I read Unfit to Print in one sitting, on a day as grey as the days in the book. It's a romance between two men of colour (!!!) set in November 1875, around Holywell Street in London, where Gil and Vikram spend most of their time by the fireplace. There's a blowjob scene where some serious blanket maneuvering is required so as not to freeze in the cold room. There's a cat called Satan, who spends a lot of time on Vikram's lap, and plays a sort of Breakfast at Tiffany's "then I'll give the cat a name!" role in Gil's life. And in an extremely British iconic move: there's a scene where hot tea used as a weapon!
As someone who hardly ever reads Historicals (though I did read Unmasked by the Marquess, purely because of Amy's review) I found the writing in Unfit to Print very accessible and atmospheric. Though it would do you well to know ahead of time: 'gaol' is an old-timey spelling for 'jail' --You're welcome! Everything will make sense now.
Unfit to Print is a story of the search for a missing boy, and the rekindling of Gil and Vikram's relationship along the way. Gil is mixed-race, described as "brownskinned proof of his [rich, white father's] misbehaviour". He was welcomed into his father's family when his mother died, but the acceptance was abruptly revoked when he was sixteen, leaving him alone and on the streets. Thirteen years later, he's built a life for himself, owning a bookstore that sells erotic literature. Vikram is an educated Indian lawyer who has wrestled with his identity as someone who identifies as Indian but only knows England as his home. He's a fierce defender of people discarded by society, working pro-bono to protect them from exploitation. When he's asked to find a boy who has gone missing, he agrees to help mostly because the situation reminds Vik of his own friend who went missing thirteen years earlier.
The search for the missing boy (Sunil) leads Vik to his lost friend's door! Reunion drama ensues, but Vik and Gil are glad to find each other again. And so they become a crime-solving duo, stopping only for the occasional cup of tea and kissing in front of the fireplace. Both Vikram and Gil have been surviving on their own, thriving in their own ways, and it's so beautiful to see them validate, encourage, challenge and support each other in ways neither of them have had in years.
It matters to me when Romance reads come with a sense of social justice. KJ Charles captures so well the many facets of life as a person of colour, especially the reality of being brown and successful and how society struggles with how to put you in a box. Unfit to Print is filled with the truths of poor families and the ways you fight to get by when you're in the world alone. Gil and Vikram discuss and debate and make declarations about their views on the porn industry as it stands; both making fair points, both struggling to reconcile their ideals with their current situation. There are encounters with some heavy subject matter, but I found that it serves to give depth and truth to the setting without weighing it down. It almost felt sweeter because there was no ignoring of the reality.
Between Gil and Vik, there is a little bit of "I want more with him but why on earth would he want more with me" angst, but it's not frustrating. Usually I hate that because the truth is very obvious to the reader, but for most of the book you actually aren't sure where Gil stands on them having a future together, so I found it quite captivating. And near the end, there is a glorious moment where they're talking about sharing the cat but they're really talking about their relationship, and it honestly made my heart go !!!!! My Kindle notes literally say "crying emoji!!!!"
There is much mention of the murder of a boy who worked with Sunil, and I feel it is important to say that the boy they're looking for does not meet the same fate. He is found, safe and alive and with prospects for a better future. Because the book is centered around finding Sunil, it also has all my favourite detective moments! Witness trying to shut the door in your face? Boom! Stick your foot in the doorway! Suspect rambling a bit too much? Well, that's gonna trigger a wide-eyed "It was you!" realization, and now you'll have to fight your way out! We have big family drama over inheritance and secret-keeping, and even the classic "Can you give me a shilling? There! Now I'm your lawyer and I have to keep your secrets!"
Another thing that thrilled me about Unfit to Print is that it's all "body to body, kissing and rubbing and hands" --There's no penetrative sex! Too often, in m/m especially, we see hands and mouths as the stepping stone to the inevitable. There's a wonderful thread of consent and communication between Gil and Vik, which forms a big part of their intimacy going forward, and it was a total delight for me that their romance wasn't a lead up to something "more". The book's pretty low on heat, anyway, with no "action" until about 58% in. From then we get steamy handjobs and racy blowjobs and some waking up naked together. Though it should be said that Gil and Vik spend the entire first half of the book looking at hundreds of explicit photographs of all kinds, so it's not exactly tame. A great insight into Vik's character is shared with us through his reactions to the pornographic images, and some of them are really fun: "But what he'd always been informed was the secret jewel of a woman's intimacy seemed to be, well, just hair and an asymmetrical sort of opening. People risked gaol to buy and sell this?" is probably my favourite.
If you're into: great POC rep in Historicals, an uptight man learning to loosen up and communicate his desires, a crime-solving adventure, and lots of Victorian pornography... I strongly recommend Unfit to Print! And I really really want a sequel. Unfit to Print has a definite HFN ending, but there are some unanswered questions and a lot of possibility left open between Gil and Vikram and the life they'll build together, which leads me to believe there's more of their story coming. I am gonna write KJ a formal request for a follow-up as soon as I finish writing this review!
Content warnings: parental death, funeral, mention of parental abandonment, racism, classism, descriptions of pornographic images, mention of exploitation in the sex trade, mention of suicide, mention of gay bashing.