Wicked By Design (2019): Katy Moran

★★★★

Hester & Crow: Book 2

At the sprawling Cornish manor house of Nansmorrow, key members of the British Cabinet gather to discuss their country’s future. It is 1819 and the French forces which have occupied Britain since Napoleon’s victory at Waterloo have finally been driven out; but what kind of government should take their place? Despite the polite veneer, suspicion simmers between the Prime Minister, Lord Castlereagh, and his host, the enigmatic Lord Lamorna (Jack ‘Crow’ Crowlas). Crow has committed the crime of becoming too popular: disaffected Cornishmen rally to his name and threaten the integrity of the new Britain. English troops roam the Cornish lanes, waiting for an excuse to strike. And, when duplicitous and ambitious Lord Castlereagh gives the signal, Crow is torn away from his beloved wife Hester and their young daughter Morwenna. As Hester and the child flee, Crow is offered a mission he can’t refuse. His destination is Russia, where Tsar Alexander dilly-dallies over his allegiances, Napoleon nibbles at the borders, and Crow must – if he wishes to live – find the hidden heir to the British throne.

It’s been over two years since I read False Lights (since reprinted as Hester & Crow), the first book in Katy Moran’s Hester & Crow series, and I’d been wondering whether or not to reread it before embarking on the sequel. In the end, I decided just to leap in to Wicked by Design and hope for the best; and it wasn’t long before I was drawn comprehensively back into the story. Moran’s counterfactual Europe of the early 19th century provides the setting for a gripping story of espionage, intrigue and trust pushed to its absolute limits.

For Hester, Crow’s arrest (and general absence) leaves her devoid not only of the man she loves, but also the protection she needs to navigate her world. Her black heritage makes her immediately visible and threatens not only her own safety but that of her child, leading to a traumatic separation. Hester must find a way to protect herself, in a world that usually regards black women as ‘exotic’ objects of prurient interest. Her one hope is to reach a friend who can help her. She wouldn’t necessarily have chosen Dorothea Lieven, wife of the Russian ambassador, as that friend, but circumstances leave her little alternative: it’s daunting to realise, without Crow’s name and money behind her, just how few people she can call on. And there’s the rub. The first book was very good at showing the indignities that Hester already faced in the world, as the daughter of a respected sea-captain, and then as the wife of a nobleman. She has faced spite, intolerance and whispers behind fans in drawing rooms. But here Moran shows that, for all its provocations, Hester’s life has, so far, had its own kind of modest privilege. She has had the protection of status, offered by the men around her. Now, robbed even of that, she will need all her resilience and resourcefulness to survive (fortunately, she has them in spades).

Meanwhile, Captain Kitto Helford is with his regiment in St Petersburg, enjoying the high life of balls, card parties and female attention, and trying to forget his recent experiences at Nansmorrow. Wearied by his fractious relationship with his elder brother, Crow, he’s displeased to be the focus of yet more interference in Russia. Countess Tatyana Orlova is charming and flirtatious and runs the very best parties in St Petersburg, but she also has schemes of her own, and Kitto – with his tempestuous nature – is just the tool she needs. When she arranges for him to be sent off to the countryside, to help a Russian soldier bring back a herd of much-needed horses, he little realises that this task will have repercussions not only for himself but also for Britain. And, as Kitto dodges Frenchmen in the Russian wilderness, Crow arrives in St Petersburg – to be met with tragic news. As his will to live dwindles away, Crow embarks on a campaign of dangerous and wilful irresponsibility – a star crashing to earth, which has the potential to destroy everything in its wake. And yet… Has Lord Lamorna ever done anything without considering the consequences?

There was so much to love in this book. Swashbuckling, daring infiltrations behind enemy lines, mysterious women pulling political strings, and a villain you really, really love to hate. (It’s no surprise that I was frequently reminded of The Ringed Castle, because Crow shares at least part of his DNA with Lymond: rampaging through the world like a damaged firework sending off sparks in all directions.) The glamour and politicking of ancien régime Russia is beautifully evoked, full of diaphanous gowns and sidelong glances, as Moran takes the next step in her ‘what if’ vision of what Europe might have become under Napoleonic hegemony. There’s a hectic energy to the novel, which barrels along, and we have the introduction of a new, fierce, courageous female character who does a great deal to fill the Hester-shaped hole in much of the book.

But… But… You see, the hole was still there. I missed Hester. She doesn’t have as much to do here as she did in the first book, and I wished she’d had slightly more of a role to play – though how that would have been possible, I don’t know. It’s just that Crow and Kitto take up a lot of the book, doing their adventurous Russian thing, and Hester’s storyline doesn’t feel quite as interesting, at least until the end of the novel. And it might just be me, but the bitter gulf that develops at one point between her and Crow didn’t quite feel convincing, given what I thought I knew of their characters, and their brilliant synergy as a couple. I understand that there are a lot of intense emotions flowing around at this point, and there has been betrayal, but it’s a betrayal that, in the circumstances, is perhaps more nuanced than usual. I felt that our two mature, capable characters would have worked together to come to terms with their situation. Did anyone else feel the same? Perhaps I am demanding too much rationality from people going through dark times (and, in fact, it’s probably the height of folly to expect rationality from Crow).

But oh, the end! It’s been ages since, while reading a book, I’ve been physically, desperately willing the characters to just hurry up, not because you want the book to be over, but because you know that the most wonderful catharsis is just around the corner for them… a wonderful resolution, and a perfect ‘fade to black’. Heavenly.

I see that a third book is about to be released and it’ll be interesting to see how the plot unfolds, especially because a preliminary blurb suggests that the focus will shift away from Hester and Crow entirely. When the story is complete, I think I’ll have to go back and read the whole series from the beginning again, in all its dashing deliciousness, because I’m sure there were many details and allusions that I missed here, with the two-year gap. But that’s definitely a treat to look forward to!

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