Desert Isle Keeper
In King’s Man – the first full length book in her new Outlawed series – Sally Malcolm has pulled off a feat that, in these days of clichéd, been-there-read-that historical romance is little short of a minor miracle. This book is that rare gem in an overcrowded genre and something that every fan of historicals has been waiting for, something refreshingly original in terms of story and setting that combines a gorgeous, deeply emotional love story that will tug at the heartstrings with an exciting, high-stakes plot that will have you on the edge of your seat.
In 1774, lawyer Samuel Hutchinson met Nathaniel Tanner when the latter was sent from his home in Boston to clerk for James Reed, a respected lawyer in the small Rhode Island town of Rosemont. Over the ensuing months, the two men became friends and eventually fell in love, forming a soul-deep connection they expected to last for their lifetimes. (This story is told in the prequel novella, Rebel; it’s not essential to have read it before starting King’s Man, but I’d strongly recommend it – it’s a gorgeous romance and cements Nate and Sam’s backstory). But four years later, and with the effects of the revolution continuing to reverberate throughout America, the two men find themselves more often than not disagreeing over ideology, with Nate supporting the war against the British and Sam opposing it, hating the way it’s dividing American from American and allowing the rule of law to flounder in the face of those who would deny him and those like him their liberty and freedom of thought. Neither man can see a way to bridge the gap between them, and even though it feels like they’re ripping away a part of themselves, they agree it’s best they don’t see each other any more; and when, two months later, Sam is dragged, bound, from his home by an angry mob of (so-called) patriots and taken away to God-knows-where, a devastated Nate knows his life has changed forever.
Five years later, Sam is one of thousands of American refugees eking out an existence in London. Bitter and angry, heartsick and homesick, he lives in a fencing ken in the stews of St. Giles, where he makes his living valuing stolen goods and as “a larcenist for hire”, the best lockpicker in London. It’s in this capacity that he’s instructed to present himself the following evening to someone who has a job for him – a job which will send Sam north to the home of Lord Marlborough in order to steal sensitive documents. But he won’t be travelling alone.
Nate is now an agent in the Department of Foreign Affairs and has been in London for three months, having accompanied Colonel Benjamin Talmach there on his mission to root out Tory (those who opposed the war) traitors. In the guise of a lowly lawyer, Nate works for an American merchant named Paul Farris and is gathering the evidence needed to prove the man is involved in a plot to destabilise the Continental Congress (the Congress of the Confederation, which governed America from 1781 to 1789). When Nate attends a meeting between Farris and Lord Marlborough (a nasty piece of work if ever there was one) at which Marlborough boasts of having a list of names of allies in America who could stir up an armed revolt that would help “bring the Continental Congress to its knees”- Nate realises this is it; this is the information he’s been seeking in order to bring Farris down. But Talmach – whose hatred of Tories is legendary, wants more than just Farris; he wants Marlborough’s entire list of traitors and is sending Nate to Marlborough Castle to keep an eye on the man Talmach has employed to steal it.
Nate’s decision to accompany Talmach to London wasn’t just for his job; his main reason for going was that he hoped he might be able to find Sam – but even so, Sam is the last person Nate expects to see when he arrives at Talmach’s lodgings to discuss the theft of Marborough’s list. The sight of his former lover – so bitter and resentful, and in such reduced circumstances – is a real punch to the gut, and Nate can feel hostility emanating from the other man in waves. But he refuses to be put off by Sam’s coldness and is unable to stop hoping that having found him again they might at least be able to rebuild their friendship even if they can never be what they once were to each other.
Days spent in close proximity during their journey lead to some agonising soul-searching and bitter recriminations as Sam and Nate finally confront the truths of their past. Seeing Nate again stirs up so many conflicting emotions for Sam; the gut-wrenching pain of the way things ended between them, self-loathing at the joy he feels at still wanting Nate in spite of what happened, a melancholic yearning for the way things were – the author vividly evokes all that and more as Sam slowly allows himself to remember why he’d fallen in love with Nate in the first place and then to reach a place where forgiveness is possible. Nate is utterly heartbroken when he learns the full extent of what Sam’s convictions cost him – his freedom, his home and his identity as an American – and now bitterly regrets not standing beside him when it counted. As their journey progresses, he comes to a greater understanding of Sam’s position, but knowing they can never recapture the idyll of their early days together and believing there’s no future for them makes this reunion and rapprochement bittersweet. Neither man can deny that the intensity of the attachment between them has never waned, and while their soul-deep bond may have been fractured and its strength greatly tested, it’s still there, and growing stronger by the hour. The slow rekindling of Sam and Nate’s feelings for one another is beautifully done, full of raw but heartfelt emotion and likely to bring a lump to the throat on more than one occasion.
Sally Malcolm creates longing and sexual tension so intense it leaps off the page, and the way she’s seamlessly woven together this emotionally powerful love story with a tense and exciting plot and a wonderfully (and obviously very well researched) rich historical background is nothing short of masterful. Her writing is marvellous and she has imbued her story with a sense of time and place so strong that the reader feel s transported to the narrow, muddy streets of eighteenth century London, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the city and able to hear the cries of the hawkers and breathe in the intrigue of the coffee houses. In her author’s note, Ms. Malcolm explains her motivations for writing a story that explored the experience of American Loyalists, and I’m so pleased she did, because I had no prior knowledge of this particular part of history and found it absolutely fascinating. I was also forcibly struck at how relevant so many of the issues confronting Sam and Nate still are; it’s impossible not to draw parallels between Sam’s warnings against demagogues and mob rule, the deep divisions created between compatriots, and recent events on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps some of the highest praise I can offer is to say that if you enjoy the way KJ Charles so skilfully weaves together romance, history and politics, then chances are you’ll enjoy this book, too.
Heart-breaking, uplifting and utterly captivating, King’s Man is a compelling read and easily one of the finest historical romances I’ve read over the past few years. I’m happy to recommend it without reserve or hesitation.