Desert Isle Keeper
Allie Therin’s Magic and Manhattan series concluded earlier this year with Wonderstruck, leaving Rory and Arthur in a good place, disposing of the evil Baron Zeppler and nicely tying up the major plotlines. Despite a few quibbles, I enjoyed all three books, so I was pleased to learn the author was writing another novel set in the same universe, but featuring different lead characters and a different setting. In Proper Scoundrels the action switches from New York to London (and Yorkshire), and we catch up with Lord Wesley Fine – Arthur Kenzie’s former lover – and Sebastian de Leon, a powerful paranormal whose particular abilities made him a valuable asset to the bad guys – both of whom had major parts to play in Wonderstruck. Although Proper Scoundrels is a standalone novel, I would strongly advise anyone thinking about picking it up to read the Magic in Manhattan series first in order to understand the character backstories and magical systems and world the author has created.
The action picks up shortly after the end of Wonderstruck, where we find Sebastian living in London, where he’s retreated to lick his wounds after spending three years enslaved by the blood magic practiced by Baron Keppler. He’s weighed down by guilt for the things he was forced to do while under the Baron’s control and is desperate to find ways to atone. He’s damaged, scared and alone, having deliberately distanced himself from friends and family because he believes himself unworthy of affection, happiness or redemption.
Wesley, Lord Fine, is also back in London and is at something of a loose end. Like Sebastian, he feels like an outsider, his experiences of war putting him forever out of step with those around him. He’s a self-confessed scoundrel; jaded, cynical, arrogant and often deliberately rude, he despises nearly everyone and everything. Despite his involvement with the events of Wonderstruck, he has no idea of the existence of magic and the paranormal world – and no inkling that his Kensington home is under magical protection or that Sebastian regularly passes by to make sure that Arthur’s aristocratic friend [isn’t] in any danger owing to his association with Arthur and Rory.
One evening, Sebastian receives a note from Jade Robbins containing a list of the dates of three recent unexplained murders and asking him to meet her. He grasps the implications immediately – whoever is committing these murders is a paranormal; his conversation with Jade and her partner, Zhang, confirms this and also suggests the perpetrator may be the man responsible for the theft of a number of valuable and dangerous magical artefacts belonging to Sebastian’s family, the Earl of Blanshard. And among the guests at the last party the earl held at his Yorkshire estate was Wesley, Viscount Fine. Could he be the paranormal murderer’s next target?
Proper Scoundrels is superbly plotted and perfectly paced, and there’s what I can only describe as an overall air of confidence to the writing and storytelling that wasn’t quite there in the author’s previous work. The romance is given the time to develop and the attraction between Wesley and Sebastian made a lot more sense right off the bat than the romance between Rory and Arthur, who felt so very mis-matched until quite late in their series. Wesley and Sebastian may be polar opposites, but their relationship doesn’t suffer from the same feeling of inequality; the push-pull of their attraction, their individual trauma and coping mechanisms, and the amount of growth they go through as characters makes their romance – across one single title – very believable and deeply satisfying.
Wesley and Sebastian are as compelling as individuals as they are as a couple and I liked both of them very much – although it’s Wesley who really stole the show for me. I loved his sharp and very distinctive narrative voice; he’s under no illusions about himself – unless it’s about his hard-heartedness and inability to love – and his irritation with himself over his attraction to Sebastian is funny and leaps off the page. He’s every bit the arrogant, rude, snarky, cantankerous arsehole he was in the previous books, but there’s a depth and vulnerability to him that he’d never admit to, and he’s brave, open-minded, witty and generous to those few he truly cares about. I enjoyed watching him decide that maybe caring for someone – and allowing someone to care for him – might be worth it after all. Sebastian has been through a lot and is suffering from what we’d recognise as PTSD as a result, but he isn’t prepared to cut himself any slack and blames himself for all the things he did while in thrall to Baron Keppler, even though he had absolutely no choice in the matter. He’s unfailingly kind and considerate – Jade is spot on when she calls him a “dangerous marshmallow” – and will fight to the death to protect those around him – especially sharp-tongued, non-magical viscounts – but he’s no pushover. I just loved watching these two lonely, damaged men slowly growing closer and allowing the other to see things about themselves they allow no-one else to see. Their chemistry is off-the-charts and they light up the pages when they’re together, Wesley’s acerbity the perfect counterpoint to Sebastian’s sweetness.
Having bemoaned the fade-to-black sex scenes in the Magic in Manhattan books because I felt the author missed an opportunity to add depth to the romance, I was pleased at the inclusion of on-page scenes of sexual intimacy here. These moments between Wesley and Sebastian feel absolutely appropriate for the relationship and the characters and definitely add depth to their emotional connection.
While Arthur and Rory are namechecked a few times, they don’t actually appear on the page – which I think was the right decision, as this story belongs entirely to Wesley and Sebastian – I was delighted to see Jade and Zhang again; they’re terrific characters and I enjoyed their interactions with the two leads and seeing them playing important roles in the story.
Proper Scoundrels is my favourite of Ms. Therin’s books so far and I raced through it in a couple of sittings. The two leads are compelling, well-developed characters who grab the attention right from the start, the mystery plot is well-executed and overall, it feels as though the author has taken all the really good things from the first three books and made them even stronger. It’s my final DIK of 2021, and I have no hesitation in wholeheartedly recommending it.