscarrock. Nick’s gypsy mother is widely believed to have been clairvoyant, and when Ward learns of this, he is convinced that Nick is the very man to assist him with his experiments – but Nick isn’t interested, or at least, he isn’t interested in what Ward is trying to do, although he is fascinated by the man himself.
But circumstances have a way of changing unexpectedly, and not long after their initial meeting, Nick is manoeuvred into striking a bargain with Ward and agreeing to help with his experiments until the end of the summer. Over the ensuing weeks, the men fall into an unlikely friendship at the same time as the undercurrent of attraction that has been evident since their first meeting continues to bubble and simmer until it reaches a fever pitch they can no longer ignore or resist.
The romance between these two polar opposites – one fair, wealthy and privileged and the other a dark, reserved outsider – is incredibly well done and really quite beautiful. The sexual tension and the strength of the emotional connection the men share just leap off the page, and I really appreciated the way Ms. Chambers is able to put their romantic relationship on an equal footing in spite of their difference in social standing. Ward has never been in love, but is sexually experienced while Nick had a lover, but the opportunities to thoroughly explore the physical side of that relationship were few. But while Ward is rather deliciously naughty, the one thing he doesn’t have experience of is kissing – and the scene in which Nick shows Ward just how gloriously intimate a kiss can be is wonderfully tender and passionate.
They are very well-drawn, three-dimensional characters, both of them fervent about their beliefs and both stubborn to a fault. Ward was born into an aristocratic family and, while not an uncaring person, doesn’t realise the degree to which his privileged position distances him from other, ‘ordinary’ people. Nick, on the other hand, is neither fish nor fowl; his position as a land steward raises him above the farmers and working men of the village, yet even though he is the grandson of the one of the most powerful men in the area, Nick’s illegitimacy and his Romish blood mean that he is not gentry either. Ms. Chambers does a terrific job in exploring these differences, showing Ward and Nick recognising the need to make adjustments to their way of thinking and acting if they are to make a future together. Nick’s situation as being ‘between classes’ makes him particularly easy to empathise with; he feels he doesn’t really belong anywhere, and that sense of isolation is often compounded by his own, somewhat introverted nature. Ward, on the other hand, comes across as a bit of a snob at first, although it soon becomes clear that his sometimes dismissive attitude is as much to do with his absorption in his work and an inability to read social cues as it is to do with his upbringing.
There is a small, but strongly characterised secondary cast, and the uneasy relationship between Godfrey Roscarrock and Nick is particularly well done. Nick resents the older man; even though he has given him a good position, Nick sometimes wonders if he wouldn’t have been better off if he’d been left as he was, a gypsy bastard left to run with his mother’s folk – yet it’s obvious that Roscarrock has some degree of affection for his unacknowledged grandson, and sees in him a man like himself, a man whose love of the land is deeply entrenched.
I should probably point out here that in spite of Ward’s obsession with communicating with the dead, this book is primarily an historical romance and the paranormal aspect of the story is a background detail. It’s an important, very well researched and quite fascinating background detail, but that’s nonetheless what it is, so anyone coming to the book expecting a strong paranormal element may be disappointed.
A Gathering Storm is a wonderful love story, and at the same time, a subtly nuanced exploration of the nature of obsession and grief. I’ve gone back and forth over a final grade for the book because while I enjoyed it very much, the final chapter is somewhat rushed, and there are a couple of pacing issues in the middle. Ultimately, however, neither of those things would deter me from re-reading it, which means it belongs on my keeper shelf.