I’ve read and enjoyed all the books in Joanna Shupe’s Knickerbocker Club series, so I was eagerly looking forward to Mogul, the last book in the set. I like second-chance romances and the pairing of the self-made media mogul and the society beauty who were married but quickly separated intrigued me, so I settled in to read with reasonably high expectations.
Unfortunately however, they were not met. While there’s certainly an intriguing storyline that is linked with hero Calvin Cabot’s past and an inviolable promise he made some years earlier, and there’s no question that he and our heroine, Lillian Davies, are still deeply in lust with one another, plot holes, uneven pacing and unclear motivations lead to a less than cohesive whole.
Four years ago, and following a whirlwind romance, hard-working, dedicated reporter Calvin Cabot eloped with and married Lillian Davies, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. They’re confident they’ll be able to talk Warren Davies around, but he threatens to cut Lily off without a penny and also to expose Calvin as a bigamist, because he’s already married to a woman he met while he lived in China. Believing that staying married to Lily will do her a massive disservice – she’s been brought up in the lap of luxury and Calvin certainly won’t be able to keep her in expensive dresses and jewellery – and because of a promise given to his closest friend, Calvin gives into her father’s blackmail, leaves and the marriage is annulled.
Lily has picked up the pieces and got on with her life, now believing that Calvin was nothing but a fortune hunter. Her father has since died, and she has taken over as president of Davies Mining, something she hopes is an interim measure until her younger brother, Tom, can take over. But Tom is missing, and the only clue she has to his whereabouts is a note written in Chinese, which has both Tom’s and Calvin’s names written in it. Lily has no alternative but to approach Calvin, who by now, owns three newspapers and is one of the most influential men in the country. He spent several years living and working in China and knows the language; and while it galls her to have to ask him for help, Lily puts aside her personal feelings and concentrates on trying to help her brother.
At first, Calvin wants nothing to do with Lily or Tom, but he translates the note for her, which says that Tom has taken something of value belonging to Wah Lee, the man who pretty much controls the whole of New York’s Chinatown. Calvin reluctantly agrees to do a bit of digging to see what he can find out, but in reality he knows more or less exactly what is going on.
Calvin’s Chinese wife isn’t his wife at all, but is actually married to his friend Hugo, a freed slave who saved Calvin’s life more than once when they were both working in China. The plan had been for Shin-yee to join Hugo in the US, but the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed before she could do so and with no legal way of getting her into the country, Calvin asked Lee for help, telling him that Shin-yee was his wife. After almost five years and no sign of her being able to come to the US, Calvin has begun to get impatient and has started to do a bit of sabre-rattling in his newspapers, running a series of articles about the extent of the corruption in Chinatown. And to make a bad situation worse, it seems that the “something of value” that Lily’s brother has taken is Lee’s daughter, Ming Zhu.
The stage is set for a gripping story of move and countermove as Calvin tries to protect Lily and Tom from the danger presented by Lee while also fulfilling his promise to reunite Hugo with his wife. This plotline is fast-paced and well-executed, with plenty of twists and turns and moments of danger and peril; but Calvin’s almost pathological need to keep secrets from Lily is frustrating, and the many misunderstandings between them seem to be thrown in simply to add complications to a story that already has quite a lot going on.
The sexual chemistry between Calvin and Lily is undeniably strong, but I never felt these were two people who have changed very much or grown over their four years apart; their relationship seems still to be built on the all-consuming lust that drove them together in the first place. Calvin agreed to walk away from Lily in part because he felt she wouldn’t be happy without her high-society lifestyle; yet I had to ask myself why on earth he didn’t think of that before? The other reason was because of his promise to Hugo; if it got out that Shin-yee was married to a former slave, it would make it even harder to bring her to the US, so Calvin allowed Lily’s father to believe him a bigamist rather than tell the truth or ask for help.
The thing is that I can’t quite buy either of those things, and given they’re the reasons behind the break-up that provides the impetus for the story, it leaves the whole thing on shaky ground. While the thriller plotline is very well executed – it’s the best thing in the book – and Ms. Shupe has clearly researched the situation regarding the Chinese immigrant community and the restrictive immigration laws very extensively, the other elements to the story aren’t as strong. The explanations for Mr. Davies’ interference, and how Calvin acquired his first newspaper are overly convenient, and towards the end, Ms. Shupe lobs in a last-minute threat to Lily’s position as president of Davies Mining and a sordid, kinky secret kept by her boring would-be fiancé which Calvin, naturally, digs up in order to run him outta town; both of which make the ending feel rushed and the reader feel that the bow tying everything up is just a bit too neat. And I am not a fan of romances where it’s left to other people to point out to one or both of the protagonists just how much in love they are, or how much in love the other person is with them. It’s not uncommon in a romance for one character to need a little push, but this is no little push – it’s several very forceful and completely unsubtle shoves.
It’s common practice these days for ebooks to contain taster chapters and teasers for other books by the author, but in the case of Mogul, the final quarter is actually given over to Tycoon, the prequel novella to the series. This meant that the story actually ended at around the 76% mark on my Kindle, so this is not the 352 page novel it’s billed as. I was not aware of this when I picked up the book, although there’s a flash on the front cover claiming “free bonus novella!” If you’ve already bought Tycoon, you may feel it’s a bit of a cheek to use it to pad out the pagination of another book and ask you to pay for it again; potential readers, be aware that Mogul is considerably shorter than advertised.
It pains me to say that Mogul – which I’d anticipated being the best of the series – is actually the weakest. I’d give a strong B/B+ to the thriller, but a C to everything else, so I’m compromising with a B- as a final grade. It’s a bit of a whimper to the end of what’s been a thoroughly enjoyable and well-written series set in a time and place that doesn’t often feature in historical romances. For that, if nothing else, Ms. Shupe deserves praise, and even though Mogul didn’t live up to my expectations, I will definitely be picking up whatever she comes up with next.