What Makes KJ Charles Such a Damned Good Writer?
This post was supposed to be a review of KJ Charles’ latest book — Any Old Diamonds — but I realized I was simply going to repeat myself with what I always say about Charles’ work: how much I loved the book, how interesting and complex the characters and plot were, yadda yadda yadda.
So I thought it might be more worthwhile to look at why I think Charles is so damned good.
1) She writes great prose.
They may seem obvious, but as a writer, I know this is much harder than it looks. It’s also less valued than it should be.
Now by “great prose,” I don’t mean pages stuffed with metaphors, endless, overwrought descriptions, and two-dollar words meant to impress upon the reader how smart the writer obviously is. The sort of writing that gets nominated for literary prizes.
No, I mean prose that is almost invisible to the reader precisely because it isn’t there to dazzle — but instead to carry one along as the plot unfolds sentence by sentence. Great prose paints a picture without calling attention to itself. And it often appears very simple. But trust me, writing great sentences that don’t call attention to themselves is anything but simple.
Here’s an example from A Seditious Affair.
“Silas tasted the wine. Rich, red, almost certainly costing some impossible sum. Like the private room at Millay's, like the Tory's coat and gleaming boots, like everything in the room except himself.”
Three sentences, two short, one long. Yet without calling attention to itself, this short excerpt tells us a great deal about the character of Silas. We know he’s capable of appreciating a fine wine, but that he almost certainly couldn’t afford it himself. Even though we don’t actually see the mysterious Tory, we know he wears fine clothing. And we not only know that Silas clearly feels inferior to this other man, but they have a relationship where Silas either doesn’t know or doesn’t use his proper name. Of course, we want to know why he doesn’t.
That’s a lot of info in three relatively simple looking sentences. .
2) She builds clever plots that also have a point.
Charles writes historical fiction, more specifically M/M romance usually set in Victorian or Regency England. But don’t let the word “romance” frighten you off. First off, romance is as valid as any other genre. And just like any other genre, there are terrible books that diminish it, and awesome books that elevate it.
But what I love best about Charles’ plots is that while they hit all of the necessary romance beats (including sex; hot sex, BTW), they always make a greater point about English society during the era in which she is writing, especially when it comes to LGBT folks. One of my favorites, A Seditious Affair, uses as its backdrop a time when English “radicals” were fomenting revolution against the upper classes over their terrible living and working conditions.
And when I say “backdrop,” I don’t mean Charles plops in a word here and there to remind you when her story is set. Nope, her meticulous research creates worlds crackling with tension. And those backdrops infuse and inform every aspect of her characters, their actions, and their relationships. That’s good writing.
As for the “clever” part of her plots, her books always surprise, going in directions you don’t quite expect, but that make perfect sense in retrospect. My favorite is a reveal in Any Old Diamonds that I totally didn’t see coming. I don’t want to give anything away, but one character is playing a much deeper game than you’d ever suspect. And it made that character much more interesting and compelling when you learn the truth.
3) She includes character descriptions that pop.
I said before that Charles doesn’t stuff her book with endless metaphors and overwrought descriptions. Which isn’t to say she doesn’t describe things, sometimes in great detail. But when she does , it’s so well-executed and serves the story so well, your eyes never glaze over.
In Any Old Diamonds, Alec, our protagonist, has hired a jewel thief to steal a diamond from Alec’s father. Alec is a gentleman and a man unused to standing up for himself, much less stealing from his own family. So, naturally, Crozier, our thief, immediately has poor Alec on the ropes. Indeed, the first time they meet, Alec doesn’t even know Crozier’s name and only thinks of him as “Moustache.”
“Moustache smiled suddenly. He had a charming smile: the kind, Alec rather thought, that he'd often been told was charming and learned to use accordingly.”
You see, Moustache is a rapscallion, and without resorting to great detail, Charles lets the reader not only paint a picture of Moustache’s “charming” smile, but tells us a bit about his character.
Later, Charles gives us a more detailed description of Crozier, this time by focusing on his eyebrows. She doesn’t endlessly describe said eyebrows, which, let’s face it, are just eyebrows. But she makes the reader “see” them quite clearly.
“Crozier's most distinctive feature was the pair of remarkably mobile eyebrows which gave visual punctuation to his speech, and their dancing movement was another thing you couldn't convey in a police sketch. They combined with his apparently habitual half smile to give Alec the impression that he was being laughed either at or with.”
Much more importantly, we get an even better sense of what kind of man Crozier is.
In Band Sinister, Charles uses a single word to bring another very uptight and very proper gentleman to life right before our eyes.
"Dear God," Philip said, collapsing into a chair some time later. "The boy is a plank. An utter plank. Possibly the most outrageous specimen of plankhood I have ever encountered."
The “plank” turns out to not be very plank-ish at all, but that one word dazzlingly sums up how that character comes across at that point in time.
4) She’s versatile.
While Charles has mostly stuck with M/M historical romance, within that genre she’s shown herself to be a writer of great dexterity. In addition to her Victorian and Regency romances, she’s written Victorian paranormal fantasy, done her own riff on The Prisoner of Zenda, and written an homage to Georgette Heyette that is a laugh-out-loud romantic comedy. Plus she cranks out books the way chickens lay eggs. If chickens laid Faberge eggs.
5) Her books leave you feeling good when you put them down.
Okay, this last reason I admire Charles so much might be a bit unusual, but in this day and age, this quality is surprisingly important to me.
I recently finished watching You on Netflix. And while I appreciate the show’s shocking ending and willingness to be politically incorrect, the whole thing left me feeling rather depressed and icky.
Which is the opposite of how reading Charles makes me feel. I feel better about the world and the people who live in it when I put one of her novels down. Yes, shitty things happen in her books, but mostly the people in them aren’t shitty themselves. And in the end, decency and love prevail.
Three cheers for that.