To most who meet him, Philip Winthrop, Viscount Soulden, is handsome, wealthy, titled… and mostly superficial and oblivious. In reality, Philip is a spy for the British government who plays the fool to keep others from suspecting the truth. Espionage keeps Philip’s life exciting and gives him a distraction from his loneliness and the losses he has suffered. But getting shot in the back may be more distraction than even Philip wants. With a French spy trying to kill him and a bloody arm that is currently useless, Philip knows he is in trouble. That is, until he spies a cart to hide inside… that turns out to be holding corpses. On the plus side, Philip ends up out of danger and in the home of the local surgeon. On the other hand, that surgeon has brought the bodies to his basement with plans to do research on them and Philip has no idea how he is going to get out of there without disclosing he is in fact alive and in hiding.
Fortunately, after Edmund Fernside handles his shock that the body he is about to dissect is in fact a living man, he is quick to patch up Philip. He also insists that Philip must stay and take some time to recuperate, something Philip reluctantly agrees to when he can barely stand for loss of blood. Philip doesn’t want to put Edmund in danger, but he also has no place safe to go and he definitely isn’t in any shape to protect himself right now.
As Philip spends his time recuperating, he and Edmund also begin to grow closer. The two act on their attraction and feel a real connection with one another. However, Philip can not stay in hiding forever; someone wants him dead and the only way he is going to figure out who is behind his attempted murder is to flush out a killer. Edmund also learns that Philip is not just a gentleman, but a wealthy peer whom Edmund considers far above his station. He can’t see how the two of them can have a future when he is a surgeon who lives and works in a rundown part of the city, taking care of the poor and dissecting bodies in his basement. But both Philip and Edmund have also come to realize just how much they mean to one another and aren’t ready to give up on what they are building. However, with a killer still after Philip, finding a way to happily ever after together isn’t going to be easy.
A Sanctuary for Soulden is the fourth book in J.A. Rock and Lisa Henry’s Lords of Bucknall Club series. As soon as I read A Rival for Rivingdon, where Philip plays a small but critical role, I knew I wanted to read his story and this one does not disappoint. This series is an alternate world historical where same sex marriage is legal (all the better to reduce the number of pesky heirs the titled must support). While the blurb indicates these books can be read in any order, and from an individual relationship standpoint that is generally true, I do think they are much more enjoyable read in order to get to know the various supporting characters and their stories. In particular, the scene stealing Christmas Gale from A Case for Christmas shows up here as one of the few people Philip can trust (and a grudging friend), and so it helps to be familiar with his story and personality. Also, having the background on Philips’s relationship with Notley and Rivingdon is helpful here as well (along with understanding what is up with this endearing but totally absurd couple). So all that is to say, you can start here, but reading the series in order is going to add a lot.
The structure of the story is interesting as the first half of the book focuses mostly on Philip and Edmund building their relationship while Philip is hidden away in Edmund’s attic. We get to see not just the physical attraction between the men, but the real emotional connection they have to one another. By the time Philip recovers, these men are essentially solid emotionally, though neither thinks they have a chance of being able to be with the other long term. Philip is a spy currently with an assassin on his tail, and Edmund is a commoner who sees Philip as far above his station. So the men have these conflicts (and more) to deal with, but I think it works well to see them establish this connection sort of out of the real world and then have to deal with what happens when they must break that bubble and face reality. I love the way Philip and Edmund help ease each other’s loneliness. They seem to just have this instant spark and connection where they see the best in each other. There is a touch of playfulness between them and just a really sweet and romantic relationship.
The second part of the book focuses primarily on figuring out who is after Philip and how to catch them before he ends up dead. The bad guy is pretty telegraphed from early on, but this is less about the potential killer and more about the relationships that get explored. Philip has really isolated himself. Part of it is the persona he must put on to keep others from suspecting his role as a spy, and part of it is that he keeps others at a distance. We learn more about his past, the losses he has suffered, and his challenges facing some things head on, and all of that is addressed well. I enjoyed seeing the camaraderie among the various characters from past books, as well as Edmund’s friendship with his assistant, Fitz. It all comes together well in really showcasing not just the whodonit, but also how far these men have come in building those relationships.
The only small area that I wished to see better addressed is with regard to Edmund and his corpse dissection. Edmund wants to help prevent future illness and pain, particularly after treating patients in the aftermath of the devastation at Waterloo, and so he does research on the dead bodies he has delivered to his home. The catch is that these bodies aren’t coming from people donating their remains to science, they are coming from grave robbers who are digging up the bodies and selling them. Whether Edmund closes his eyes to the specifics of how the bodies got there, he is still part of a chain of stealing bodies of those who have recently died. People who may not have wanted their bodies dissected in his basement, and certainly families who don’t want their loved ones’ remains stolen. There is sort of an ends justify the means idea floated around here, as Edmund believes the research will help him save others. There are some moments where this is addressed, but never head on and not with the depth I wanted to see. This is definitely a morally gray area at best, and with his side research so much of a focus of the story, I felt like the ethics of it needed some more exploration, rather than just a casual mention.
I am really finding myself enjoying this series and this interesting group of men. The next book is already up for preorder (I don’t want to tell you who because there is a bit of spoiler there) and I’m really excited about the MCs. This series is proving to be a lot of fun and I think the authors are doing a nice job with a mix of tones and really different characters to keep the books interesting. If you enjoy historical and are looking for something with a bit of a twist, definitely check out this series.