The theme for this month’s TBR Challenge is ‘a recommended read.’ Nothing could be easier: about three quarters of the unread books in my possession are there because someone recommended them to me, at some point or another. Then, something else shiny (or horrid, like the reading slump from hell), gets in the way, and the books languish there unread–while I keep on acquiring more words that too often, go unread for long, long periods of time.
And sometimes, when I finally get around to reading them, I could kick myself. Hard.
That was the case here.
It is no secret that I’m a fan of Meljean Brook’s Iron Seas world, and that I mourn the fact that there are so very few stories in that series, as well as knowing that there will probably be only one more full length book (the Blacksmith’s). Perhaps we will be lucky to have another short story released at some point (Scarsdale’s, pretty pretty please?)
So there I was, feeling bereft, when someone (don’t remember who), somewhere (no clue where), said something really glowingly positive about Kristen Callihan’s Darkest London series. I checked amazon, where this one is listed as Book 1 of the series, and priced at only 99¢. (Turns out, this is not the first story set in Darkest London, but the fifth.)¹ Of course I one-clicked it!
And then, it languished in the TBR until Saturday, when I read it in one delicious gulp.
(I really, really liked it.)
“Entwined” by Kristen Callihan
The story starts with two young men, barely out of childhood, a drunken brawl, a promise and a secret. It continues with a lovely exchange of letters between two people who, despite all good intentions, soon reveal to the other who they truly are.
(Aside: this is one of the things I love about well written epistolary novels. People do tend to be more who they truly are through the written word, particularly when they don’t know each other face to face. A lot of prejudice and preconception, particularly those we are not aware of, is absent, and therefore, it doesn’t influence how we see the other person, when all we have is words between us.)
Here, have a blurb:
Eamon Evernight has always lived in his older brother’s shadow. While his brother is fair of hair and lithe in body, Eamon sparks fear with his fiery locks and massive frame—and rumors of a mysterious power. But when his brother has the good fortune to be betrothed to a beautiful stranger, it’s Eamon’s help—and quick wit and romantic heart–that he needs. Eamon agrees to write the noble lady…a generous offer that will forever leave him a changed man.
Lady Luella Jane Moran has no interest in an arranged marriage and tries valiantly to dissuade her betrothed from afar. Though her own letters plainly state her case, the words her husband-to-be writes her leave her aching for his touch. Will Lu give in to the desire the missives have kindled within her? Or will desire turn cold when she discovers their true author?
This is a very self contained story; we only see a handful of characters, and we only truly get to know Eamon and Lu well. This is not to say that the secondary characters are two-dimensional filler, it’s just that the author truly concentrates the narrative on the main characters, and in a short story such as this, it works very well.
I’m not giving away any secrets when I say that Aidan is severely dyslexic, and that for years Eamon has been the one reading and writing whatever is necessary to keep this fact a secret. So when their father promises his firstborn in marriage to a Scottish lord’s firstborn, it’s natural for him to turn to Eamon for help.
Aidan has decided that marrying a chit who doesn’t care for him is as good a deal as he’s likely to get,² so he asks Eamon to play Cyrano, and convince her to go along with their respective father’s plan. For his part, Eamon wants more for his brother than a loveless arranged marriage, so at first he tries to strengthen the lady’s objections to the contract. However, best laid plans and all that: over the next four years, their letters to each other become the one bright spot in lives full of emotional pain.
Some of the character background is not precisely novel (i.e., neither Eamon’s nor Lu’s fathers love them–and that’s a bit of an understatement), but Ms Callihan avoids hitting ‘tired trope’ territory by making the character development actually fit the set up. Eamon struggles with feelings of inadequacy even as he continues to strive to do ‘the right thing’ in any given circumstance. Lu is aware that she literally has no choice but to forge ahead with the path set by her father’s signature on the betrothal contract, whatever her feelings–and oh, her feelings!
Here, have a taste:
My father is dead. It was sudden and unforeseen. I will not sully your tender sensibilities with gruesome details, but I cannot help writing to you. For I feel guilt for his death down to the marrow of my bones. I experience not loss but the release of a great burden. His constant disapproval is no more. I ought to be wracked with grief. Yet I am not.
Sweet Lu, I fear a shall never be the man you believe me to be. In fact, I know so. It is only when I put pen to paper, with the image of you in my mind, that I am truly myself. Ink and vellum reveal my soul. If I should end up a disappointment to you, try to forgive me.
And should, by providence or some small miracle, you find yourself content with our union, would you, now and then, pull these dusty old letters out and think of this me? Of the pompous youth and hopeful romantic that I used to be?
My dear and wonderful E,
Neither of us are what we seem. not fully. And how can we be anything different? When no one can know the whole of another’s soul. Just as you, I fear our eventual meeting as much as I long for it in my waking dreams. For
I am not I know I will not be the woman you imagine.
(from the end of Chapter 2)
Obviously, there are a number of conflicts inherent to the set up: It is to Aidan that Lu is betrothed. Aidan cannot read, yet there are literally years of letters between Lu and her affianced husband. On the death of their father, Eamon is entirely dependent on his brother’s good will, as there were no provisions in the will for him. A couple of these are dispatched pretty quickly, and decisively, but alas! both Eamon and Lu are keeping other secrets.
As this is a novella (amazon says it’s 120 pages), things move at a pretty fast clip, but neither events nor character development feel rushed. After all, these two people have been each other’s only friend and confidant for about four years, and when they finally meet, things have to happen. Particularly when you consider the third party to this relationship: Aidan.
I don’t want to say too much about actual plot points, but I like that Ms Callihan didn’t make Aidan an ass. On the contrary, he’s just complex enough, interesting enough, that his own actions and choices are believable. He’s a decent man, a loving brother, and has his own demons to defeat.
The chemistry between Lu and Eamon is really well done; the sex is very believable (and graphic enough, so if that’s not your thing…), and just enough to fit the story and the relationship between these two.
I liked how all the separate threads are tied off, and how both the conflicts between Lu and Eamon, and their inner conflicts, are resolved. The ending is both sweet and intriguing, with a little coda that, I presume, ties this story to the rest of the series.
Which reminds me: I’m the obsessive sort, so I’m more than a bit peeved that I was tricked into reading this story out of order of the series. That said, it can very well be read as a standalone; the writing voice got to me in the best possible way, and there’s just enough world building to intrigue me to read more (when they are next on sale, or used in print–holy cow, these are expensive!).
“Entwined” gets a 7.50 out of 10
~ * ~
¹ I actually learned this from Fantastic Fiction³ (dog bless the people who update that site)
² I think the author is very wise in how Aidan is written; before long, I was convinced that there was much more to Aidan than dyslexia, and I’m hoping that his story is written at some point.
³ Pet peeve alert: I wish someone would clean up Ms Callihan’s website; bring it up to date (the last release in the “news” tab is for Evernight in 2014, yet two more stories in this series, and at least two in the Game On sport series, have been published since); and add some clear, easy-to-find structure to the book lists. Say, like the Maiden Lane main series page, or the Iron Seas main series page, both of which introduce the world of the stories, then all the available stories in their proper reading order.