Rating: 8.5/10 ★★★★★★★★½☆ 
Title: Shadow of the Templar (series)
Author: M. Chandler
Genre: Modern heist/caper
URL: Author’s Site
Price: Free (but also available as cheap print/downloads from Lulu)
Other Information/warnings: Violence, bad language, explicit m/m in short stories only
Summary: Simon Drake is a hard-arsed FBI agent, and dedicated to taking down people like Jeremy Archer, jewel thief supreme. On their first encounter, Archer comes off the winner, but thanks to Archer’s own strict code of honour, Drake has a second chance to get back what was stolen – and Archer gets a second chance to pursue his own strange fascination with his nemesis

My review: I’ve seen recs for these stories for a while now, but the website, with the copious (and not terribly winning fan art) and the sheer volume of stories, put me off. Which, as it turns out, was a bad case of judging a book by its cover and getting it wrong because these are terrific reads. I was immersed in the first two until near 2am (when the cold temperatures forced me to bed) and I spend the entire next day devouring the final books. They’re not perfect, but damned if you’ll notice, because Ms Chandler has, in Jeremy Archer, created one of the most intriguing thieves and ostensible ‘bad guys’ you’ll ever read.

Of course, Archer isn’t a bad guy, and to believe in him requires accepting the widespread but utterly implausible notion that one can make a living out of crime and not be tainted by it. It’s a beguiling idea that if you only steal useless baubles from the rich, then it’s practically a victimless crime, though the deaths of guards and homeowners in real life crimes tends to work against that notion. But if you accept that conceit, Archer is the perfect embodiment of the ideal. His ethics are admirable, as is his honour, loyalty and devotion to those he cares about. He abhors violence and guns, has never killed or maimed anyone, and is a damn sight more pleasant than Drake or his crew of misfit agents, not to mention considerably smarter too. He’s a real charmer, and Chandler gives him more than enough edge and depth so that he’s vivid and realistic, even if he could not in fact exist in real life.

Drake is not charming. Drake is a bit of a thug, misogynistic, more than a little homophobic, bullying and definitely not a man of his word. A knight in tarnished armor, and if he’s the saviour of the western world, gawd help us. Chandler never convinced me that he was truly worthy of Archer’s devotion and sacrifice – although she convinced me Archer had such charisma that even Drake might eventually be polished enough by proximity to be a fit partner for him. The interactions between the two are fabulous, as is the banter, and you see glimpses of what draws these two together – other than sex of course – in scenes like the one where they borrow a limited edition Lamborghini and all you can do is roll your eyes and go ‘Boys’. Because they are.

Chandler’s forte is characterisation – she has created a truly memorable group of people here, even if they’re not all very likeable (I wanted to slap all the men in Drake’s team repeatedly, and one of the weaknesses in the books is that their ‘joshing’ becomes very wearing indeed. The appeal of Mike and Rich was entirely lost on me.) Drake’s 2IC, Sandra Leone, is a very tough and capable woman, smarter than her boss and a lot more ethical, though I felt there was something missing from her – motivation, probably, especially for her intimate relationships. But she’s still a strong female character and holds her own, more or less, in books dominated by chauvinistic Philistines.

Chandler’s writing is polished to pro level – vivid and largely authentic (though her attempt at an ‘Irish’ accent made me grit my teeth – a notable failure in otherwise excellent craftsmanship.) The books could have done with tightening a little, since there are a number of long passages which do go on, though fascinatingly so, but mostly the pace and interactions sweep you along. It takes a lot of grip me these days and yet even after the marathon reading session, all I wanted to do was read more – or read them all over again. The author freely admits that the FBI stuff is largely bollocks, but it’s convincing bollocks, and that’s all that matters.

I could nitpick these to death, but why would I? They’re escapist entertainment, great well-written reads, and in the end, the characters live in your head and make you wonder what they’re doing now. I’ve seen pro books with far bigger problems, and much worse edited – these are amazingly good on that score. These are books that I would plunk down money for and feel well satisfied I’d got good value, and that they’re free is both bewildering and amazing. I heartily recommend these for their own sake, and also a possible gateway for readers uncertain about m/m as a genre. There are no explicit scenes in the novels themselves (though there’s one which is pretty intense up the point of actual coitus), and the actual plots aren’t about being gay or relationships. The gay stuff is a bonus. 🙂

Go read, and enjoy.

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This post originally appeared at Uniquely Pleasurable