Arden Powell’s Flos Magicae series of 1920s set fantasy romances comprises a mixture of full-length novels and novellas that can be read in any order. I’ve been meaning to give their books a try for a while, so I picked up the most recent entry, A Thief and a Gentleman, which features a romance between a con artist with expensive tastes and the handsome, wealthy – but somewhat repressed – gentleman he is dared to seduce. I enjoyed it a lot – the writing is assured (apart from a couple of small glitches), the romance is a tender slow-burn,and the characterisation is excellent; the PoV character is a damaged but loveable rogue and the secondary cast is vibrant and three-dimensional.
Without the funds to support the kind of high-class lifestyle he aspires to, Sebastian’s only option is to grift and steal it – and he isn’t too picky about what he has to do to get what he wants. When his most recent paramour kicks him out (after discovering Sebastian has done a stretch in Blackwood prison), he’s inconvenienced rather than heartbroken; he just needed someone to provide food, money, and a roof over his head while he finished planning the robbery of a lifetime. When the book opens, he’s just knocked on the front door of his best friend and partner-in-crime, Kitty Delaware, hoping she will put him up for a few nights, or at least until he can find himself another mark. Fortunately for Sebastian, Kitty’s partner, Adam, is pretty easy-going; he knows what Sebastian is and how he lives, and he knows that together, Sebastian and Kitty are the most notorious jewel thieves in London. They’re planning to steal a portion of the Cheapside Hoard, currently on display at the British Museum, and they’re almost ready to do the job; just a few more days to put the finishing touches to the plan and they’ll be rich – and Sebastian will never need to rely on anyone else ever again.
Later that day, Adam invites Sebastian to accompany him to the Stag’s Head – a fashionable London club populated entirely by wealthy gentlemen with too much time on their hands and too few hobbies. It’s a trifle dull for Sebastian’s taste, but needs must – and at least the attendees’ vapid personalities make them easy marks. When Adam introduces Sebastian to his friend, Alphonse Hollyhock, the name rings a very quiet bell; it’s not until Alphonse mentions that his cousin Morgan is sitting at the bar that the bells begin to ring louder. Sebastian hasn’t laid eyes onMorgan Hollyhock in twenty years, not since that one, idyllic summer when they were boys together, and finds himself actually eager to see Morgan again, even briefly considering the idea of finding a friend rather than another mark. But he hadn’t been prepared for the disappointment that hits him when the other man clearly doesn’t recognise him. Not willing to open himself up to rejection or ridicule by reminding Morgan who he is, Sebastian introduces himself as Tom, enters into a conversation – during which Morgan reveals himself to be very reserved and staid – and, because pickpocketing is almost second nature to him, lifts Morgan’s watch as he leaves.
Later, Kitty and Adam notice Sebastian is out of sorts despite his attempts at nonchalance and insistence that while Morgan is, indeed, handsome and rich, he’s too boring for Sebastian to want to shackle himself to him for any length of time. But he has to abandon the pretence at indifference when Adam points out that he hasn’t stopped fiddling with the watch, and then bets Sebastian twenty pounds that he can’t seduce Morgan. Sebastian pretends to consider the idea, but as his avarice and his inclination are in alignment on this occasion, he takes the bet.
Realising that his usual methods of seduction are unlikely to work with Morgan, Sebastian decides to try a different tack. After admitting to his deception the day before and then returning Morgan’s watch, Sebastian tells him about the bet and suggests that perhaps they can help each other out. Sebastian doesn’t need to actually sleep with Morgan in order to win the money; he just needs to spend a few nights under his roof and for them to pretend to be a couple in front of Adam and Kitty. And in exchange, Sebastian will help Morgan to alleviate the crushing boredom he’d confessed to at the club. Morgan, who freely admits to living a very dull, hermit-like existence, really is in desperate need of a change of pace and has to admit that Sebastian is the most interesting thing to happen to him in a long time – but he can’t help feeling a little wary, too. Sebastian is flamboyant, and flirtatious, his morals leave much to be desired and he lies with impunity – but despite it all, Morgan is smitten.
Flighty/stick-in-the-mud pairings don’t always work for me (so many of them feature the ‘manic pixie’ type, which I can’t stand), but I really liked this one. Sebastian is charming and smart, with a dry sense of humour; he’s also desperately lonely but refuses to admit it, he jokes and flirts to avoid dealing with any real emotions, and he has a self-destructive tendency that often gets the better of him. His life since he and Morgan first met has clearly not been an easy one, and his stint behind bars – in a prison designed specifically to suppress all forms of magic – has clearly affected him more deeply than he cares to admit. But despite all that, you can’t help but like him and want him to get his happy ending. Sebastian’s is the sole PoV in the story, so we don’t get into Morgan’s head, but he’s nicely drawn, too – he’s straight-laced and considers himself to be dull and uninteresting but he’s a kind and decent man, and despite his fascination with Sebastian, is no pushover. I loved watching Sebastian fighting his feelings for Morgan tooth and nail, and Morgan’s gentle persistence in believing better of him; they have great chemistry and their relationship – from friendship to romance – is a lovely slow-burn that allows them both time to start to let down their guards with each other and look beyond the surface.
The magical elements of the book are interesting and come into play in unusual ways (and some slightly naughty ones!) and I liked Sebastian’s friend Kitty – she’s whip-smart and no-nonsense and their friendship is really well written. Most of the secondary characters have appeared in the other books in the series, but the plotlines don’t cross over, so I was able to jump into the series here without any problems, and I’ll definitely be going back to read some of the others.
I do have a couple of small reservations. Not having Morgan’s perspective makes it difficult to understand why he so readily goes along with Sebastian’s scheme, and there are a few places where the single PoV kinda slips; it doesn’t switch, but there are times when some of the things Sebastian says and thinks don’t really fit.
Those minor niggles aside, however,A Thief and a Gentleman is a refreshingly different and thoroughly entertaining read, and it earns a strong recommendation. Sebastian is a wonderful central character with a very distinctive voice, the romance is warm and tender and the plot is interesting and well thought-out. I’ll definitely be reading more from Arden Powell.
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