Boys (Jongens) Movie Review

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Review:

Boys (Jongens) stars Gijs Blom as Sieger, a 15 year old track star living with his widowed father and troubled older brother. When Sieger is selected to run in a championship relay race, he is teamed with free-spirited Marc (Ko Zandvliet) and falls in love. He struggles with accepting his newly realized sexuality and with his attempts to keep the peace between his father and brother, but ultimately this is a truly sweet and uplifting coming of age story about first love, and I highly recommend it for teens and adults alike.

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Carry On Book Review

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Review:

Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl was one of my favorite reads in 2015. The main character, Cath, writes fanfiction for a fictional series of fantasy novels about a boy called Simon Snow and his roommate and arch-enemy Tyrannus Basilton Grimm-Pitch (aka Baz). In Fangirl, Simon and Baz are thinly disguised stand-ins for the characters of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy and fictional Cath writes slash fic about them much as real life Rowell wrote slash fic for the extremely popular Harry/Draco pairing from Harry Potter. (As of July 2015, Harry/Draco remains the most popular Harry Potter pairing and the 9th most popular pairing overall on An Archive of Our Own, with more than 11,000 fics dedicated to the pairing. More fics, in fact, than the next two most popular Harry Potter pairings – Harry/Snape and Remus/Sirius – combined.) However, Rowell apparently couldn’t get the characters of Simon and Baz out of her head, because she ended up writing Carry On.

Attempting to describe Carry On is a meta experience, to put it mildly. It takes place entirely during Simon and Baz’s final year at Watford School of Magicks, but it’s not intended to represent the final novel as written by fictional author Gemma Leslie in Fangirl. Nor (despite the title) is it supposed to be “Carry On, Simon,” Cath’s novel-length fanfiction about Simon’s final year at Watford. Carry On is explicitly Rainbow Rowell‘s take on the characters of Simon and Baz, not a fictional novel (or fanfic) by a fictional author brought to life. For that matter, Rowell didn’t just “file off the serial numbers” (a la Fifty Shades of Grey) of one of her Harry/Draco fanfics, either. Though they share some basic similarities, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the World of Mages of Simon Snow as laid out in Carry On are distinctly different. Yet at the same time, many aspects of the novel are clearly directly inspired by Harry Potter, Harry Potter fanfiction, or both.

I’ll let Aja Romano, herself once a BNF (Big Name Fan) in the Harry/Draco fandom, give you some examples:

Carry On utilizes so, so many of the plot points of Harry Potter. So many of the trappings of Potterdom are here: awkwardly backward wizarding customs; Simon’s mysterious parentage and a prophecy decreeing him the chosen one; the deadly forest and banal animal caretaker both inexplicably on school grounds; class hierarchy between the magicians and other magical creatures; Simon’s outsider status as the only “Normal”-born magician; his enmity with the aristocratic and sinister Baz, whose ancient and powerful family is at war with Simon’s equally powerful protector, the Mage; the presence of a strange figure called the Humdrum, which has apparently tried to kill Simon every year since he’s attended the Watford School of Magicks; and many more.

And Rowell goes even further: She directly engages with tropes that are a huge part of the fabric of Harry/Draco fandom. There’s a momentous handshake the moment they meet (only this time it’s Baz, not Simon, who hesitates); she gives Baz and Simon their own tower with a private suite, in a throwback to fandom’s penchant for inventing an “astronomy tower” in the castle suitable for snogging; she makes Baz a vampire in homage to a virtually endless amount of fanfiction in which Draco is a Veela or a vampire or otherwise possessed of a dangerous ability to exert a thrall over other people; she devotes a huge amount of attention to the moment when they switch to first-name basis, as countless H/D fics before her have done; Baz toys with the famous “Draco in leather pants” trope; Simon obsessively stalks Baz throughout their early years, seeking proof of what he believes is his evil nature, until their relationship subsides into something more mature and subdued—all while he exudes the righteous savior mentality that draws Baz to him long before his moral conflict about his own family and their penchant for war sets in.

All of this is the stuff of H/D fanfiction. It is the stuff I lived and breathed for years, returning to me in a new form.

But Rowell doesn’t just parrot these ideas. Instead she uses them to directly address countless criticisms that HP fans have leveled at the series over the years: Dumbledore’s mistreatment of Harry; the lack of significant characters of color; the lack of any queer characters at all; the lack of ambiguity between the “good” and “evil” Hogwarts houses and the pointlessness of labeling a child for life before they’ve even been through puberty; the misjudgments of Harry himself about the people around him; the lack of narrative agency given to characters ranging from Hagrid to Ginny Weasley. The tropes in Carry On are narrative versions of the criticisms I’ve leveled at Rowling’s texts for years, in everything from fanfics of my own to Tumblr tags (“I’ve got 99 problems and J.K. Rowling’s unintentional meta-narrative is all of them”).

I’m glad Aja brought up Rowling’s “unintentional meta-narrative,” because, for me, it was one of the most interesting points of comparison between Rowling’s series and Rowell’s novel. As Aja says, Rowell did “correct” some of the issues that I as an adult reader of Harry Potter had with the series. In particular, I was thrilled to get MAJOR CARRY ON SPOILER evil!Dumbledore, because I had huge issues with his character and relationship with Harry in the HP books and Rowell made the true creepiness of his aloof yet manipulative behavior very evident.

Making Simon and Baz canonically queer also made my slashy fangirl heart dance. Here’s Aja again:

Unlike actual slashfic, Carry On lacks the anxiety of proving itself. Because fanfiction exists in a direct relationship to its canon, it tends to carry the weight of an argument. Especially when that argument is a hard sell—like the idea that pairing the beloved hero in a gay relationship with his antagonistic rival would be the best thing for both of them—fanfic is always having to prove itself, over and over, not only as it exists in a culture that dismisses it, but as it exists in contradiction and often opposition to the word of the author.

In Fangirl, that anxiety was transferred directly to Cath herself, to the fangirl who worried her hobby wasn’t enough. That she wasn’t enough.

But at the end of that book, she’d come into her own, acknowledging that her fanfiction needed no justification—just as Rowell herself did somewhere along the way. The result is that Carry On doesn’t have that anxiety, that sense of urgency; and because it doesn’t have that anxiety, it has the luxury of unfolding the relationship between Simon and Baz as naturally and organically as the plot itself.

In other words, it has the luxury of being canon, of being taken for granted. Because after all, why shouldn’t our heroes be queer? Why shouldn’t it be a queer redemption narrative that saves us?

As a Harry/Draco fan, as someone who longed and argued for this very thing in fanfiction for years, seeing this narrative play out in the pages of Carry On, so familiar and yet so new, is inexpressibly meaningful and delightful—and even though I know fanfiction doesn’t need validation, it’s so, so deeply validating. It’s the stuff slash fangirl dreams are made of.

(By the way, Aja, if you find this, I’m sorry for quoting you so extensively here, but I agree with so much of what you said that I’d just have ended up paraphrasing you anyway, and you put things better than I would have.)

Although I was never much of a Harry/Draco shipper (my fondness for bickering couples notwithstanding, I’m not a huge Enemies To Lovers fan; I prefer Friends To Lovers), as a frequent slash shipper, I understand all too well “the anxiety of proving itself.” Some recent comments by Anthony and Joe Russo, the director of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, have sparked a lot of conversation in the Marvel fandom, particularly among Steve/Bucky shippers. A Tumblr user lamented:

What I hate about heteronormativity is that you will get the most mind-blowing, realistic, palpable chemistry between two characters of the same gender in a show and the writer/cast will bend over backwards to pretend it’s in the fans heads or make out it’s some amusing and impossible joke, yet you’ll get the dullest, most rubbish, forced, stilted ‘romance’ shoved in your face and be expected to just go with it because hey, it’s a man and a lady who are white and moderately attractive, of course it’s true love. Of bloody course.

In this particular case, the Russos have been more respectful of slash fans than implied by this statement (which was general, not referring specifically to the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Captain America films), even stating that while they personally regard Steve and Bucky’s relationship as “two brothers,” they encourage others to interpret it however they want and do not intend to explicitly define it within the films. At the same time, however, they have stated that “we can only keep Cap romantically uninvolved for so long.” Thanks to the unbalanced gender ratio of Marvel’s films, that leaves a rather limited selection of female characters that Cap even could fall in love with. Assuming they don’t introduce a new character or somehow make Peggy young again, there are precisely four, by my count: Sharon Carter (the most likely candidate, due to their history in the comics, but not without problems due to the ick factor of her blood relationship with Peggy), Natasha Romanoff (unlikely – the Russos themselves have stated Steve and Natasha’s relationship is platonic in the films, plus she’s supposed to be mooning over Bruce for reasons understandable only to Joss Whedon and her romantic history in the comics is much stronger with Bucky), Maria Hill (to be honest, I’d prefer this over either of the first two), or Wanda Maximoff (I’d prefer this, too, but it’s probably unlikely due to her history with Vision in the comics.) Steve and Natasha’s relationship is the only one of the four that comes even remotely close to the deep intimacy that Steve and Bucky share. Even his relationship with Peggy, as much as I love it, was fleeting by comparison – a few years, tops, versus a lifetime of familiarity. And yet I guarantee you, the possibility of making Steve romantically involved with Bucky was never given a moment of serious consideration by Marvel Studios.

From a financial perspective, ignoring Steve and Bucky’s chemistry and making them “brothers” rather than lovers is unquestionably a good decision. Two of the biggest markets – Russia and China – might go so far as to ban the film if it has gay themes. But from a storytelling perspective, is it really?

Comics Alliance made a very salient point:

[I]f Bucky Barnes were a woman, this would be a love story, played out with all the same narrative beats. If Peggy were the brainwashed assassin kept frozen through the decades, this movie would definitely end in a kiss. Everything about the love, pain, and intimacy of the Steve/Bucky relationship on the big screen is typical of a romance, and that’s something fans are right to respond to — something the filmmakers may even be playing into, though surely not with any formal sign-off from Disney.

[…] Imagine this; if we lived in a world that had no hang-ups about same-sex relationships, no hate, no prejudice towards the idea of two men or two women together; do you doubt for a second that this movie would actually be a romance?

If everything else about this movie were the same, but we were different, wouldn’t it make sense for Steve and Bucky to kiss?

This movie looks about as gay as it’s allowed to be. One day we’ll get a movie like it that’s actually gay enough.

Anyway, suffice to say that as a slash fangirl, I’m used to having to “prove” my preferred ships and I’m long past the point where I expect (or even necessarily want) my shipping preferences to be validated by canon. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t really wonderful when they are! So thanks, Rainbow Rowell. Maybe you can do Sirius/Remus next? 😉

Nice as it was to have some of my issues with the Harry Potter series “corrected” in Carry On, it also had a bit of an unintentional meta-narrative. One, incidentally, that is shared by some of the Harry/Draco fics I’ve read, and which was one of the reasons I could never really get into the ship. In order to make Draco anything other than a racist git, many Harry/Draco shippers end up making him sort of right about some things. In Carry On, evil!Dumbledore wanted a revolution, particularly in the treatment of certain other magical species. Powerful Mage families like Baz’s opposed his reforms. While the methods evil!Dumbledore used to accomplish his goals were obviously wrong, the goals themselves seemed fairly admirable to me. Unfortunately, it’s not really made clear that the traditionalist elements won’t just roll back the reforms after evil!Dumbledore is defeated. Baz himself seems to make peace with the fact that he’s alive as a vampire when his very traditional mother literally killed herself rather than become one but there’s not really any indication that the rest of the World of Mages has come to a similar peace with the existence of other magical creatures. So while I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to call the book “problematic” as certain corners of fandom are wont to do, I think the meta narrative could have been better considered in what is otherwise a largely progressive story.

In addition to issues specific to the Harry Potter series, Rowell also took on some common yet stupid Chosen One tropes. One that stood out to me was Agatha Wellbelove’s decision to break up with Simon near the start of the book. The hero is supposed to get the girl, but Agatha doesn’t want to be “the prize at the end” and she tells Simon as much to his face when she dumps him. You go, girl! Many people seem to have found Agatha annoying and I did myself as several points, especially when she was mooning around after Baz mainly in an effort to horrify her parents (which Baz called her out on, go Baz), but overall I thought she was a good character. Not good in the sense of admirable,  necessarily – she is undeniably selfish and cowardly – but realistic. I liked her ending (especially the way she chose to honor Ebb) a lot.

In fact, the ending (meta-narrative issues notwithstanding) was excellent in general. One of the themes through much of the book was how dehumanizing it is to be “the Chosen One” and be seen always for what you’ve done or are supposed to do rather than who you are. I really liked that Rowell dealt with the aftermath of both the dehumanization Simon experienced and the trauma he (and his friends) went through. No jumping 15 years into the future to see the adorable next generation – Simon and his friends are actually shown having to learn to cope with what they’ve been through. There’s even therapy involved!

Finally, I wanted to put in a good word for the magic system, which is all about the power of words – literally. In Simon’s world, spells are phrases, and their power waxes and wanes with their popularity in the Normal world. For example, “up, up, and away” is a levitating spell, “ladybird, ladybird, fly away home” gets used to turn away an unwelcome visitor, and “these aren’t the droids you are looking for” gets used to conceal something in plain sight. I thought it was clever and fun.

So, to sum up, I thought Carry On did a lot of things very well and some other things not so well. It never grabbed me the way that the Harry Potter series did (from the very first sentence even) and it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll end up devoting a couple years of my life to the fandom, as I did for Harry Potter. I missed Rowling’s whimsical touch and she had six more books to develop characters and relationships, so they felt more fully fleshed. However, I still found it a very enjoyable read, with some great lines and much to love in the characters. (Penny was my favorite.)

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

A Seditious Affair Book Review

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Review:

The historical m/m romance novels of KJ Charles have been one of the best literary discoveries of 2015 for me. I especially enjoyed her novel Think of England and also really enjoyed A Fashionable Indulgence, the first in her new Society of Gentlemen series. A Seditious Affair is the second in the Society of Gentlemen series and I have to say I liked it even better than the first.

Each book in the series deals with a different couple from the set of friends who make up the titular “society of gentlemen,” but while they’re technically standalone, I think you’ll enjoy the series more if read in order. The first few chapters of A Seditious Affair deal with some of the same events as A Fashionable Indulgence, but in much more concise fashion, so I think the conflict would seem somewhat easily resolved and unsatisfactory if you hadn’t read the first book.

A Seditious Affair dealt heavily with some of the same politics and social issues that I enjoyed about A Fashionable Indulgence, but I also related more strongly to the main characters – proper, dutiful Dominic Frey and gruff, principled Silas Mason – than I did to the well-meaning but somewhat feckless Harry and the sharp-witted dandy Julius of of A Fashionable Indulgence. Despite (probably because of, actually) the two men’s differences, I felt the emotional connection between them more strongly than Harry and Julius – Dominic and Silas were a true meeting of minds, as well as physical attraction and sexual compatibility, and both of them changed and influenced the other over the course of the story.

The sex scenes were also super hot, despite the use of some rather unsexy (to me) period slang. I’ve mentioned in the past that I enjoy Dom/sub elements in romance, but often feel a little uncomfortable with Dom/sub relationships between men and women simply because of the existing social power imbalance between the sexes. With m/m Dom/sub, that problem ceases to exist, and any potential discomfort due to class inequality issues was also handily avoided in this book by the fact that the lower class man was the Dom and the gentleman the sub.

KJ Charles also has a gift for creating intriguing and memorable secondary characters that make you want to learn more about them. I’m delighted that we’ll finally be getting some insight into the enigmatic David Cyprian in the next book in the series, A Gentleman’s Position, and the revelation that Will Quex was born Susannah makes me hope we’ll learn more about him as well (a strong possibility, luckily, since he and his partner, Jon Shakespeare, are friends of Cyprian).

A great read!

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

 

A Fashionable Indulgence: A Society of Gentlemen Novel Book Review

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Review:

Think of England, by KJ Charles, was one of my favorite reads in 2015 so far, so I was excited to see that she has a new series coming out, and even pre-ordered the first book, which I rarely do.

A Fashionable Indulgence, the first in her new Society of Gentlemen series, is a Regency-era m/m romance with many of the same things I enjoyed about Think of England. It’s plotty and heavily influenced by the politics and social issues of the period (you may want to scan the Wikipedia article on the Peterloo Massacre to get a refresher course before diving in), has lots of witty dialogue, and an appealing cast of characters, including several excellent female characters.

The story centers on Harry Vane, a young man who was raised by radical, reformist parents but never shared the strength of their convictions. After the deaths of his parents in a cholera outbreak, Harry discovers his father was actually the son of a noble family, and he is set to inherit a fortune… if he drops his radical beliefs and marries an appropriate young lady. Harry is quite happy to do both in exchange for a more safe and comfortable life, and his newly discovered cousin, Lord Richard Vane, takes him under his wing and convinces his friend, the dandy Julius Norreys, to help remake Harry into the image of a proper gentleman. His dreams for his new life almost immediately get complicated: Harry, who is bisexual, thinks Julius is just about the most beautiful person he’s ever seen, and as he gets deeper into the world of gentlemen, he realizes increasingly that neither his attraction for other men nor his political beliefs can be quite so easily cast aside.

As with KJ Charles’s other series, The Magpie Lord, I did not think the UST was as strong between Harry and Julius as it was between Archie and Daniel in Think of England, so I didn’t feel as much emotional connection to their actual relationship, but her characterization is excellent, both for Harry and Julius themselves and for the well-developed supporting cast of characters. (It appears that the Society of Gentlemen series will focus on a different one of Lord Richard’s friends and relations in each novel, and I’m pretty eager to learn more about several of them, including Dominic Frey, who will be the focus of the next novel in the series, A Seditious Affair.) The period atmosphere and details were also excellent, and inspired me to look up more about the reform movements of the period.

A very enjoyable read!

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Him Book Review

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Review:

Him, by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy, is a cute and mostly fluffy m/m romance about two long-time friends, one gay and one straight, who meet again four years after an ill-advised drunken hookup nearly destroyed their friendship.

Him has great reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, which is what attracted my attention in the first place, but I found it enjoyable but not particularly memorable. Probably I should have guessed as much before buying it. It is a Friends To Lovers story, which I enjoy in both m/m and m/f, but it’s also modern (I generally prefer historicals and sff), plus the main characters are both star hockey players, a sport about which I know even less than most. There was nothing wrong with it, it just wasn’t for me. However, clearly lots of other people adored it (including, I was interested to note, a bunch of people who claimed it was their first m/m ever), so if you like modern and/or sports romances, give it a shot.

Bonus points for it not being a gay-for-you scenario (Jamie does realize he’s bisexual and can be turned on by guys other than Wes) and for switching.

My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)

The Song of Achilles Book Review

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Review:

I’ve loved the legends of the Trojan War since I was a young girl reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, but I have to confess, I’ve never been a big fan of Achilles. The qualities that made him Aristos Achaion , the greatest of the Greeks, are not, for the most part, the sort of qualities that endear him so much to modern audiences, let alone a pacifist like myself. Still, as the greatest of the Greek heroes who fought in the war, his story is inescapable, and there are many parts I love.

One of these is his relationship with kind, gentle Patroclus, which brings out the best in Achilles and, in the end, the worst as well. The exact nature of their relationship has been a matter of controversy for hundreds of years, if not thousands. Close friends or lovers? Personally, I lean towards the latter camp, and so, it’s clear, does Madeline Miller, whose debut novel, The Song of Achilles, tells their story as a love story through the eyes of Patroclus.

Reading the novel, I was struck by how many passages from it I already knew. The most famous, of course:

I could recognize him by touch alone, by smell; I would know him blind, by the way his breaths came and his feet struck the earth. I would know him in death, at the end of the world.

But also a bunch of others that I wouldn’t have guessed came from this novel, like:

Perhaps it is the greatest grief, after all, to be left on earth when another is gone.

and

“Name one hero who was happy.”

“You can’t.”

and

Fame is a strange thing. Some men gain glory after they die, while others fade. What is admired in one generation is abhorred in another. We cannot say who will survive the holocaust of memory.

Despite the lyrical style, The Song of Achilles was an easy read. There were a few points where I thought the story or characterizations were a little over-simplified, most notably the council scene from Book 9 of the Iliad, which is one of my favorites, but overall, I thought it did a good job of sticking to the legends while also managing to give enough of a different perspective to be absorbing, despite how well I know the story.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Enlightenment Series Review

Review:

The Enlightenment series, by Joanna Chambers, is an entertaining m/m romance trilogy set mainly in 1820s Edinburgh. Although the covers are a little more in-your-face than I like (thank goodness for Kindles!), the series caught my attention because of its strong reviews on Goodreads, and despite some mixed feelings in book one, I ended up enjoying it quite a bit.

The main character is David Lauriston, an up-and-coming lawyer from a farming family. Although he lacks the family connections and personal wealth of many successful men of his profession, his strong work ethic and intelligence catch the eye of a prominent Edinburgh lawyer who becomes his mentor and friend. Unbeknownst to his coworkers, however, David’s workaholism is partially to keep himself too busy to give in to his illicit attraction to other men. Raised in a religious family, David is full of self-loathing for his “unnatural” desires, and drinks too much in an attempt to dull the shame and guilt he feels for his periodic “lapses.”

This all starts to change when he meets Lord Murdo Balfour, the handsome and wealthy younger son of an Earl, who is as unapologetic about his homosexuality as David is tormented. After a chance meeting at an inn, they are unexpectedly thrown together again in Edinburgh. Though Murdo prefers to avoid “repeat performances” and David prefers to avoid sexual encounters with other men completely, the two find themselves unable to deny their growing attraction to each other.

Like One Indulgence, the Enlightenment series is a fairly typical Regency(ish) romance, just with two men instead of a man and a woman. The sex scenes were steamy and well-written, but as I mentioned above, I was a little conflicted about the romance in the first book, because Murdo behaved a bit too much like a standard romance hero for my taste – too mercurial and prone to acting angry and even aggressive over things that would have resulted in less angst and fewer misunderstandings for all if they’d just been talked out calmly. (To be fair, David’s tendency to put his foot in his mouth when trying to discuss anything resembling feelings and relationships with other men couldn’t have helped.) However, Murdo mellowed out in the second and third books and showed a more vulnerable side, and I found them more enjoyable.

All three books have interesting subplots concerning the social and political changes of the time, as well as actual historical events of the period. I found the second book’s portrayal of King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822 to be especially interesting, and also enjoyed the subplots involving Elizabeth Chalmers, the daughter of David’s mentor.

Trigger warning (click to view): The series does contain depictions of period-typical homophobia, m/f spouse abuse, and references to past rape.

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

Steve/Bucky Recs List and Other Goodies From the Marvel Cinematic Universe

I’ve been getting increasingly obsessed with Steve/Bucky (aka Stucky) lately, and thought I’d start a small (not so small anymore – oops?) recs post to help keep track of and share some of my favorite fics and vids for the pairing, as well as some other Avengers-related goodies from the Marvel fandom.

As I mentioned in my Marvel movies review, I don’t read comics to any significant degree, so these recs will focus on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

My favorite genres for Steve/Bucky fanfiction include:

  • post-CA:TWS (bonus points for Bucky/Soldier/Asset POV)
  • first kiss and/or first time fics in any era with good UST and pining
  • humor

I like fics in which Peggy, Natasha, Sam, and/or the other Avengers have good characterization and get to be awesome as well. I’m a multishipper, so sometimes this means the fics recced here have past, side, or background pairings other than Steve/Bucky, including Steve/Peggy (my second favorite Steve ship), Bucky/Natasha, Clint/Natasha,  Sam/Natasha, Tony/Pepper, and several OT3s. Just check the tags if you’re easily turned off by certain ships.

If you’re a return visitor and want to see what I’ve added since the last time you were here, the latest additions are marked NEW.

Please note: some of the fics listed here contain content that may be triggering for some people and some contain adult content. Please check tags and ratings carefully before reading, especially if you are underage and/or have any triggers. Also note that I am unable to list PWPs on this page, but you can find my PWP recs on my new fanfiction recs blog Infinite Variation.

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Widdershins Book Review

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Review:

Continuing with my m/m romance streak, I decided to give the Whyborne & Griffin series a shot based on the recommendation of a fandom friend. Widdershins is quite the genre blender – an m/m historical fantasy/horror novel set in late Victorian New England. It stars Percival Endicott Whyborne, a reclusive scholar, and Griffin Flaherty, an ex-Pinkerton detective who now works as a private investigator.

The two meet when Griffin asks Whyborne, a comparative philologist, for his help in deciphering a coded book sent to his client by the client’s son, shortly before the son was brutally murdered. Whyborne soon realizes that it’s a book of spells… and that the spells work! From there, the two are drawn into a terrifying world of secret societies and dark sorcery.

To be honest, I dislike secret society plots as a rule, so I was skeptical about how much I’d like the book before reading it, but I did end up really enjoying it. Jordan Hawk did a great job building up the dark and creepy atmosphere of Whyborne’s hometown of Widdershins, MA, to the point that the setting is like a separate character, and the Lovecraftian monsters and eldritch abominations were grotesque and genuinely frightening. As a certified wimp, I’m a little surprised one scene in particular hasn’t given me nightmares.

The characterization was also really well done, especially Whyborne. In addition to being shy and reclusive, the man also has a severe case of social anxiety and very low self esteem. I wonder if his interior monologue might be a little annoying for someone who doesn’t suffer from either condition, but speaking as someone with a (thankfully milder) case of both: yes, that is exactly what social anxiety sounds like internally. I wanted to give the poor man a hug and a copy of Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy (which really helped me with mine) but unfortunately neither I nor the book are going to exist for another hundred years or so.

The romance was a nice slow burn. I didn’t think the UST was as delicious as it was in my favorite m/m romances to date – The Captive Prince and Think of England – but I liked Whyborne and Griffin as a couple quite a lot and the sex scenes were well-written and hot.

Also, major kudos for an awesome female character: Dr. Christine Putnam, a female archaeologist and Whyborne’s co-worker and friend. Her interactions with Whyborne, Griffin, and the sexist Bradley were always entertaining and she’s a great character in her own right as well. I kind of want an Amelia Peabody crossover with her.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Edit: I have now finished the rest of the series as well, and enjoyed all of them. They continue to feature the same gift for creepy atmospherics and great characterization. It has also been pleasant to see Whyborne’s relationship with Griffin and growing magical abilities slowly build his confidence and reduce his anxiety. I definitely recommend this series. The rest of the books are:

  • Threshold (book 2) – Whyborne, Griffin, and Christine investigate a coal mine in West Virginia that has been plagued by mysterious disappearances and other strange events
  • Stormhaven (book 3) – One of Whyborne’s co-workers is arrested for the murder of his uncle, a murder he has no memory of committing. I was worried about how much I’d like this one, because it’s got ANOTHER secret society, plus prophetic dreams, a trope I like even less than secret societies. But while it wasn’t my favorite of the series, I did enjoy it. It’s also got a kraken in it, and it’s hard to go wrong with krakens. 🙂
  • Necropolis (book 4) – An urgent plea for help from Christine sends Whyborne and Griffin to Egypt. This book made me want an Amelia Peabody crossover even more.
  • Bloodline (book 5) – Whyborne’s sister comes home from England for a visit, and is promptly murdered. Lots of interesting new information about Whyborne’s family here – I look forward to seeing how it affects future books.

Book 6 will be entitled Hoarfrost, and is due to be released sometime in 2015. The series also includes several short stories, including Eidolon.

One Indulgence Book Review

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Review:

I’m on a bit of a roll with m/m romance this week, aren’t I? One Indulgence, by Lydia Gastrell, is the first pure romance, with no fantasy, mystery, etc. elements. It’s essentially a classic Regency romance, except with two men instead of a man and a woman.

The plot revolves around Henry Cortland, the new Earl of Brenleigh, who is determined to fulfill his duty to marry and produce an heir, but first wants – just once – to experience his long-suppressed and forbidden desire to spend a night with a man. A one night stand with a stranger goes better than he could ever have dreamed, and he’s all set to live off the memories forever, but the stranger, Lord Richard Avery, isn’t quite so willing to let him go. Richard is tired of casual relationships and wants a deeper connection. With Henry, he’s convinced he’s found it, but first he has to convince Henry.

The book opens with a VERY hot scene, and I can kind of understand the complaints of some reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads when Henry and Richard then proceed to barely touch for most of the next ~200 pages. However, I thought it was realistic, given Henry’s situation and personality, and anyway, you don’t read Regency romance of any persuasion expecting characters to be constantly hopping in and out of bed with each other.

I enjoyed the book quite a bit, and since it seems to be a planned series, there are several side characters I’m hoping to see more of, particularly Richard’s Aunt Margarette and Samuel Shaw. I guessed the twist with Shaw before it was revealed, and it was very sad to compare Richard’s opinion of the adult Shaw with Henry’s memories of the boy, so I hope he’ll be able to find more closure (an apology from Henry would be a good start) and reclaim some of his boyhood kindness in future books.

One minor and mostly irrelevant complaint: the guys on the cover look NOTHING like I pictured either Richard or Henry and it’s actually distracting me as I write this review. Henry’s blond curls and beautiful blue eyes are frequently mentioned in the book, and I see neither curls nor baby blues on either of those men. Why do so many covers seem to be designed by people who’ve never read the book?

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)