Sinless is book 1.5 in Lynne Connolly’s new series The Shaws, a continuation or spin-off of her seven book Emperors of London series about the powerful Vernon family. The Shaws are closely related to the Vernons (cousins I think), and some of them appeared in the earlier series as secondary characters. Book one of The Shaws, Fearless, featured Lord Valentinian Shaw (both families had a penchant for naming their offspring after Roman emperors) a rake and hellraiser who found himself in court on a murder charge. Thanks to the efforts of barrister Andrew Graham, Val was exonerated and in Sinless, we meet Andrew again as he works to unmask a traitor and tries not to give in to the strong attraction that sparks between him and Val’s twin brother, Lord Darius.
Andrew has been sent by General Court to join a raid on a molly house (a brothel catering to homosexual men) in order to meet a man who is in possession of a list containing details of a network of spies. As the raid starts and Andrew begins the search for his contact, he is surprised to see Lord Darius Shaw, poised and coolly collected in the midst of the chaos. Andrew and Darius engage in a brief, wary conversation when Andrew spots the man he is looking for, only to be prevented from confronting him by Darius, who grabs Andrew and kisses him, allowing the other man to make his escape.
Darius has reasons of his own for interfering. The list contains the names of diplomats and military agents placed throughout Europe by his family and the government, so when he learned of its existence and that it was being offered for sale, he determined to get hold of it himself in order to prevent its being sold to England’s enemies and his family’s rivals. He had managed to befriend the man in possession of the list with the intention of using their friendship and … shared interests… to obtain it, but the raid put paid to his plans so now he has to find another way – and his first step is to speak to Andrew Graham again in order to find out what he knows.
Days later, Andrew is still bewildered by the kiss and can’t forget the feel of Darius’ mouth on his or the way Darius had made him feel. Even though he has been married and has a young daughter, Andrew is well aware that his sexual preference is for men, but decided – after the death of his wife – that it would be safest for him to live a celibate life. Andrew is a successful lawyer, and cannot afford the merest whiff of scandal to be attached to his name; unlike Darius, he does not have the backing of an immensely powerful family to cover up any indiscretions, so while Andrew acknowledges to himself that he would very much like things between him and Darius to develop, he knows such a thing to be impossible. When Darius reveals the truth about the list and exactly what is at stake should it fall into the wrong hands, Andrew’s sense of duty and honour compel him to offer his help… but more than that, he wants to help Darius because he cares for him. This decision propels Andrew into unforeseen dangers – and forces him to confront the truth of his feelings for Darius, even though it seems there is still no way forward for them.
One of Ms. Connolly’s real strengths is her historical knowledge, which she uses to create a solid backdrop to her stories so that the reader is transported to the dirty cobblestones and extravagant mansions of Georgian London. Her research is impeccable and her plotlines are intriguing, but I have, on several occasions, found the romances in her books to be somewhat underdeveloped and based on insta-lust – which is the case here. Andrew and Darius have known each other for a while and, we’re told, have been suppressing a strong attraction to one another. But they go from zero-to-sixty in the blink of an eye; they share a couple of heated kisses, and then, BAM!, they’re in love. There is no progression from ‘I fancy you’ to ‘I love you’; in fact I checked to see if I’d somehow skipped a chapter or two, because the romantic development is pretty much non-existent and instead we get pages of Andrew and Darius thinking – and talking – about how much they want each other and how anything more between them is impossible. Darius has, supposedly, decided love is not for him because he doesn’t think it’s fair to put someone he loves in harm’s way (given the fact that homosexuality was punishable by death at this point in time) and so refuses to let himself fall in love. I understand his reasoning, yet he barrels through all that with Andrew in no time at all, telling him on several occasions that he desires him and wants to take him to bed – and the next minute telling him such a thing can’t happen.
I’m also a little doubtful about the degree of acceptance shown Darius by his family. He’s not an oldest son, so doesn’t have to ‘do his duty’ and provide an heir, but even so, the way that his parents and other family members accept his homosexuality strikes me as perhaps a little more wishful-thinking than historically accurate. I’m sure there were enlightened people around at the time who would have thought that what people did in their own bedrooms was up to them… I just found it a little implausible that Darius’ preferences could be so widely known and nobody seemed to turn a hair.
Sinless boasts an intriguing storyline and a strong historical background, but it doesn’t really work as a romance. I believe this is Ms. Connolly’s first m/m story (please correct me if I’m wrong), but authors like K.J. Charles and Cat Sebastian have set the bar incredibly high for m/m historical romances, and this one just doesn’t cut the mustard in that department.