Romance, drama, skulduggery and edge-of-the-seat adventure abound in this rip-roaring tale that brings the Will Darling Adventures to an absolutely magnificent close. In Subtle Blood, KJ Charles delivers everything I wanted from this series finale – a fast-paced, tightly-plotted mystery and a well-deserved HEA for Will and Kim – with her customary wit, razor-sharp insight and masterful storytelling.
There are spoilers for the earlier books in the series in this review.
It’s been a few months since the climactic events of The Sugared Game, when Will Darling and Kim Secretan uncovered the identity of the leader of Zodiac, a dangerous criminal organisation dedicated to tearing down the structures of power by any means necessary. But doing so saw Kim relieved of his duties – sacked – from the Private Bureau, so now he, like Will, is feeling just a little bit aimless. Or a lot aimless. For the time being, Kim is helping out at Darling’s Used and Antiquarian, the bookshop Will inherited from his uncle, and has turned out to be surprisingly adept at organising the shop and acquiring profitable collections – but neither of them is really cut out for the quiet life, and they both know it.
But the peace of the life they’re building together is suddenly shattered when Kim’s older brother Lord Chingford is accused of killing financier Paul Fairfax – a fellow member of the Symposium Club – and refuses point blank to offer any form of defence. Not because he doesn’t have one (which he kind of doesn’t), but rather because he fully expects that being the heir to a marquess means he’s untouchable and above the law, and that he doesn’t have to explain himself to anybody. Even the police. He says he was having a nap in another room in the club when the murder took place, and that’s all he has to say on the matter.
But then Will and Kim learn that Chingford was heard having a blazing row with Fairfax earlier in the day – and Will spots a tattoo on the underside of one of the dead man’s wrists in the exact same position as those worn by the members of Zodiac. Which begs the question… could some of its members still be at large and attempting to re-group?
KJ Charles has done her readers – and her protagonists – proud with this one. Will and Kim find themselves up to their necks in intrigue, betrayal and murder once again, and the mystery plot is perfectly paced. But the happenings in this story fall even closer to home than those in The Sugared Game did, and with Kim’s brother accused of murder and other developments which threaten Will’s safety, he has no alternative but to take Will home to the family pile so they can try to ferret out the truth about the murder. And in going home, Kim is forced to interact with the two people in the world he least wants to spend time with – his father, the Marquess of Flitby, and his brother Chingford, who is thick as shit and twice as despicable. We know from the previous book that Kim’s family life has inflicted some serious emotional damage, and that he doesn’t get on (putting it mildly!) with Fllitby and Chingford, who blatantly despise him, blaming him for the death of his younger brother and believing him a coward because he refused to fight in the war.
As in many of her other books, the author has a lot to say about the nature of privilege, but here, she really lets rip and exposes the deeply cruel rottenness and blatant injustice of it, showing what some men will do in order to retain power and the lengths some will go to in order to attain it. And yet, these characters are not caricatures or cartoon villains; they’re real people who act in ways that are abhorrent and are so totally blinkered by their innate sense of entitlement that they simply cannot conceive of the need to take any consideration into account that doesn’t benefit them or to perceive that the world around them is changing. I can’t even begin to describe how completely awful Flitby and Chingford are, in their puffed-up self-consequence and in their attitude towards Kim, who is trying to save his brother’s life (mostly because Kim doesn’t want to inherit a marquessate!) and to whom they are completely obnoxious.
Thankfully however, all this loathesomeness is outweighed by the deeply affectionate, loving relationship shared by Will and Kim, who have, over the course of the series, gone from a relationship based on attraction and an inequality borne of distrust to one of sincere trust and mutual understanding that has put them on a much more even footing. In the previous book, we learned more about Kim’s past and how it damaged him; here, Will has to face up to some home truths about his past and his coping mechanisms, and it’s a testament to how strong they are as a couple that he can do this with Kim steadfastly at his side. Their romance really is a thing of beauty – these strong, stubborn but broken men have come to really know and understand each other – and themselves – in ways that allow them to be vulnerable with each other and to face whatever life throws at them secure in the knowledge that they’re in it together. There are some gorgeously romantic and loving moments between Will and Kim in the story that show just how far they’ve come, both individually and as a couple, during the time we’ve been privileged to spend with them, and the moment when Kim communicates what he wants from their relationship is just heart-meltingly lovely.
Oh, and I can’t end this review without giving a quick shout-out to the awesome Phoebe and Maisie, who return to give the chaps an extremely useful helping hand. Not only are they superb characters in their own right, but the friendships between them and Will and Kim are so strongly written that the deep affection lying between them all simply leaps off the page.
If you’ve been following The Will Darling Adventures, then I know you’ll be eager to snap up Subtle Blood straight away, and if you’ve been waiting for the series to be completed, then now’s the time to get stuck in. Just make sure you clear yourself plenty of alone-time because once you start, I guarantee you won’t want to stop until the very end!
Clever, witty, sharply observed and beautifully romantic, Subtle Blood is a stonking read and an un-putdownable tour de force by an author at the very top of her game. I’m sorry to say goodbye to Will and Kim but I’m also so very glad to have made their acquaintance and that they’ve been given such a fantastic send-off. Definitely one for the keeper shelf and the Best of 2021 list.
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