When KJ Charles initially announced the three book Will Darling Adventures series, it looked like it would all be released in 2020 and so I thought I would read all three and then review them together. However, 2020 is awful and apparently it’s hard to write when the world is on fire and your government is trying to kill you (KJ Charles is British). I have given in and decided to review the first two books without waiting for the third.
Will Darling has returned from WWI with no family, no job prospects, and no skills but killing. After some lean years searching for any job at all, he looks up an estranged uncle who takes him in. The uncle dies shortly before the book opens, leaving Will with a bookstore, but not much guidance on how to sell books. Will’s inheritance hasn’t even been finalized in probate when shady characters, some who work for the War Office, start coming around. The shadiest character to come around is Kim Secretan.
Kim is delightfully morally grey, while also a jaded romantic with a heart that’s just begging to love and be loved. Will is stubbornly moral and follows his own code. He’s practical enough that he has no problem killing, but he won’t mindlessly go along with the greater good. He’s not interested in being used or serving for the good of the Empire now that he’s out of the army. He is particularly uninterested in being used by Kim, who uses everyone. However, he is happy to be a willing and violent accomplice. On the covers, Will is the one with the knife.
Kim seeks Will out when a secret society/criminal gang bent on burning down the world thinks Will has information that Will doesn’t know he has. Will is suddenly contending with men prepared to torture Will for the information and government officials appealing to his nonexistent patriotism (a victim of trench warfare and a grateful nation happily letting former soldiers starve in poverty). Throughout both books, Will struggles with his attraction to and affection for Kim without a foundation of trust. Kim does try to be the man worthy of Will’s trust. I am looking forward to finding out how they resolve that tension in the third book.
Kim’s fiancé, Phoebe, and Will’s friend Maisie round out the main characters. Phoebe is a modern Bright Young Person, entirely disarming in her approach to people. Early on, she is the evidence Will needs that Kim is capable of being a good person. Maisie is a Black woman from Wales. She is a milliner, and a budding fashion designer. Maisie and Phoebe are clearly smarter than Will and Kim, and I hope Charles is setting up a romance for them. They deserve it.
Charles is so tender with her characters and with her readers as well. She allows them to be complex, right and wrong at the same time. Will is still grappling with the war and the changes it brought to him and to the society around him. Phoebe is tired of being underestimated. Maisie is a loyal friend, with her own talents and ambitions. The gang Will and Kim spend two books fighting seeks to leverage social unrest for their own profit. There’s a catharsis in having characters who are trying to live their own lives defeating people who use the language of social justice for their own enrichment.