Nathanial Bayard is a member of the Nobility Task Force, a group designed to investigate crimes relating to the upper class. Nathanial’s current case is investigating someone creating snuff photographs. The nobleman has killed at least three women, but Nathanial is getting nowhere on the case. He has to solve it, not only because he wants to stop a killer, but also because his job is on the line. If Nathanial loses his position, his father will force him into life in the clergy, something that doesn’t appeal to Nathanial at all. While he has never even kissed another man, instead living a life of propriety, Nathanial doesn’t have any interest in celibacy.
Jericho Fulbright has always been on the wrong side of dishonorable. Discharged from the army for fighting, he now runs a club that caters to men who like other men. While there is no prostitution going on, the club is definitely not all above board. Jericho’s rich father has cut him off, but he is making his way in life, partly with the help of a demon within him. He accepted Eulalia when he needed strength and justice, and she has been with him ever since. Eulalia gives Jericho the ability to talk his way out of anything, as well as to see into people’s souls. But it comes with a price; Jericho can’t kiss anyone without transferring Eulalia to them, nor can he touch anyone during sexual climax for risk of Eulalia taking their soul.
Nathanial’s investigation leads him to Jericho and his club. At first, Nathanial is overwhelmed by the goings on at the club and shocked by Jericho. But as the men begin to work together to unravel the case, a connection begins to form between them. Jericho is so comfortable in his skin and lives a life that part of Nathanial really envies. Nathanial is so worried about doing the right thing and keeping up appearances, he has never really lived. But his father’s threats of sending him to the clergy or cutting him off still loom large over Nathanial’s head. And as the men get closer to finding the killer, he is beginning to turn his sights on them. Now the men are risking finding themselves in prison if they can’t catch the killer and escape with their own reputations intact.
T.J. Nichols has created a really engaging historical with a whole host of interesting twists. I find that Nichols’ books give such a nice, immersive feeling when I read them, with rich characters and interesting worlds. A Summer of Smoke and Sin is an unusual mix of genres that I think mostly works well. The story is a historical, set in early 1907 London, with a paranormal twist as Jericho is possessed by a demon, Eulalia. Eulalia gives him confidence and the ability to navigate tricky situations, and Jericho credits her for much of his success. He knows Eulalia is ready to move on to another body, but Jericho worries all he built will fall apart without her. On one hand he needs Eulalia, but on the other, he hates what he has become with her. To fuel her hunger for souls, Jericho must find victims to sacrifice, and while he tries to find the most unsavory people, guilt still hangs over him. This mixed blessing/curse adds an interesting element to the historical, giving it a bit of a non-traditional twist.
This story also has somewhat of an alternate world dynamic in that the Male Marriage Act has passed, allowing men to marry one another. While marriage is legal, however, sex prior to a wedding is still illegal — though the nobility is rarely punished for such a thing, of course. This also makes for some interesting world building elements. First, it makes Jericho’s club actually somewhat legal (though there are lots of things that skirt the law), and makes the two men alone together subject to scrutiny. The story also briefly hits on some issues related to women’s suffrage and marriage for women, neither of which are currently legal. The story notes how if women could marry, it would threaten the traditional role of men and the power they have to control their wives. Women would need to get jobs and no longer require men to support them. So I thought this was kind of a fun element and the male marriage plays out in some interesting ways throughout the story.
The only piece that didn’t work for me in the world building is that there is also sort of a dash of what I’d maybe say is steampunk. There is passing mention of a dirigible, and at one point an automated bicycle (which I assumed was not supposed to be just a motorcycle). We also see characters using mechanical birds that hold notes in their bellies and can be sent as messengers from place to place, as well as an automated camera that takes pictures by motion sensor. What felt off for me is that only the birds and camera are addressed in any detail and beyond a couple of other passing mentions, everything else feels like real world (well, with the male marriage twist). It just seemed neither here nor there. The story needed to either go full on steampunk, or not at all, but instead it felt sort of thrown in with no real development.
I found Nathanial and Jericho to be a really engaging couple. They are sort of an opposites attract, as Jericho is so much more open and free than Nathanial, who has lived his whole life according to the rules. I enjoyed seeing him open up and really find himself and his happiness. While Jericho is a big of a renegade, he is also not without his moral code, and he is a caring man who looks out for others. Nichols does a nice job giving balance to the mystery part of the story, as the men figure out who is behind the killings, and the relationship development between the men.
So I really enjoyed this story and continue to really like Nichols’ writing. The mystery is engaging and nicely developed, the tone is dark and twisty, as befitting the storyline, and the characters are engaging. I can definitely recommend A Summer of Smoke and Sin.