Proper English by KJ Charles. 2019.
This is the first f/f romance that I have read by KJ Charles. I think it may be the first she has written? It’s a prequel to an already established series, the England series, which has been on my TBR for a while as the next book has a Jewish MC, and I am very interested in reading historical romances with Jewish characters. This is part romance, part classic house party murder mystery, where the murder victim is an all around unpleasant terrible human being and pretty much everyone has a motive for wanting him dead. In all honesty, if I could have reached into the book and killed him myself, I would have considered it.
Pat is a hunter and a great shot and thinks she is going to be the only woman at a hunting focused house party only to find that the family friend who invited her seems to have also brought along his parents, sister, his mother’s companion, and his new fiancee, along for the ride, and now she is faced with not being one of the guys but having to follow social norms around gender and spend a lot of time with the women.
The romance is between Pat and Fen, her old friend’s new fiancee who he is treating rather badly and openly marrying for her money. From Pat’s point of view, most of the attraction seems to be sexual, and happens very quickly, which is not really my thing, as a demigraysexual reader. In general, I wished for more breadth to the attraction and chemistry between the characters, something I have never felt was missing in prior KJ Charles books, to be honest. I wanted pining and swooniness and romantic attraction, I wanted them to have chemistry as friends, and connect more as people, and I wanted more heat from their sexual chemistry. It mostly felt…well, pleasant. Nice. The sex scenes were mostly just…cheerful and nice. There was a lot of telling the reader that Fen was great and magnificent and attractive, but it didn’t really feel like there was much there, there. I wanted deeper characterization of both of them, but especially Fen. All of this made the romance arc as a whole feel lackluster.
I am loathe to posit as to why such things might not be present–heat, swooniness, chemistry, romantic attraction, complex characterization–so I will simply note a few potentially related things from my perspective as a fat queer reader. Fen is a fat femme, and pretty much exactly one of my types, and I could barely get a sense of what she was like, or what Pat’s attraction to her was rooted in, for Pat. I need no convincing to find fat femmes hot, but I didn’t really buy Pat’s attraction; it felt like the book was telling me it was there but was unable to show me what it’s shape and heft and specificity was. In my experience, this is a common issue with romances centering fat women. In my reading experience, authors that are shifting to writing f/f sometimes don’t seem to translate all their skill from writing other pairings. I don’t know if either of these two things are what was going on here, but this was a disappointment as a romance, for me, which I gotta say, I was surprised by, as the romance arc and characterization has not been an issue in my reading experience with this author in the past.
I found the mystery part boring, but that’s likely because I didn’t go in excited for a mystery. I can’t really evaluate this as a mystery; I didn’t care whodunit, but I also didn’t know immediately who it was. I found the entire thing rather bleak, and the romance didn’t buoy me. I wish I had cared about any of the characters, but I honestly didn’t, which made the stakes low for me. There was little conflict in the romance arc itself, most of the barriers to the romance are removed relatively early, and no personal emotional arcs for the MC or love interest, you don’t see them grow. It felt like seeding the mystery and solving it took up most of the space in the book.
I often struggle with historical romance, and the ways that it folds in real life events and history. I’m often wondering with white rich characters: where did they get their money? What is their inherited wealth built on? When they talk about being in trade, what kind of trade, and how deeply are they implicated in enslavement and colonialism? With references to war, and war veteran characters, I’m often wondering what relationship those wars have with colonialism, enslavement, and anti-semitism. Often these things are referred to blithely, without much context or information, as if they don’t have weight or impact on the reader, which feels to me like an assumption about who reads these books, what knowledge they have, what relationship they have to this history. In Proper English, there is a moment where Fen asks Pat about her brothers, and we learn that two of them died as soldiers, and an oblique reference to a battle. The focus in the scene is on Pat’s grief, and Fen bringing up a difficult subject, and I found this elision of the history so jarring, because the battle referred to is the siege at Ladysmith, which was part of the second Boer war (also known as the South African War), when the British tried to colonize South Africa again, created concentration camps, established vagrancy laws enabling them to steal land and imprison Africans, and had a scorched earth policy. The reference to Ladysmith in the text ignores and erases all of this, and I found it really jarring because of that.
I was generally troubled by the way race worked in the book, as a white reader. (So please do take my concerns with several spoonfuls of salt. Here is a review by an Indian American reviewer who liked the depiction of Miss Singh in the book. I will add other reviews by Desi reviewers should I find them. Please don’t take my words about this issue as more important than hers or any Desi reviewer.) The villain/murder victim was an open racist, and the lone character of color, Victoria Singh, was Desi. She doesn’t get to be a full and complex character in the story, though to be fair, nobody does really. That said, the Desi character seemed primarily to be there to show how terrible the villain was, to make the other white people feel better because they weren’t racist, and to be racially profiled, targeted by racism, and get defended by white people against his bigotry. There is in fact a rather smug and insufferable conversation between the heroines where they work out with logic that racially profiling the Desi character is wrong, that racism is in fact, not logical. The heroines feel very much like nice white ladies patting themselves and each other on the back, and I wish I could say that scene was intended to criticize them for that, but I really didn’t read that kind of critique in it.
Overall, I do not recommend this book. There is a shortage of historical f/f, and I want there to be lots more, but I don’t think this book brings something substantial to the table, unfortunately.
- Queer white woman MC.
- Queer fat white woman love interest.
- White queer secondary characters.
- White woman author.
Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)
Murder. Blackmail. Queer antagonism. Misogyny. Racism, racist language, and racist threats, including white people logically discussing whether racism and racial profiling have any merit. Characters in peril, threatened with death. Sex on the page.
- Source of the book: I bought this book with my own money.
- I am friends with the author on Twitter.
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