The first book in Joanna Chambers’ Enlightenment series, Provoked is set in Regency Scotland, at a time of much political and social unrest. The author immediately evokes a strong sense of time and place with the opening of the story in which two young men – weavers wrongly convicted of treason – are publicly executed. Present in the crowd is David Lauriston, a twenty-four year-old advocate who had defended the men in court, even though their fate was a foregone conclusion.
David is the son of a tenant farmer who, with his father’s help, has managed to put himself through University and is now forging himself a career in the law. He’s incredibly hard-working and diligent, but the fact that his sympathies lie with the oppressed and downtrodden are perhaps at odds with his aspirations to a profession typically practiced by the upper classes.
On his way back to Edinburgh, David meets and dines with a tall, handsome man who introduces himself as Murdo Balfour. David instantly feels a spark of interest – interest he doesn’t want to feel but is unable to dispel. Surprised to discover that the attraction he’s feeling appears to be mutual, and after carefully dancing around the subject to gauge interest, the two men act on that attraction, not expecting to see each other again – which suits David. He’s always full of self-loathing after he “lapses”, and prefers to keep his rare sexual encounters with other men as brief and impersonal as possible.
But sex with Murdo is something out of David’s range of limited experience; for the first time he experiences more than just sexual gratification, and as much as he’d like to forget it and move on, he can’t stop thinking about it – and Murdo himself.
A few months later, both men are surprised when they stumble across each other again at an assembly – and with Murdo now fixed in Edinburgh for a short time, it’s impossible for either of them to deny that want more from each other than fumbling encounters in dark alleys.
When Euan MacLennan, the brother of one of the executed men approaches David for help in tracking down the agent provocateur who betrayed him, David is at first unwilling to become involved, believing the young man to be blinded by his grief. Quickly realising that Euan will proceed with or without his help (and that without it, he is likely to end up at the end of a rope as well), David reluctantly agrees to see what he can find out, not really expecting to have any success.
But a purely incidental comment at a dinner party leads him to suspect that perhaps there is something to Euan’s tale – and also furthers his association with Murdo, as it appears that the reasons he has given for his presence in the city may not be entirely truthful.
The story then focuses on David and Euan’s search for the Englishman who betrayed the weavers, while at the same time furthering the relationship between the two protagonists. While David is a sympathetic character, he sometimes comes across as somewhat sanctimonious. It’s not that he hates himself for being gay, that he tries to deny his homosexuality, or that he tries to fool himself into thinking he can fight it. He knows what he is, but because he’s uncomfortable with the way he needs to express himself sexually, he seems to wallow in self-denial, which is a continual source of conflict with Murdo, who is his opposite in practically every way. Titled, rich and comfortable with his sexuality, Murdo believes he’s perfectly entitled to take his pleasure as he wishes while following the pattern laid out for him as a member of the nobility and taking a wife and fathering children, something which David, with his clearly defined sense of honour could never contemplate.
The burgeoning romance between David and Murdo is both sweet and hot, although their struggle to understand the other’s point of view means they are often at odds, which adds a real dollop of realism to their personalities and their story. David is the more well-defined character of the two, a good-hearted man with a backbone of steel and very highly defined sense of honour. Murdo, at this stage, comes across as not much more than a privileged man with a strong sense of self-entitlement, but there’s the sense that, as he and David become closer, he’s starting to allow David to see the man he truly is underneath the aristocratic veneer. I’m sure that as the trilogy progresses, we’ll get to know the true Murdo Balfour.
Provoked is an enjoyable, well-written story in which the author has strongly established the central relationship and in which there are clearly some interesting plotlines laid out for future development. The immediate conflict in the story – the search for the government spy – is resolved, but the book ends with David and Murdo parting, possibly permanently. Yet there is clearly much more to be said between them, and I’ll certainly be seeking out the other books in the trilogy.