REVIEW: Band Sinister by KJ Charles
Dear KJ Charles,
I have had an exceptionally good run with books lately and Band Sinister only compounded my blessings.
Siblings Guy and Amanda Frisby live in quiet seclusion in rustic Yarlcote. 20 years earlier, their mother ran off to the continent with their neighbour, Sir James Rookwood. Their father did not react well to the scandalous abandonment of their marriage by his wife and drank and gambled and generally ruined himself. Ultimately, Amanda and Guy were “saved” by their Aunt Beatrice, the wife of a second son of a marquess. She provided funds for their upkeep and their education as they grew to maturity and continued to do so thereafter – on condition they stay put and not add in any way to the family skeletons and definitely not do anything which could have a negative impact on the marriage prospects of her own three daughters.
Amanda and Guy have only each other; they don’t socialise with the locals and they can’t travel anywhere. Guy cannot go to London and seek work because to do so would leave Amanda alone and potentially penniless if Aunt Beatrice carried out her threat to cut them off. Consequently, they are very close. Guy is extremely protective of Amanda; he knows he is the only thing which stands between her and complete ruin – there are few options for a woman of her social class when combined with the scandal in her past and lack of family fortune.
Guy is anxious and worried and fearful of all that could go wrong. Amanda is more adventurous. Neither of these traits are presented as character flaws or advantages really. They just are.
Amanda has written a gothic novel. She has been paid the princely sum of ten pounds for it and The Secret of Darkdown has just been published. Perhaps the differences in their personalities can be summed up with this exchange.
“…Manda, he could sue us!”
“Oh, nonsense,” Amanda said, far too airily. “He won’t read it, and if you go around belonging to a hellfire club called ‘the Murder’ and having orgies, you can’t complain if people wonder about you. And my publisher assured me they would protect my anonymity. And it’s not even meant to be him anyway.”
“When you say all that in court, put the last part first.”
Guy’s fears are because the characters in Darkdown are based on the current owner of Rookwood Hall, Sir Phillip Rookwood and what is rumoured to be a hellfire club called “the Murder”. Lord Darkdown, the villain of the piece, is a very thinly veiled reference to Lord Corvin, Sir Phillips close friend.
In an attempt to find inspiration for her next book and because the Murder are all currently staying at Rookwood Hall, Amanda borrows a neighbour’s horse and rides (aka trespasses) onto Sir Phillip’s land. She takes a fall and breaks her leg badly such that she cannot safely be moved. Guy finds himself and his sister, temporarily resident at Rookwood Hall with a group of people who are regarded as most disreputable and god only knows what might happen. Perhaps there is a little nod to The Rocky Horror Picture Show in there somewhere – Lord Corvin is a kind-of Frank-n-Furter character – although he is not transgender, he does have a similar (although far more benign) air of leadership and mischief and irreverence.
Amanda’s situation is initially very bad indeed – her life hangs in the balance for a while. But this is a happy story so readers need not fear. As it happens, the group of friends staying with Sir Phillip includes Dr. David Martelo. He is described as a “dark man” with a lot of black hair and brown skin. Later we learn he is Portugese and also Jewish. He is a very well-traveled doctor and has quite modern medical ideas, something which benefits Amanda greatly.
Others in the party include John Raven, a formerly enslaved Black man, Lord Corvin, geologists Harry Salcombe and Sheridan Street, George Penn a Black composer and his lover Ned Caulfield, a violinist. Harry and Sherry are married. I’m not entirely sure of the right terminology here because the book is set in Regency times before modern terms such as transgender, nonbinary or genderqueer were common parlance and Sherry’s gender identity is not given modern nomenclature. Sherry dresses and identifies as a man but there are times when it is necessary for one reason or another for him to don female garb and present himself as “Mrs. Salcombe” – which he is, legally speaking. I inferred Sherry was transgender but I could be wrong on that.
Corvin, Phillip and John grew up together and are closer than brothers – although their relationship is not familial because they have sex with one another regularly, in pairs or all three together. John and Corvin are both bisexual, Phillip is gay.
So, the Murder are a very diverse group indeed. Unsurprisingly, they have a lot of modern ideas. Once someone realises their sexuality and/or gender identity doesn’t fit the societal norm and breaks free of those shackles, all kinds of ideas are far more easily challenged. They are a group who aren’t particularly pious (apart from George perhaps) and they are interested in science, technology, innovation and challenging outdated notions. Guy is deeply discomfited by the group. His journey can be encapsulated in this passage.
He would not recoil in fear and spend the rest of his life wishing he’d been bolder. He’d done that too often.
It might prove calamitous; he could imagine a thousand ways in which it would. His mother had thrown her cap over the windmill and destroyed them all; it would be a bitter irony indeed if Guy too let himself be ruined at a Rookwood’s hands. But he’d sat and listened to the Murder speak as they chose for hours, and it had felt as though he’d been in a box without even knowing it, and someone had taken a crowbar and pried off the top. Guy had blinked at first, and shied away from the light as too painful. Now he felt the urge to stretch.
As Guy and Phillip get to know one another, a deep attraction blossoms and blooms into love. Phillip is very clear with Guy about consent and no means no and requires his active and enthusiastic participation before proceeding with anything. Under Phillip’s attentions, Guy blossoms and blooms too.
You did such a good job of setting up the thorny problem of how there could ever be a HEA for them that for a while I was worried. Not that there wouldn’t be one but rather, that the way it happened wouldn’t live up to the rest of the book. I needn’t have been concerned. I appreciated that Guy’s journey included taking some power for himself, making decisions to not be a bystander to his own life anymore. The HEA itself perhaps glossed over one or two things but I was satisfied that Guy had made the decision and would follow through on it in the extremely unlikely event it ever became necessary for him to strike out on his own.
There is a charming and gentle secondary romance for Amanda too (and not with who I first thought it might be either; he was my second thought though).
The novel has a wonderful humour to it. If I’d read the classics I might say it was kind of Oscar Wilde-eseque but I might be reaching a bit there because really, I’ve only ever seen The Importance of Being Earnest on the television. But, for what it’s worth, the humour did put me in mind of it.
Cornelius coughed again, this time with a nicely judged tone of breaking bad news. He had what Corvin sourly described as a complete wardrobe of coughs for all occasions.
My criticisms are very small. I admit I’m not generally a huge fan of the word “stand” to reference an erection or “spend” to mean ejaculation and both were used liberally throughout the book. It did feel repetitive.
I very much appreciated the diversity and sex-positivity of the cast and the modern sensibilities expressed by them but I sometimes detected the authorial hand a little too much. Perhaps it is just my reaction to the current political climate but there were sections which felt very pointed indeed. That’s not a bad thing per se but there were times when it also meant I wasn’t thinking about the book and the characters but what they represented and their meaning. I guess what I’m trying to say is that every now and then the message intruded upon the story. I didn’t find the book preachy, but then again I generally agreed with it so there wasn’t anything that challenged me.
I do hope you write more in this universe. I’d like to know more about John Raven (who I gather is into a bit of BDSM) and Corvin, who I thought may be aromantic (?) and the absent Isabella and “her Marianne”. I’m curious as to how the “four-sided triangle” will work, whether Guy will acquiesce to a certain non-monogamy with Phillip, or whether he might eventually join in himself. And I’d love to know more about Amanda’s HEA.
I had such fun reading this book. I found it a charming delight and a soothing balm, while also being sexy and sweet and funny. A definitely recommended read.
“It really is quite simple, you know. I’m entirely charmed by you, and I’ve been wondering for some time how you might react if I kissed you. Any thoughts?”