Desert Isle Keeper
The Sugared Game
Note: The Will Darling Adventures is a trilogy with overarching storylines and in which character and relationship development takes place throughout, so it’s advisable to read the books in order. There are spoilers for book one, Slippery Creatures, in this review.
K.J. Charles’ trilogy of Will Darling Adventures continues with book two, The Sugared Game, a perfectly-paced and superbly plotted mystery that sees soldier-turned-bookseller Will Darling and disgraced aristocrat and (probable) spy Kim Secretan working together once again to foil a dastardly plot. It’s pure Boy’s Own Adventure, albeit with sex and violence, richer characterisation and insightful social commentary.
At the end of Slippery Creatures, Will and Kim had prevented some dangerous information from falling into the hands of Zodiac, a secret organisation determined to destroy the fabric of society, and had managed to antagonise both Zodiac and the War Office along the way. After it’s over, they’d been to the pub a few times, spent another night together and, even though Will is well aware that Kim is an expert liar, devious and completely unreliable, he’d thought that perhaps there was a chance of things between them actually going somewhere.
But by the time The Sugared Game begins, Will has seen neither hide nor hair of Kim for almost two months, and is seriously pissed off. He keeps telling himself he should have known better than to hope for anything more from a man like Kim but still, he’s… hurt. And angry with himself for thinking there could ever be anything between them other than a few drinks and a few fucks.
As the book opens, Will and his best friend Maisie Jones are going for an evening out at the High-Low Club. Will has never heard of the place, but Maisie has chosen it because one of her customers gave her a voucher for a free bottle of bubbly – and according to Phoebe Stevens-Prince (Kim’s fiancée and a friend of both Will and Maisie’s) the band is good and it’s “awfully glamorous in a seedy way.”
It certainly is that. There’s a dope dealer upstairs together with several shady sorts, and the management don’t seem to take kindly to Will looking around; in fact, when the club’s proprietor introduces herself, Will gets the distinct impression he’s being threatened. Needless to say, he and Maisie decide not to go there again.
One evening a few days later, Will returns home and sees a strip of light beneath his bedroom door. Braced for the worst – maybe Zodiac has come for him – he arms himself with his trusty (and deadly) Messer knife, flings the door open… to discover Kim, cool as a cucumber, sitting in his armchair reading a book.
Kim, being Kim, starts in on a story to explain his presence, but Will has learned enough about his erstwhile lover to be able to tell when he’s lying – and when he’s up to something. Realising Will isn’t going to accept less than honesty, Kim admits that he’s been keeping an eye on the High-Low Club for a while now and tells Will it’s linked to Zodiac somehow. More than that, a colleague of his – a specialist in following financial trails – died recently in a manner Kim suspects was not at all accidental, after he had identified a number of profitable and highly illegal operations being run out of the club that he suspects are being used to finance Zodiac.
That’s all I’m going to reveal about the plot, because the mystery is clever and absolutely gripping, with twists and turns you won’t see coming. The plot turns out to have stakes that go far beyond the thwarting of a criminal gang and which prove devastatingly personal for Kim, and he and Will are going to have to use every ounce of their wit and ingenuity to keep ahead of the game – and make it out alive.
I enjoyed this second instalment in the series just as much and possibly more than I did the first one, and that’s saying a lot! I devoured it in one or two sittings, once again completely caught up in the story and the setting, captivated by the characters and relishing the development of the relationship between Will and Kim, who, despite Kim’s untrustworthiness and their total unsuitability, can’t keep away from each other.
The Sugared Game offers further character development and a greater understanding of what makes both men tick. Will knows he’s been changed by war, but here, he’s beginning to admit more to himself about that change, to realise that has an uncivilised streak that wants someone to ask him to infiltrate night-clubs and kick people’s heads in. In the last book, he was the innocent bystander getting caught up in a dastardly plot; this time around he goes in with his eyes wide open because he wants to stick it to the bad guys. And Kim, still his funny, snarky, clever self, finally tells Will something of his past and his motivations, displaying a raw and touching vulnerability as he does so. Although, being Kim, it doesn’t mean he reveals quite all… and when Will figures out what he’s holding back, he’s – understandably – furious with him. But when push comes to shove, he’s got Kim’s back, and although there are several unresolved issues by the time the book ends, their relationship is in a much better place than before.
I’ve said before that while “book twos” in trilogies frequently suffer from “middle book-itis” (just treading water until the final instalment), that’s never been a problem with K.J. Charles, and in fact some of her book twos have been the best in their series (A Seditious Affair and An Unnatural Vice for instance). Well, The Sugared Game is certainly not treading water. It’s a terrific follow up to Slippery Creatures, a tautly-written, compelling, high-stakes mystery with a vividly realised setting, a romance that’s coming along quite nicely, villains you can love to hate, heroes you can cheer for, murder, larceny, deception, betrayals – and plenty of cups of tea.