Title & buy link:
Author: Joanna Chambers
Cover Artist: Angela Waters
Amazon buy link: Provoked (Enlightenment)
Genre: M/M historical
Length: Novel (c.60,000 words)
Rating: 4.75 stars out of 5
A guest review by Leslie S
Review summary: Atmospheric Regency historical with a tormented hero trying to fight his attraction to a far more down-to-earth nobleman against a backdrop of social unrest.
Enlightenment, Book 1
Lowborn David Lauriston lacks the family connections needed to rise in Edinburgh’s privileged legal world. Worse, his latest case—defending weavers accused of treason—has brought him under suspicion of harbouring radical sympathies.
Troubled by his sexuality, tormented by memories of a man he once platonically loved, David lives a largely celibate life—until a rare sexual encounter with a compelling stranger turns his world on its head.
Cynical and worldly, Lord Murdo Balfour is more at home in hedonistic London than dingy, repressed Edinburgh. Unlike David, he intends to eventually marry while continuing to enjoy the company of men whenever he pleases. Yet sex with David is different. It’s personal, intimate, and instead of extinguishing his desire, it only leaves him hungry for more.
As David’s search for the man who betrayed the weavers deepens, he begins to suspect that his mysterious lover has more sinister reasons for his presence in Edinburgh. The truth could leave his heart broken…and more necks stretching on the gallows.
It’s 1820, and David Lauriston is a young Edinburgh lawyer who’s gone to Stirling to witness the hanging of two men he’d tried to defend in the wake of civil unrest. Keen to force reform on the British government and particularly on the upper classes, workers took to the streets to protest and agitate for change. The government, fearing a repeat of the French Revolution on their own soil, sent agents provocateurs to Scotland to flush out the ringleaders. David’s employer, a famous advocate, had advised him not to accept the radicals’ case, not only because it was hopeless but also because as the son of a tenant farmer, David himself might be suspected of harbouring ideas of reform. But David, a man of strong moral conviction, felt that witnessing the executions was the only way these men wouldn’t be forgotten.
In a tavern afterwards, he meets Murdo Balfour, a handsome, well-dressed man who’s obviously from the nobility. They’re attracted to one another, and when Murdo propositions him, David agrees, thinking he’ll never see Murdo again.
Back in Edinburgh, David is approached by Euan, the brother of one of the protesters who’s due to be sent to Australia on a convict ship. Euan knows he can’t gain his brother’s freedom but he wants to confront the man known as Robert Lees, an agent provocateur whose work led to the arrest of dozens of Scotsmen. Euan asks David to help him find Lees, who let slip once that he was in love with a woman named Isabella whose father was an Edinburgh advocate.
David is introduced to Mr Chalmers, a senior advocate within the city’s legal circles. Chalmers has three unmarried daughters, and he pushes David towards the eldest, Elizabeth. During a dinner party at Chalmers’ house, David once again encounters Murdo. David’s emotions are thrown into a tailspin—he thought he could live a ‘normal’ life, but he can’t resist Murdo, and Murdo is intent on pursuing him and showing David how much pleasure he’s denying himself.
Then Euan glimpses Murdo and tells David that Murdo is Robert Lees. At the same time, Elizabeth reveals that Isabella is one of her old schoolfriends—and Murdo is expected to soon propose marriage to Isabella. Now David must put aside the tangled mess of his feelings and try to discover the truth before more violence can be done…
I’m on a bit of a Regency/Georgian kick at the moment and when I saw this come up for review, I leapt at it. I’ve read and enjoyed the author’s M/F Regencies so I was eager to see if she carried the same gift of creating sympathetic and enjoyable characters across into M/M. And I’m happy to report that she does.
Readers who enjoy angsty heroes will love David. He’s a good man trying to live a moral life, but his upbringing made him think that being attracted to other men is a sin—at this time it was certainly a crime—and although he indulges occasionally he’s never looked for a permanent relationship and his guilt always outweighs any pleasure he feels. He’s still carrying around his unrequited calf love for a childhood friend, and although he can see the difference between those innocent touches and the genuine emotion Murdo offers, David can’t allow himself to trust because he fears his own responses more than anything else.
I enjoyed his friendship with, or more properly his sense of responsibility towards, Euan. The two young men are similar in that they’ve both risen from the working classes through education, but while David is a sombre man, Euan is younger and more hot-headed. They face the difficulty of being ‘lower middle class’, neither here nor there, trying to be accepted by their social superiors yet shunned for not having wealth and connections, while at the same time there’s a disconnect and even a mistrust towards them from the working class from which they came. Euan expects David to be able to help him immediately, and the fact that David struggles to find answers made the story very realistic. David can be a bit dour and pessimistic and at times downright irritating, but I found him an extremely believable character.
Murdo is more of an enigma. As the book is told exclusively from David’s POV we don’t have the opportunity to see inside his head. It’s a refreshing change to read a solo POV story, and it works here because although David is in general a reliable narrator, when it comes to Murdo he gets tangled up. The thing that stopped me from giving this book five stars is that I felt something was missing with Murdo. He reads as something of a cipher at the moment, but I can see why the author chose to write with only David’s POV and feel confident that over the course of the next two books in the trilogy we’ll come to understand Murdo much more.
The secondary characters are all life-like and have clear motivations for their actions, especially Euan. Female characters aren’t short-changed, either. Elizabeth is a bit of a bluestocking, plain and ordinary but with strong opinions and a backbone. She’s an engaging character and in the usual course of things she’d make David a good wife. I liked her enough that I cared about her and want to know what will happen to her in future books.
Finally I have to say that the sense of place was pitched just right. I used to live in Edinburgh—in fact for a time I lived on the same street where David lives (Blair Street)—so it was a delight to re-tread the wynds and closes of Old Town and the wide avenues of New Town in my imagination as I read this book.
Anyone interested in this period will find something to enjoy in Provoked. I thoroughly recommend it and am very much looking forwards to Book 2.
Provoked will be released July 23 and is available for pre-order now.