JACKDAW [Amazon | Kobo], KJ Charles’s newest release, takes place in the same world as the author’s Charm of Magpies series, which follows a lord and his magician lover through an alternate Victorian London. Those books (beginning with THE MAGPIE LORD) are fabulous and I’d recommend you read them before this one, partly because I want you to have nice things in your life and partly because JACKDAW does contain some (mostly guessable) spoilers for the earlier books.
That said, those of you who’d rather start with JACKDAW shouldn’t have a problem doing so. The story picks up one particular thread from FLIGHT OF MAGPIES and follows it in a manner that largely divorces it from the previous books.
Some summary: Ben Spenser was a police officer until his thieving lover, Jonah, publicly disgraced him and escaped custody in the process. Kicked off the force, disowned by his family, and fresh from a ten-week hard labour sentence for sodomy, Ben has only one goal: find Jonah and make him pay.
Revenge is a lot easier to talk about than to exact, though, especially since seeing Jonah again causes certain feelings to resurface. When circumstances force the two men to go on the run together, Ben begins to question how he really feels about Jonah, and how much he's willing to forgive the first man he ever loved.
I’m always a tad leery of books that branch off from established series to follow new characters. If I like a series enough to keep with it, it’s because I enjoy the core characters, and I always worry I won’t feel the same about their replacements. In this case, too, I was rather neutral on Jonah in FLIGHT OF MAGPIES and didn’t know how I felt about him taking on a lead role.
I’m pleased to report my worries were unfounded. Jonah is an important character, yes, but the story is told entirely from Ben’s perspective--and Ben is great. Charles made me feel such a strong connection to him that I had no choice but to root for him over Stephen and Crane, my established favourites, who spend much of the book determined to take him down for entirely valid reasons.
Neat trick, that.
Charles is so, so good at taking the reader inside her characters’ emotional lives. Throughout the first chunk of the book, we alternate between Ben’s current predicament and flashbacks to his his old life with Jonah. Ben is easy to relate to both as someone who’s been hard-done-by and as a person content with his lot and deeply in love with a man he doesn’t know as well as he thinks he does. I often teared up because things were so rough for him, or because he was so happy, or because I knew he wasn’t gonna stay happy for much longer.
There’s an additional level of tension in the mix because anyone who’s read FLIGHT OF MAGPIES knows why Jonah did what he did. We’re just waiting for Ben to learn it, too--and once he does, Charles refuses to erase the darker aspects of it all. Jonah acted in Ben’s best interests, but in doing so he let a number of other people come to harm. And Ben, former police officer and owner of a well-developed conscience, is most definitely not okay with that.
His response is realistically messy, and it sets up a road to forgiveness that doesn't let either character of the hook. Ben has plenty of valid reservations about forgiving Jonah, somewhat tempered by the fact that he genuinely loves the guy and can't convince himself to stop. He also understands why Jonah acted as he did, and why the bystanders’ pain isn’t as big a deal for his lover as it is for him. Life has kicked Jonah so hard that he effectively has a different moral compass than Ben does. He needs a lot of support to keep on the straight-and-narrow, since his lived experience hasn't given him space to develop a fully operational conscience. Before he met Ben, the only way he could stay solvent, let alone get ahead, was to ignore conventional morality. Ben's attempts to reconcile himself to this, and to accept his potential future role as Jonah's conscience, are emotional and affecting.
They're also really, really interesting. Ben spends as much time learning about Jonah’s magic as he does sorting out his feelings for his former lover. On top of that, Charles shows the two of them negotiating the world from a position of very little power, both as destitute people who can’t steal (Ben’s firm rule) or find lucrative work and as men who are in love with each other. So many queer historical romances dance around the legal repercussions of the relationships they portray. This one doesn’t. Ben has experienced true hardship because of England's anti-sodomy laws, and he knows he wouldn’t survive the two-year sentence he’d receive for a second offense. This terrifying possibility hangs over his head throughout the entire book and gives both characters excellent motivation to stay ahead of Stephen and Crane, even as Ben’s conscience says he really should go back and face the music.
I got so emotional about it, y'all. It was marvellous
I had no choice but to devour JACKDAW in a single evening. It’s the perfect pick for anyone who’s an established KJ Charles fan, of course, but it’d also be a great read for someone in search of a standalone. Ben and Jonah’s story comes to a satisfying conclusion with little possibility for a follow-up. If you don’t mind knowing roughly how things turn out for Crane and Stephen (which you could probably guess anyways, romance tropes being what they are), JACKDAW could make an excellent entry point to KJ Charles’s work.