After watching his mother’s health rapidly decline after their family’s fall from grace, Sebastian swore that he would never subject himself to back-breaking labor just to eke out a meager existence. Instead, he chose to employ his sparkling personality, deft hands, and keen sense of magic to help make ends meet. Usually, Sebastian primes a so-called mark—a wealthy man looking for the kind of company Sebastian can provide. But that still only offers him a temporary sort of comfort and, as he recently finds out, such offers can be easily and unceremoniously revoked. What Sebastian needs is a more lasting means of obtaining wealth. So, along with Kitty, his literal partner in crime, Sebastian starts organizing jewel heists. Together, Sebastian and Kitty plan some pretty spectacular hauls—from the National Gallery to the famous Rose Diamond. But in the run-up to these breathtakingly daring jobs, Sebastian finds himself in need of one more mark and Kitty’s beau offers to help Sebastian find just such a sucker at his men’s club. Rather than a mark, however, Sebastian runs into a long-forgotten face that he now recalls with uncharacteristically sentimental fondness.
There is precious little to say about Morgan Hollyhock. No scandals, no rumors, no gossip…well, aside from the fact that no one has seen him with any partner and that has made some believe he might be frigid. A man with so little excitement would usually be easy for Sebastian to con—all he would have to do is offer Morgan a little excitement. And it would presumably take precious little to excite Morgan as far as Sebastian is concerned. Except Sebastian finds he cannot turn a childhood friend into a mark. Morgan himself is unyielding in his tastes, too. He has no appetite for the wild parties that cater to every kind of person. He does not wish to use Sebastian for any sort of physical release. He even offers up many and sundry trinkets and gifts to Sebastian without any encouragement. And for some reason, this willingness to accept Sebastian for who he is—well, with some details being left unsaid—and the way he gives Sebastian the benefit of the doubt time and time again makes this rekindled friendship precious to Sebastian. But it’s not all coming up roses. Morgan may be willing to turn a blind eye to Sebastian’s line of work, but that doesn’t mean he implicitly understands how or why Sebastian needs to steal things. Even worse, when Sebastian feels like Morgan may accept his being a thief, but will not fight for him, will not chase after him…that leaves Sebastian’s ability to pull off the biggest heists of his career in jeopardy.
A Thief and a Gentleman is the third book in the Flos Magicae series by Arden Powell. The stories take place in same universe and timeline; there are even a few cameos by the MCs from the previous stories as well. All of which is to say there is a delightful sense of familiarity about the world and this setting. At the same time, Sebastian breathes fresh air into the series on account of being a bona fide criminal, adding dimension to a world largely populated by characters with either inherited wealth or well-paying, stable jobs. Sebastian is also the lens through which the action unfolds, albeit from third-person perspective. Nevertheless, as a reader, I always felt privy to Sebastian’s thoughts and motives, his hopes and fears, and the curious sentiments regarding Morgan. And like Sebastian, I often felt conflicted over how or why Morgan was so interested in Sebastian.
The relationship between Sebastian and Morgan is complex. They actually spent a single summer in each other’s company when they were younger boys. Sebastian’s mother tutored Morgan after he missed a year of school on account of being sick. So these two have a built-in connection and it helps tether them together. But in the intervening years, Sebastian and Morgan have grown worlds apart: Sebastian is a famous, if anonymous, thief; Morgan is a gentleman too boring to be the center of any gossip. It felt pretty clear to me that both men are yearning to recapture the innocent camaraderie they shared as kids, but with their social stations and professional pursuits being poles apart, it can be difficult for them to relate to each other.
At least for Sebastian, I felt like I understood his conflicted feelings. He has warm, fuzzy memories of spending a summer with Morgan—he had a friend who cared for him and showered him with affection. He seems to want that same connection as adults, and grows increasingly interested in exploring any sort of physical relationship. Over the course of the book, this shifts into Sebastian developing real feelings for Morgan—he just can’t wrap his head around them because Sebastian’s never really loved anyone before. From start to finish, Sebastian is unapologetically himself, but these new feelings for Morgan upend Sebastian’s cut-and-dry view of the world and what he wants from it.
Morgan came across as a lot less clear cut. The summer he spent with Sebastian was clearly formative and that seemed to provide the initial impetus for him to give Sebastian a chance, even though Sebastian promised to be nothing but trouble from the get go. My quibble with Morgan was that I didn’t feel like I really understood why he kept gravitating back to Sebastian. It seemed like a sense of obligation was at least as plausible as romantic feelings. Morgan and Sebastian feel like extreme opposites attract, but where it’s pretty clear Sebastian’s initially drawn to Morgan by nostalgia, attracted to Morgan’s money, and eventually falls for him, I had no idea what kept Morgan interested in Sebastian, let alone invested. Overall, it just made Morgan feel a little flatter as a character than Sebastian.
As a last note, I also wanted to mention that I really enjoyed how the plot unfolds. To be sure, the Sebastian/Morgan romance is probably half the plot, but the other half is all about Sebastian and Kitty and the things they steal. Just knowing Sebastian was a professional thief was enough to have me expecting the big climax would be a heist gone wrong. Morgan himself even needles Sebastian with a comment about not bailing Sebastian out of jail if he gets caught. Over the course of the book, the things they steal get more and more complicated and expensive. At the same time, Sebastian starts to get more and more compromised as his relationship to Morgan deepens, changes, and breaks. I literally got sweaty palms reading about the heists because I was so desperate to know if Sebastian would make it and how cleanly.
Overall, if you’re a fan of opposites attract or wrong-side-of-the-tracks tropes, I think you’ll enjoy the dynamic between Sebastian and Morgan. Not only is there a class difference, but Sebastian really embraces blurred gender lines with make-up and a whiff of cross dressing compared to Morgan’s more traditional style. Fans of this series will love delving back into this version of 1920s England where there’s a little more fleshing out of the concept of magic and especially how Sebastian relates to it. I would highly recommend this story to anyone looking for a historical fantasy starring a strong opposites attract couple.