Owain is a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy. He’s a dashing young man with keen intellect, quick reflexes, and sharp eyes, but even he’s having trouble believing what he’s seeing. The ship attacking them is flying an Irish flag, however it isn’t an Irish ship. It’s a French vessel. What does this mean for England and the war? Caught by surprise, Owain is nearly killed by debris when the smell of limes overtakes the smoke of guns and cannons, and a faint voice in his head warns him to move. But Owain thinks little of it until he nearly falls off a train en route to report his findings to the queen. Once again, there’s the citrus smell of lime and Owain manages to keep his footing.
The small mystery of a guardian angel takes a back seat to the intrigues of court when Owain is brought to the attention of Elizabeth the XIII, daughter of the queen, who takes Owain into her service. With kidnappings, missing silver, traitors, and faery bargains, Owain hardly knows who to trust or where to turn. If it weren’t for the handsome Benjamin Fletcher — with whom he shared a drink, and a day of passionate lovemaking —Owain would be alone and lost. Benjamin, though, has his own secrets, and for all that he begs Owain to trust him, to believe him, Owain can’t help but wonder if he’s listening to his heart and not his head.
This book takes place in an alternate England where Queen Elizabeth the first was followed by daughters and granddaughters as England prospered in an egalitarian society where — while not accepted — homosexual relations are known and not hidden away. Women are admirals and advisors, such as Owain’s own sister, and women are just as likely to inherit an estate and title as a man. Owain followed in his older sister’s footsteps to enter the navy and has managed to climb through the ranks with honest effort. He’s not afraid of hard work and he’s not afraid of being judged for his preference for a male partner. He’s just discrete. Or he was until he met Benjamin.
Benjamin is charming and forthright, quick to smile, and something about his intelligent and interested regard and conversation catch Owain’s attention. Unfortunately, Owain isn’t the only one with eyes for Benjamin. Misunderstandings lead to a confrontation in which … nothing is answered or addressed. And that’s the problem. While I could read each chapter and follow along with the story, it felt as though all the interconnected pieces that link one moment to the next were just absent. Events happen and plots are thwarted rather abruptly, with no buildup or often any explanation, leaving me feeling frustrated because I wasn’t able to follow along. I was in the dark as much as, if not more so than Owain, lacking any of his knowledge of how people are connected or even a bare-bones understanding of this world’s politics. Details are filled in after the fact, in exposition dumps, but the way the story was constructed made it hard to connect with the characters or immerse myself in the events.
Owain is passive, for all that he’s breaking into windows or pointing out hidden entry points. He watches things happen, but has very little reaction to or thought about them. And some of the events felt so random, but Owain accepted them and moved on with no follow up or questions. For example, Owain seeing someone flirting with Benjamin leads to a small confrontation, and then … nothing. Will it happen again? Will anything change? Does Owain even care? It’s hard to know because we’re moving on to the next scene.
This book is part of the Magic Emporium collection, a group of standalone stories by multiple authors that all feature the appearance of the magical emporium. However, it feels like a poor fit. This story is an alternate history where the entanglement of the faery and the existence of magic are kept very hush-hush, so to have a door open out of nowhere and a fantasy shop just appear felt completely out of place. The scene felt shoehorned in, as though it were written at a different time than the rest of the book or written just so that the book could be counted in the Magic Emporium series. The tonal shift was abrupt, the characters had no real reaction, and the magic maguffin the characters bought there didn’t feel as though it belonged in the same world where the story took place.
Alternate histories, for me, require a greater suspension of disbelief and a greater care in world building to turn the known into the unknown, and I don’t think this author quite managed it. It feels as though the author is trying very hard to write in the ‘voice’ of the period — the 19th century formalities and colloquialisms — rather than their own voice. Unfortunately, this caused the book to come across as rather stilted and self-conscious. This appears to be the author’s debut work. The ideas in the book and the world presented almost worked, but there were enough flaws in execution that I would suggest skipping this one, and waiting to see what the author writes in the future.