I fought the pull of CS Harris’ Sebastian St. Cyr novels for a long time before I succumbed. I advise you not to wait. If you’re interested in Regency England and can handle gruesome murders with a political and madness side, this is the 16-book series (so far) for you.
“What Angels Fear” (2005) features Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, a man with secrets and a past, some of which are his own making and others forced upon him. All of this makes it easy for authorities to believe that Sebastian killed a young woman whose mutilated body was found in a former London parish church. Sebastian must solve the murder of Rachel York while escaping the law and running for his life – because the killer is still there and wants to silence Sebastian before he can find out the truth.
Usually I don’t reveal any spoilers, but honestly we wouldn’t have a lot of shows if Sebastian was arrested and hanged for murder, right? It is pretty much a given that Sebastian is innocent of the murder; how he proves it and unveils the culprit is what makes these novels worth reading.
As of this writing, I have read nine of these books and have yet to understand who the murderer was before the revelation.
Harris knows how to entice her reader with a good story, but she also knows her subject matter which is Regency England because she has a PhD. in 19th century Europe. The wealth of historical detail is one of the reasons I love this series.
Harris has created a compelling main character. Although born into the aristocracy, Sebastian is no ordinary fashionable gentleman. He served six years in the British Army fighting Napoleon and the French, witnessing too many atrocities before resigning and returning home. These experiences haunt him, as do the secrets of his past.
Sebastian has a complicated background and Harris taps into various parts of it depending on the plot of each book. Sebastian is gifted with extraordinary hearing and the ability to see very well in the dark. As a viscount, Sébastien can evolve in the upper echelons of society which would be closed to magistrates. Intelligent and open-minded as he is, it is Sebastian’s keen sense of justice that keeps him on the hunt.
Even with all of his natural abilities, Sebastian himself needs a little help at times. Since this is Regency England and there were no criminal labs at the time, Sebastian relies on information in his search for the truth. To get this information, he turns to a wide range of knowledge and even enemies:
• Tom, a street kid who tries to dig into Sebastian’s pocket and ends up saving his life;
• Kat Boleyn, an actress Sebastian fell in love with and wanted to marry, but fired him years ago because her secrets could destroy him;
• Paul Gibson, an Irish surgeon who, like Sebastian, was in the military until a cannonball tore off his lower leg – and he uses opium to deal with the lingering pain. His passion is to learn human anatomy, even if he has to resort to the “profession of the resurrection” to do so;
• Sir Henry Lovejoy is an honest lawyer who finds having a shrewd nobleman by his side to be a definite advantage when investigating a murder and the political ramifications that flow from it;
• The Earl of Hendon, Sebastian’s father, with whom he has a complex relationship;
• Lady Amanda is Sebastian’s older sister, but being born female, she was transferred to inherit the title and is very angry with Sebastian;
• Henrietta, Dowager Duchess of Claiborne and Sebastian’s adored but sharp-tongued aunt – a delight every time she appears on the page – knows the ancestry of everyone in the peerage;
• Charles, Lord Jarvis, is a distant cousin of the Prince Regent and the real power behind the throne. Jarvis is an extremely dangerous man and will do anything to maintain England’s control over the world, even if he walks away. And he vowed to see Sebastian dead, no matter how long it takes.
• Hero Jarvis is just as smart and stubborn as her father, but she harbors radical ideas about women’s rights and helping the poor, much to her father’s dismay. As devoted in her way to justice as Sebastian, she can go where he can’t.
Harris fills his novels with real people like William Franklin, son of Benjamin, but loyal to the king; Jane Austen, the observant single sister of a banker who finds inspiration for his future novels; a very young Alfred Tennyson, before becoming a poet; Napoleon Bonaparte, military leader who wreaked havoc throughout Europe; Marie-Thérèse, daughter of the unfortunate Marie-Antoinette and of King Louis XVI of France; the English Prime Minister Spencer Perceval; and the Prince Regent himself, of course. Some are mentioned, others play a role in the plot. I even learned of the existence of historical figures whom I did not know existed.
I think both men and women will appreciate this series for its insight into 19th century history and crime-solving, with a touch of subtle humor – but this is not a series for young readers or for those who have a delicate sensitivity. The murders Sebastian is involved in are heinous and often involve some form of mayhem or abuse of the corpse.
The life of the aristocracy in Regency England might be elegant and privileged, but for the lower classes was often brutal and cruel – slavery is a reality; orphans were everywhere; children were sold to a job or to a brothel; women were second-class citizens, and beatings and rapes were rife. It’s the ghoulish side Harris has chosen to portray, using Hero Jarvis’ crusade to show just how difficult life can be for those who cannot afford to support themselves. I had heard of chimney sweeps, but I had no idea how dangerous the job was, and I had no idea what a chimney sweep was until I read these books.
Another warning: “What Angels Fear” takes place in 1811, after the United States won what is known as the War of Independence, but before the War of 1812 both fought against the British. The British may be our allies now, over two centuries later, but they didn’t really like us then. We were the upstart settlers, rejecting the rule of England – and some, like Lord Jarvis, believed that the Americans were defying the natural order of things by disobeying our “best”, who had a God-designated right to rule as they heard it. Americans might have a hard time grasping some of these old notions about monarchies and ruling classes, but many believed it wholeheartedly.
I always recommend reading a series in order and this is especially important with this one, because Sebastian’s life changes quite a bit from the first book to the series, especially as he discovers more and more secrets about himself. I would also say that Harris hits his storytelling pace about the third or fourth book and the series takes off from there.
The latest book is “What the Devil Knows” (2021). Now is a good time to catch up as the 17th novel, “When Blood Lies” is due out in April 2022. To learn more about CS Harris, visit csharris.net online.