A Rope of Thorns
The Steel Remains
Richard K. Morgan
Lord John and the Private Matter
Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade
Jaida Jones & Danielle Bennett
As Meat Loves Salt
Poppy Z. Brite
The Gay Fiction Booklist That Doesn't Suck
The sad thing about gay fiction is that too many readers (and reviewers) hold it to lower standards than they would other books. They're so grateful just to find a book with gay characters that they'll give it a free pass and recommend it even if it's quantifiably terrible.
I DO NO SUCH THING.
There is a surprising amount of gay fiction out there, some of it wretched and some of it transcendent, but it tends to slip by under the radar as a survival mechanism. So, with the help of my good friend the Internet, the recommendations of strangers and friends, and countless hours spent trawling countless used bookstores, I have put together a list of gay fiction -- primarily science fiction and fantasy -- that is, I hope, approaching comprehensive. Moreover, I've read everything on it and can offer a plot summary plus my own admittedly biased opinion on its relative worth. Arm yourselves with this list, my friends, and happy hunting!
These stars represent how much I enjoyed it, not an objective measure of how good it was:
- Phenomenal. I'd buy it (in hardcover) and then buy copies for all my friends.
- Not perfect, but I enjoyed it a lot.
- Some redeeming qualities, but gay or not, I'd give it a miss.
- I'd rather watch my screensaver. Which is a clock.
- Crap beyond crap. Stabbing yourself in the eye would be more fun. See Matthews for the only book that I've yet given this rating to.
In addition to basic standards of plot, characterization, and good writing, ratings are likely to be influenced by...
Things I dig: snark, realistic relationships, unreliable narrators, taking a cliche and turning it on its head, gay people being awesome (almost better than gay people being gay), monsters as love interests, love interests who are characters in their own right, incarceration, unique dialects, good people making terrible mistakes, and anything that hasn't been done before.
Total turn-offs: cliches of all varieties, characters who are Too Stupid To Live™, writers who neglect character development to focus on world-building, love interests who are pastede on yay!, writers who don't treat gay relationships with the same consideration that they would straight ones, drug use (I told you this was arbitrary), deus ex machina for author's darlings, binary distinctions of good and evil, and poignant, beautifully written bildungsromans of singular literary craftsmanship, which is code for BORING AND DEPRESSING WITH NO ACTUAL FUCKING PLOT.
tl;dr version: I'm not into artsy and avant-garde storytelling. I privilege character over all else, and I will forgive a book of just about any other sin (middling plot, Seriously Problematic Bullshit) if it has characters who get their hooks in me. If that's what you like too, then full speed ahead -- if you know that it's not, then take my reviews with a grain of salt.
If there's a book you love that isn't on this list, spread the good word!
If you've written a book and you want me to review it, read my haphazard "policy" for soliciting reviews.
And if you want to talk books with me, then join the party at my blog!
The Last Rune Series
Bailey, Robin Wayne
Beyond the Pale
The rest of the series:
Maybe it deserves more than two stars, because I didn't have any trouble finishing it, but I also don't have any desire to buy it or read the rest of the series. It starts with two characters from our world, a doctor named Grace and a bartender named Travis, getting sucked into a magical and medieval world on the verge of collapse. The plot was intriguing and kept me going and the writing style is engaging enough, but I didn't care about any of the characters. A different review described Grace as a "boring ice queen" and I'm inclined to agree. Travis is more sympathetic, but not much more interesting. There's a martial cult that is beyond Spartan in the way they spurn women, which got my hopes up, but apparently the homosexuality is not to be realized until later volumes.
I think perhaps I went into this with expectations that were too high, because while it was a good book, I remember being disappointed that it wasn't better. Set in a fantasy version of archaic Greece, the main character is Innowen, who is a crippled woodcutter's son until a powerful witch gives him back the use of his legs, under the condition that he dance in her tribute every night. The catch, that neither of them reckoned on: anyone who watches him dance will succumb to their innermost desires, often with horrific consequences. The premise was very interesting, but something about Bailey's writing style kept me from ever empathizing with the characters much.
One thing to get out of the way before I begin: this book is fucking huge. That said, it was never a chore to read despite the length, although it was often a chore to figure out what the heck was going on. In Imajica there are five planes of existence, five worlds if you will, of which ours is one. Some people are endeavoring to unite them so that people can travel freely between them, and some are attempting to stop that unification at all costs. It features three protagonists who are all intimately tied to the original unification efforts, two of them unaware of it. The most interesting by far is Pie Oh Pah, a powerful, hermaphroditic creature called a mystif. Technically the romance is man-hermaphrodite and not man-man, but Pie strikes me as an attempt to slip homosexuality into mainstream fiction, because in spite of gender-neutral pronouns it still comes off as very male.
Brite, Poppy Z.
(Ironside is the third book in a series, following Tithe and Valiant. Valiant was my favorite of the three, but this was the only one gay enough to make the list.)
The third installment in Holly Black's Tales of Faerie, an urban fantasy series aimed at young adults. The main characters are Kaye, the changeling protagonist from the first book, now on an impossible quest for True Love, and her human friend Cornelius, who's holding a grudge against fairies in general from his previous misadventures and staunchly sticking by Kaye, being helpful and being gay. I hadn't been expecting a gay subplot when I started this series, so it was a pleasant surprise when Cornelius got center stage for romantic developments in Ironside.
As a genre, I quite like urban fantasy, but it's been years and years since I've read any young adult fiction and I found the writing style extremely jarring. It feels as though the author speeds through plot developments too quickly, relationships and characters don't get properly fleshed out, and the prose and dialogue are less sophisticated than their adult fantasy counterparts. I enjoyed it anyway, but the young adult warning is a major caveat I'd make before recommending it to anybody.
Bujold, Lois McMaster
Horror's not my genre, and it's possible that if I liked horror more I would have given this a higher rating. Our bold young heroes are Trevor and Zach--Trevor is a cartoonist, haunted by his father's murder-suicide, that killed his mother and brother but skipped him; Zach is a slutty computer hacker on the run from the FBI. They both get drawn back to the house where Trevor's father committed the murders, which has taken on a frightening life of its own in the mean time. Brite's writing style is very engaging and her haunted house is imaginative and genuinely scary; my issues with the book are Zach's continuous and varied use of illegal drugs, and the lack of any deeper emotions than lust between the two boys when she seems to insist that there is. Show me, darling, don't tell me. And I was rather disgusted by her idea of a happy ending.
When I read Drawing Blood, I really really wanted to like Poppy Z. Brite -- she's a great writer, her prose is sharp and tidy, her dialogue is clever, both funny and realistic, and her protagonists are gay. Unfortunately her idea of a good time seems to be hard drugs and necrophilia, which, for all my vices, are not mine. I had Liquor and its sequel, Prime, on my shelf for well over a year before I finally gave them a chance -- and wound up enjoying them immensely. The protagonists are Mike Rickey and his long-term boyfriend/best-friend Gary "G-man" Stubbs, a pair of working class cooks in New Orleans. After getting (somewhat unfairly) fired from his last job, Rickey hits on the simple -- yet clever and infinitely flexible -- idea of starting their own restaurant, one in which every dish is cooked with some sort of liquor. Thus begins their long and arduous journey from concept to opening night, helped along the way by a colorful, memorable supporting cast.
Rickey and G-man are older than the protagonists in Drawing Blood and miles more mature. They don't spend the book lying around smoking weed and screwing, because frankly they have better things to be doing -- like getting their restaurant off the ground. They're also very different from the characters usually found in gay fiction, for one, because their relationship is already long established by the beginning of the book. But in their case, the "best friends" dynamic overrides the "boyfriends" dynamic and it's comfortable instead of dull. Secondly, they're gay without hitting any of the stereotypes about fashion sense or effeminacy, nor are they involved with the gay subculture at all (more interested in hanging out with other cooks than with other gays). They've developed their own patterns for behavior and interaction without much outside influence, a product of their love of food first, environment second, with sexuality a distant third. Which is not to say that characters who act queer are bad, but this is different and I always dig that.
Revisiting the world of Rickey and G-man -- Liquor is up and running, popular and successful despite the scandal from the end of the last book. So successful that Rickey gets invited to be a consultant to revive a flagging restaurant in Dallas; the money is great, the only catch is that the current head chef is an older man that he has History with. See above: if you liked Liquor, you'll like Prime.
The continuing adventures of Rickey and G-man. A bit more scuffed up but considerably richer after his misadventures in Texas, Rickey agrees to hire Milford Goodman -- an ex-con who was one of New Orleans's hottest up-and-coming chefs before being convicted of brutally murdering his employer, now exonerated after ten years of incarceration. Meanwhile some of the city's skeeziest elites have come to Liquor wanting Rickey's help renovating the restaurant for a steamboat casino, a venture that seems off from the start and only gets worse. It's the characters I like and it's still fun, but Soul Kitchen feels like it's retreading much of the same ground as the previous two books, revisiting a formula that you can only reuse so many times.
The Value of X
For all that Liquor features one of the best established relationships I've seen in fiction, it of course begs the question, But HOW did they get there? The long-awaited prequel, The Value of X, is the answer, though at novella-length it doesn't quite deliver what I'd hoped it would. It goes back to their high school days and explores a little bit more of their childhood, but I would have liked to see more their relationship (and the associated sexual tension) before they get together. I also would have liked more of their interactions with their families, particularly since G-man's family is so strongly Catholic. It doesn't help that the only real plot/mystery to be resolved in this book is whether Rickey and G-man can survive being apart for Rickey's time at school in NY, and anybody who's read the later books knows the answer to that.
I found Liquor and Prime sitting on the shelf together at a Half-Price Books in Houston, years ago, but I've never seen them anywhere else since then. Soul Kitchen and The Value of X I had to get Borders to order for me; they're all trade paperback, except The Value of X which is hardcover only. Not sure if it was worth the price, but I enjoyed reading it and, hey, it happened to be autographed. Since then, Value of X and another novella called D*U*C*K (which I haven't managed to get my hands on yet) have been reprinted together in a trade paperback volume called Second Line.
Ethan of Athos
A delightful turnabout on the overdone lesbian utopia books. Ethan (from the planet Athos, which is populated entirely by men) is an obstetrician sent all-unwilling on a mission to procure ovarian tissue cultures to replace the ones from the original colonists, which have begun to fail -- a mission that will take him into contact with -- GASP -- women!! The back-cover summary hints at a relationship between Ethan and the hot female mercenary who takes it upon herself to keep him from getting killed -- this is a lie. She doesn't convert him (she's not even interested in him) although his abject terror that she might is hilarious. (She also happens to be a character who made a cameo in one of Bujold's Vorkosigan books, Young Miles.) A short, fast, very fun read; but keep in mind that it was published a while back, so even though Ethan IS gay he never really gets to BE gay.
Card, Orson Scott
The sub-heading on Bone Dance calls it a "fantasy for technophiles," a title that becomes quite apt as you read the book. I'd read Bull's Finder before this, and the milieu feels much the same--a seemingly anarchic society that is dangerous but not without rules, where Bull's young, pragmatic protagonists manage to carve out a niche. But where Finder was urban fantasy, Bone Dance is sci-fi with a touch of the supernatural. It's set in an unspecified city presumably somewhere in the U.S. in the wake of an apocalyptic (though never fully clarified) war with South America. Our protagonist is Sparrow--adept techie, avid collector of pre-war media, and of completely ambiguous gender. A job gone wrong leads to unwanted attention from some very dangerous people, ominous blackouts in which Sparrow loses days at a time, and persistant rumors about the involvement of the Horsemen, the terrifying, mysterious soldiers who were responsible for turning the tide of the war.
And at the risk of being as cryptic as the back cover of the book, I'm going to leave it at that. Bull does a masterful job throwing the reader in at the deep end and tossing enough lines to keep you afloat. By the middle of the book you'll know exactly what's going on and it will be an epiphany--I enjoyed the revelation immensely, and I wouldn't want to spoil that for other people. Unfortunately, the book seems to run out of steam in the last third. I had the impression that I was sympathizing with the wrong characters, that I found the author's preferred ones somewhat dull and had taken a liking to the ones that she was indifferent to. And ironically, I think the plot detracted from the book by moving the overall focus from Sparrow's personal struggle to an external conflict that felt almost artificial. All in all it's worth a read, although I liked Finder and War of the Oaks better.
In a vast, space-age future, one powerful and ambitious man has all but succeeded in creating an empire that spans the galaxy and controls every inhabited planet. Considered a visionary by some and reviled as a bloodthirsty despot by others, he has everything he could possibly want -- except for a Songbird. Gifted from birth and trained by the best, Songbirds are rare and talented singers who can sing to people's very emotions. After many years of searching, they finally find Ansset, a withdrawn, damaged young boy with a once-in-a-lifetime gift.
So that's the situation, but unfortunately I didn't like any of the characters much. As a child Ansset is a non-entity, who can sing and manipulate the emotions of others perfectly but is an empty shell himself. He has no sympathy for the other people around him, minor characters whose struggles feel more realistic than Ansset's own, and as a result I had no sympathy for him.
Furthermore, Orson Scott Card has gotten a reputation in gay-fiction circles for being homophobic, writing gay issues poorly, and having a tendency to equate homosexuality with pedophilia. (Though for a good time, read Card's own rant about J.K. Rowling's failure to admit to Dumbledore's sexuality in canon, only confirming it after the fact. He's like, when I have gay characters, by God, I man-up and say so!) And so he does, and in Songbird there are a handful of them, several portrayed quite sympathetically. Unfortunately he chooses to go the Lackey and Brokeback route -- gay characters must lose their lovers, suffer, and die. The highly-charged relationship between Ansset and the emperor is frequently assumed by other characters to have a sexual component, an implication that both characters take offense at -- but regardless of whether or not the relationship is sexual, the atmosphere is there and it made me uncomfortable, thanks a lot, Card. There are also a disproportionate number of adult men who, it's implied, would really like to fuck pre-pubescent Ansset if given half a chance. The best character in the book is a fun, quirky bisexual man who falls in love with him as an adult, but that ends... poorly. On the whole, this book has little to recommend itself.
The rest: Kushiel's Chosen, Kushiel's Avatar are and
Kushiel's Scion is not gay enough to make the cut.
I'm not entirely sure this belongs on a gay booklist, but I know a lot of people would be pointing it out to me if I left it off. Certainly, bisexuality is the norm in their society and our bold heroine is totally weak in the knees for the evil lady, but her love interest is male -- which strikes me as giving a nod to the existence of homo- and bisexuality without necessarily being a gay book. That said, this is nevertheless an amazing work of fiction. It's an impressive author who can pull off a writing style that feels consistently, authentically non-modern, and Carey does it in spades. Her series is set in a fantasy version of Europe (France, specifically), overflowing with intrigue and beautiful people. The protagonist is Phedre, a courtesan and dyed-in-the-wool masochist. Her sexuality seems to get trotted out as the feature that makes these books unique, but it's really not. Once the groundwork has been laid and the plot gets rolling, it never stops. I'd been resisting reading it for a long time, but now I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Unfortunately, the series can't keep up the promise of the first book. I read perhaps 2/3 of the way through the next one, then put it down and wasn't interested enough to pick it up again. I might skip to the fourth book and give that a shot, because apparently Phedre's son is the protagonist and if he's half as bisexual as she is, it should be fun. EDIT: Scratch that, he's all about the tits and ass.
Holy cats, I love this book so much. I am not an unbiased reviewer. But here goes: first of all, don't read the back cover, and if you do, don't believe it. You'll come away with the impression that it's about a werewolf vigilante, which -- haha, no. None of the above. Thank you for playing.
It's set in a small town called Santa Olivia near the Mexican border, and the story kicks off with the American military rolling in and declaring that, as part of the ongoing war with Mexico, that whole strip of territory is being declared a buffer zone, no longer part of the United States, and that anyone who chooses to remain in the town rather than evacuating is forfeiting their American citizenship. Well, being as that's home, inevitably some people choose to stay, and this is about them and their descendants.
In its atmosphere, it reminded me of A Handmaid's Tale and Arslan. Although it's certainly a different type of dystopia, one of benign neglect rather than active oppression, you get the same sense of powerlessness, of being trapped, of being kept in a prisoner's ignorance and isolation. The world beyond the walls may be going about its business as usual, but to the residents of Santa Olivia it might as well have ceased to exist. (And to the younger residents of the town, it never did exist.) It's one thing to write a dystopia where the abuse is overt and its effects obvious. It's something else entirely (and something far more interesting) to write a place where the oppression is more subtle, and it takes a long time before you realize how deep the ramifications run.
That takes care of setting, what about characters? I loved EVERYONE. There are no one-dimensional bad guys here. Even the characters who are antagonistic are rarely doing so out of malice, you can see their motivations. The locals have a complicated relationship with the soldiers occupying their town, but the soldiers are shown as individuals too -- some are nice and some are assholes -- not just a faceless mass of military. Furthermore, all of the "good" guys also have their full complement of flaws and idiosyncracies. They can be prickly, or possessive, or dishonest, or codependent, or have very mercenary ideas about sex, or just be an asshole most of the time. (Oh, Miguel, you're my favorite.) Nobody is perfect, but everyone elicits your sympathy.
Plot? Kept me going from beginning to end, so. Halfway through it becomes about not-what-you-thought-it-was-about. If I told you, it would sound improbable, but it works. Has its "WHOA SHIT!" moments, and going in the endgame, I honestly had no idea what to expect.
Romance? Lovely. Also, lesbian. Also, hot. Carey writes romance beautifully, exactly the way I like to read it. Their emotional arc is fully developed and we get to watch it unfold the whole way, none of this "happening offstage" bullshit that gay romances so often get saddled with in deference to heterosexual sensibilities. It gets the emotional build-up it deserves, and it gets the emotional payoff too -- it gets the Big Scene where the characters go out on a limb, wear their hearts on their sleeve, all that grand passion. That gets taken for granted in straight romances -- that the author is going to go there, going to show that, going to respect the relationship and give it all the emotional impact they can pour into it -- but it's seen a hell of a lot less often in gay romances. My hat goes off to you, Jacqueline Carey.
Okay, you guys know that I frequently defend queer-writing authors when they get slapped with the dismissive "reads like fanfiction" accusation... so when I say that Saints Astray reads like a rock band AU fanfic, I really, really mean it. I knew that there was no way a sequel to Santa Olivia could measure up to the first (for one, Santa Olivia had a very fulfilling ending that didn't leave much need for a sequel), but I still didn't expect it to be quite so... wtf. Spoilers for the end of Santa Olivia follow.
So Loup and Pilar have made it out into the Brave New World that lies beyond Outpost, but everyone else is still stuck there, with their plight unknown to the rest of the world. Our bold heroines are resolved to fix that, which is why they promptly.... join up with a rock band. Seriously, this book is like a list of mediocre fanfic cliches -- established relationship with frequent cut-to-black sex scenes, pointless chapters of hanging out on vacation, obligatory rival for someone's affections, and hanging out with a rock band. (Shark: jumped.) I wouldn't say that Carey's lost touch with her characters, but they're just not doing anything interesting. The gut-wrenchingly high emotional stakes from the last book are gone, replaced with a vague idea that they're going to right injustice but no clear plan as to how. Loup's no longer torn between love and vengeance, so there's no tension in their relationship anymore. There's nothing that challenges them as characters, pushes them to their limits and makes them grow. Their brave new world feels two dimensional, not nearly as realized as the town of Outpost was. And they're hanging out with a rock band. (Your argument is invalid.)
The uneven quality of Carey's books leads me to think that she's an all-or-nothing kind of writer -- when she's on, she's really, REALLY on, but when she's off her game and lacking whatever afflatus produced Kushiel's Dart and Santa Olivia, she's not someone who can just grit her teeth and bang out something passable.
Mordred, Bastard Son
(This is supposedly the first book in a trilogy, but so far it is the only one out)
So as I was reading this book I was pondering a tagline, and the phrase coming to mind was "mostly tedious" (which is always a bad sign, when I'm thinking about my pending review instead of the book itself), but then when I was done with it I got a little drunk and started feeling more benevolent. Working in the book's favor was that it's a very fast read. It's still mostly boring--yet another rehashing of the Arthurian legend, in the recent trend of taking the tales back to their primitive Celtic roots (Alice Borchardt's Tales of Guinevere duo comes to mind).
There are pages upon pages of descriptive paragraphs that I skipped with a lazy eye, a truly ridiculous amount of detail regarding pagan mythology (which would no doubt make this book my favorite if that were my field of interest, but it's not), and a fair bit of sermonizing towards the beginning about gay people being just as good as anyone else. (Hello! Anyone reading this book is going to be gay-friendly, which means you're preaching to the choir.)
So if you take out the recycled plot, the tedious world-building, and the preachy theme... you're left with Mordred, who turns out to be a surprisingly well-crafted character. The sexy bits are indeed quite sexy, and the plot picks up a lot near the end and actually made me sort of wish the next book was out, although Clegg's choice for Mordred's one true love didn't sit well with me. In retrospect, I can see why summaries of the book were deliberately vague about Mordred's passion for "a knight in Arthur's court" instead of giving a name. I'll foist spoilers upon you when I get around to reading/reviewing the next book in the series, but for now you can read it and pass your own judgment.
Cooke, John Peyton
This is a series with a fascinating premise: in a dystopian world, humans have begun to be replaced by a viral, hermaphroditic new race called the Wraeththu that is gradually driving mankind extinct. It's a plot that has turned up in other forms in other sci-fi (usually the B-movie variety), and usually with humans rallying to fight off the intruding race and managing to save themselves. Not so in the Wraeththu books--not only are they winning, but all our protagonists are members of this viral new species.
Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit
The [X]ments of [Y] and [Z] trilogy was originally published in the states in mass-market format by a large publishing house (Tor) so I didn't have much trouble finding them used. They have since been reprinted together in one hefty trade paperback volume simply called Wraeththu, which is sold at bookstore chains like Borders and Barnes and Nobles. Also available directly through her own Immanion Press.
I'd heard a great deal about this series before I read it, as it is somewhat of a cult classic, and thus I was greatly dismayed when the first book was... alright. Not bad, to be sure, but it seemed undeserving of the hype. The main character is Pellaz, a young human man living in rural poverty who is enticed (without much difficulty) by a traveling stranger named Calanthe into becoming a Wraeththu himself. We travel with Pellaz as he learns about the world and about what it means to be a Wraeththu, which is admittedly necessary for world-building but Pellaz was never a very strongly defined character. Even though I wanted to like it and respected the wealth of creativity that had gone into the story, Pellaz's lack of appeal made it impossible for me to connect with him.
Bewitchments of Love and Hate
I'd delayed reading this because Enchantments had been such a disappointment, but my fear was unfounded -- as it turns out, it was Pellaz who made the first book blah and with a different narrator Ms. Constantine simply shines. Our new protagonist is Swift, the child of a Varr warlord, and one of the first generation to be born to Wraeththu parents rather than incepted from humans. Calanthe, who was intriguing in the first book, is magnetic in this one -- a captivating, carelessly vicious presence who drives a wedge through Swift's family with the enmity he incurs from Swift's mother and the desire he stirs in both father and son. I am, admittedly, very biased because I like cruel and lazy characters, but this book is still undeniably better as it is not being bogged down with world-building. Nor is it just Cal who receives more screen time in this installment -- many of the minor characters introduced in Enchantments are further developed here, their lives being woven into the tapestry of the Wraeththu world.
Fulfillments of Fate and Desire
Calanthe was an enigmatic, mercurial mentor in the first book and an itinerant home-wreaker in the second--in the third book he's the protagonist, and fulfills all his potential from the first two. By this time Cal has discovered the hoax executed by Thiede, gone to Immanion seeking Pellaz again, and escaped in failure. He's wandering in search of something he can feel but can't even begin to define, struggling on the fringes of society to survive and maybe claw his way up again, and facing it all with the strangest mixture of snark, stubborn pride, and vicious self-loathing. Cal makes an absolutely riveting narrator--if he tossed off some good one-liners before, in Fulfillments you realize that he kept 90% of it to himself. Very, very rarely are characters this intricate and contradictory; Cal is as "strong" a person as they come, but he's at an utter loss and in his antipathy for inaction he ends up chasing his own tail. He tells us all the time that he wallows in self-pity, but when horrible things happen to him, there's no pity--he believes quite matter-of-factly that he deserves everything he gets and more. He's not without empathy, but he still ends up hurting a lot of people; as he puts it, "I have conscience that stands by and lets me do terrible things so it can torment me for them later."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the weakest part of this book (and the ones that follow) is Cal's continued obsession with Pellaz. Pellaz, despite being a much less-defined character, is still the only one in Cal's heart--which I find somewhat inexplicable, since I'm not feeling the chemistry and Constantine has already created a slew of more interesting characters to replace him. Accordingly, I was not rooting for their reunion and was indifferent when it happened.
Wraeththu Histories Trilogy
A second trilogy in the same world that she went back and wrote nearly two decades later, featuring characters from the next generation of Wraeththu.
Wraiths of Will and Pleasure
Each of the Wraeththu histories books has been printed in hardcover and trade paperback format by both her own England-based Immanion Press and by Tor. I've seen some of them around in Half-Price Books; my Borders had the latest one in stock and I was able to order the others, but if you don't have similar luck you should consider ordering them from Immanion directly.
Much like its sequel, Shades of Time and Memory, this book scatters the story across a multitude of viewpoints -- unfortunately it doesn't work as well, because there's no compelling plot tying them together, or nothing we haven't read before. Wraiths covers a large span of years from the original trilogy, showing us what other various side characters were busy doing and feeling during that time. It features Ulaume of the mysterious, desert-dwelling Kakkahaar, who has inexplicably paired up with Flick from Saltrock (a character that I had absolutely no recollection of from the first book) and adopted, somewhat by accident, a strange Wraeththu child named Lileem. We get to see the exact circumstances of Cal's ill-fated return to Saltrock after Pellaz's death, culminating in Orien's murder, which had been hearsay until now. We see the building of Immanion, some of the details surrounding Pellaz's resurrection, and the advent of the Kamagrian, Wraeththu's sister-race.
It was sporadically very interesting, but fell short on the whole. It renewed my dislike of Thiede, how he manipulates the hell out of everyone and always wins (that might have been intentional on Constantine's part), and my aggravation for Pellaz (which I'm fairly certain wasn't) -- could he get any more boring?? And the one alternate perspective that I was particularly keen on seeing, Seel's point of view for the mind-rape that was his relationship with Swift, ended up being completely glossed over.
Shades of Time and Memory
God only knows why I didn't consult my own list when guessing which book came first in the Histories Trilogy--but considering that I made it halfway through before I began to suspect that I'd skipped one, I'd venture to say that it doesn't really matter. Where the books of the first Wraeththu trilogy tended to focus on one character, filtering the story through them, Shades is a complex tapestry woven together from a multitude of viewpoints. Pellaz is the Tigron, but he's uncertain without Thiede's guidance and the triad of him and Cal and Caeru is still fraught with tension. The villain of the piece is Ponclast, erstwhile leader of the Varrs, who has struck a pact with dark forces to free him and his people from the nightmarish prison that Thiede had left them locked in. As he gathers his forces and plots the overthrow of the Gelaming, Pellaz must rally the Wraeththu tribes and find his own divine intervention to counter Ponclast's--all very interesting, but it's the characters that make this book brilliant.
Pellaz is still boring, but the brittle, self-perpetuating feud between Caeru and Cal is hypnotic. Ponclast is a captivating figure, grotesque and clever, ruthless and vulnerable--yet still laden with his own yearnings and insecurities, fiercely loyal to his people, tender and sweet with his lover, protective and fearful for their son. Moon, Pellaz's shy, eccentric nephew, and Cal's son Tyson rebel against the shadows of the older generation as they work toward a tentative romance. Moon's father, Snake, struggles with being a mutilated creature in a race that prizes perfection, and Cobweb fights to reclaim a masculine side that has been dormant for too long and take Terzian's place as the leader of a desperate people. The task of balancing so many opposing perspectives is not an easy one, but Constantine executes it flawlessly.
Ghosts of Blood and Innocence
The last book in the Wraeththu Histories started out promisingly enough, as it picks up with two loose threads from the last book: Darquiel, product of a union between Pellaz and Cal and Caeru (must be fun to be wraeththu), raised by strangers all unaware of his parentage but conscious of some difference in him; and Loki, who still doesn't know that Cal isn't his real father. And then... it just doesn't go anywhere interesting. The strain of having a cast as large as the Wraeththu series is starting to show, because Darquiel and Loki are just two more exceptionally beautiful beauties (how do they even judge these things anymore?) without anything to set them apart from the rest of the herd personality-wise. I put the book down and forgot to pick it up again for six months, by which point I had somewhat lost the thread of the plot. The gist of it is that our bold heroes are finally becoming aware of higher powers in their world that are vying for control of the future of wraeththu, which just leads to characters becoming overpowered like DBZ and fighting in various worlds constructed in their imaginations.
Worse, though, is how the series seems to have lost touch with its established characters. Ponclast has been lobotomized and I'm convinced death would have been a mercy (see Terzian). Cal's kept his good looks but lost the manic, self-destructive craziness that made him so interesting; I used to cheer when he walked onstage but now he's hardly better than a paper doll. Darquiel's love interest is another barbarian warlord from the dawn of Wraeththu, but he's been declawed as much as the rest of them. On the whole, a disappointing end to a series that I enjoyed a lot.
The Chimney Sweeper
Delany, Samuel R.
This book vacillates between laughably bad and appallingly bad. It kicks off with a heaping helping of trans-fail, when the protagonist (!!) goes into gay panic freakout and murders a transsexual. With the current violence against trans people 16 orders of magnitude higher than violence against gays, this may be realistic, but it does absolutely nothing to endear him to me.
He goes on to be one of the most tediously selfish and narcissistic characters I've ever read, without a thing to recommend him; a vain, hypocritical homophobe with a massive sense of entitlement and not a thought in his empty head except where he wants to stick his dick next. The prose would be decent enough, except it stops every couple paragraphs to describe crotch bulges or bubble butts or tight abs (I cannot think of any other book on this site that felt the need to tell me the exact number of inches of the protagonist's cock) in language more suited to porn than mainstream fiction. Is this supposed to be a novel or a penthouse letter? Every conversation with this asshole tends to go "I know what you want -- MY DICK." and is studded with such gems as "I was obsessed with the idea of getting him to chow down on my bratwurst."
Yeah, I think we're done here.
Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand
Disch, Thomas M.
The plot in a nutshell: Korga is slave, programmed to be dumb and docile although not necessarily innately so, plodding along in a life of hard labor until a mysterious holocaust destroys his world and leaves him the only survivor. Marq Dyeth (pronounced "death") is a privileged industrial diplomat who happens to be Korga's perfect sexual object to nine decimal places (and Korga to six decimals for him). They get thrown together, and there's something about a long dead tyrant tying their fates together--but putting it like that makes it sound a lot more lucid than it actually is.
I imagine some people will jump on my case for this, but I'd say Delany is like the James Joyce of science fiction--lyric prose, light on the plot, and frequently incoherent. Stars in My Pocket suffers from being extremely uneven, sometimes very engrossing and sometimes unreadable, and what plot there is (more like the suggestion of a plot) remains totally unresolved at the end. Ultimately, I'd give it a miss and maybe try with one of his short stories.
On Wings of Song
This book takes place in hugely exaggerated version of present-day America (which is rather uncannily prescient, considering it was written in 1979), where the east and west coasts have descended into Sodom and Gomorrah-esque debauchery and middle america is a fascist theocracy. The driving premise is that some people have discovered a way to transcend their physical bodies, via song, and enter a state of higher consciousness -- which the protagonist desperately wants to be able to do.
Disch is a good writer; it started out very engaging and I was thinking to myself, "Huh, I should really look into more stuff by him." By the end, however, I was sick of it and ready to just be DONE already.
Shit I do not approve of:
I suppose I can't speak for everyone, but to me there is no sense of closure or satisfaction when I don't know what happened. It feels like a gimmick masquerading as something thought-provoking, a cheap ploy for attention and condescending to the extreme, like an English teacher stopping me in the middle of the text and demanding that I interpret and analyze it.
- Homosexuality as an outward manifestation of the character's/society's internal decay. Fuck off. I am not your metaphor for psychological dissipation. This is a narrative I am tired of hearing. (It came as no surprise whatsoever to later discover that Disch was a self-hating homosexual.)
- "Lady or the Tiger" endings. What, you think it's somehow more improving to leave the readers to hazard their own guesses at the ending? That it's somehow more virtuous than "spoon-feeding" it to them? Bullshit. Do your job and finish your damn story. If I wanted to be in charge of the ending, I'd write the whole thing myself.
For a very amateurish-looking cover (with a torso on it, no less), this was a surprisingly decent book, if not a very gay one. The story kicks off with Prabir Suresh at nine, living with his family on a remote island in southeast Asia while his biologist parents study butterflies. When civil war breaks out in Indonesia, his parents wind up getting killed and Prabir and his sister get shipped off to live with their aunt in Canada. Fast-forward twenty years -- Prabir has put science behind him and works at a bank, but his sister is a biology undergrad who now wants to go on a research expedition to the very area where their parents were killed, where a number of unexplainable mutations that have been cropping up recently.
Teranesia is, foremost, a book about ideas a la hard sci-fi, even though it never leaves earth. It's a mystery story, and the mystery is why life on these islands seem to have completely stopped obeying the laws of evolution -- a scientific question to which Egan gives an equally scientific answer. (No hand-waving it away as "magic!" or "aliens!" -- best brush up on your biology.)
The characters are well-sketched enough, but subordinate to the plot. Prabir is gay, which becomes a highly relevant plot point. Prabir also seems to be quietly insane, making him the most well-developed character but difficult to empathize with. He has a boyfriend, but can't muster up much enthusiasm for the scenes in which they're together, and I'm not sure if that's due to deliberate characterization (Prabir is kind of weird, recall) or an author who isn't gay having trouble "feeling" it.
(Incidentally, my favorite part ended up have nothing to do with the plot or the gay, but when Egan's poking fun at post-modernists for being "all Big Dumb Neologisms and thesaurus-driven bluster. It was like listening to two badly written computer programs trying to convince each other that they were sentient." Hah.)
A Book of Tongues
A Book of Tongues is set a few years after the end of the Civil War, in an alternate world version of the wild west, in which some people are "hexslingers," magicians wielding power that they themselves can't always control. The nominal protagonist is a Pinkerton agent named Ed Morrow, working undercover to infiltrate the gang led by Reverend Asher Rook, former Confederate chaplain turned hexslinger, and his lover Chess Pargeter, gunslinger extraordinaire.
It's amazing. Chess and the Reverend are the stars of this show, and to be sure, they are not nice people -- they are the larger-than-life outlaws of the wild west, they are Bonnie and Clyde, they are Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch, men who kill easily and frequently, with little cause and less conscience. Chess in particular is vicious, impulsive, selfish -- and as compelling a character as I've ever read. He's the product of an upbringing that never really gave him the chance to be anything else, that made him believe the only ways to live were as victim or villain, never realizing that he might be both. The Reverend Rook is harder to pin down, because there's less easy causality in how he became what he is. He doesn't hate the world and everyone in it, not the way Chess does, but that doesn't make him any kinder to it. He's legitimately Christian (or was, anyway, and still considers himself to be) and his religion is fundamental to his character, even if his interpretation of how it applies to him has taken a turn for the weird now that he's a witch and a sodomite. Files writes Rook's ambivalence to his faith masterfully, laying the groundwork long before he meets Chess or comes into his powers. He's also far more of an introvert than Chess, and the view of him from the outside, that we see from Chess' and Morrow's points of view, is almost unrecognizable as the person we see from inside his own head.
And for all my objections to authors who typecast gays as villains, this is NOT an example that trope, because their regard for each other is easily the most humanizing, redemptive quality in either one of them. Chess and the Reverend have explosive chemistry. (Often and explicitly, much to the dismay of some Amazon.com reviewers who stumbled onto this book with no idea what they were in for.) What's telling, however, is that even when people were rating it two stars or less for the surprise sodomy, not a one suggested that they weren't sold on the relationship. (They were buying it, alright, even if they weren't liking it.) On the other hand, I was liking it a lot, it is scorching hot, passionate, and glorious.
Most of Files' previous writing was in horror short fiction, and it shows; her prose is superb, excellent both for evoking mood and conveying emotion, and she has a knack for generating a sense of creeping horror. I like the dialect that her characters speak. Her use of Christian theology in her magic and world-building is extremely clever; using Old Testament imagery for writing horror is far more effective than I'd have previously thought. Less effective is the Aztec mythology she incorporates into the story; because ever since Rook nearly got executed, he's been hounded by Ixchel, the goddess of hanged men, who wants his help rebuilding her reign of blood on earth -- and I really wish he would just say no and go rob some stagecoaches with Chess.
Which leads us to the problems -- the book starts to lose focus in the middle, and the second half suffers immensely. The Aztec theology takes over the plot, but it's unfamiliar, not as interesting as her take on Christian theology, and gets muddled and abstract pretty quickly. Character motivation also starts to waver; it seems like nobody has any clear reason for the things they do. And I'm not sure I like where she's heading with this story, because it's looking dangerously like Rook and Chess's [obsessive, all-consuming] relationship is just going to drop off now that it's not necessary to the plot anymore. In any case, I really hope the next book proves me wrong, and there's certainly room for it to do so.
A Rope of Thorns
The sequel to A Book of Tongues, second book in the trilogy -- it's always hard to rate the middle installment of something independently of the books bracketing it, but since I haven't read the final installment yet, I shall endeavor to do so.
Rope of Thorns picks up the plot right where Book of Tongues left off, with a newly magical Chess Pargeter hell-bent on revenge and dragging poor Ed Morrow all across creation with him, while formerly dead antagonist Meacham Love has his own score to settle with Chess. They have action, Ed Morrow gets more developed as a character, and an excellent lady joins the cast. I'm still not crazy about the Ixchel plot; Rook spends the book hanging out in her implausible city not doing much, and I really wish someone would figure out a way to kill Ixchel so she would just go away. On the other hand, a number of the things I'd complained about being vague in the first book got explained better, namely the Aztec mythology and Rook's motivations. (And oh god, there's a moment in Ixchel's city that will break your heart.)
There's less of what I enjoyed the most about A Book of Tongues -- Chess and the Reverend being crazy about each other, all over each other -- but my worry that their relationship would drop off the map was premature. Despite spending most of the book a few hundred miles apart and having precious few scenes together (I wanted more, more, MOAR), they are still obsessive and at the center of each other's worlds, for good or ill.
But you know how I'm a sucker for characters? Chess Pargeter -- brutal, callous, contrary Chess Pargeter -- is shown to be that rarest of things: a character who can change. Before, I said that the writing was on the wall for tragedy because that's what happens to bad men, but that's changed too -- the tragedy now will be if Rook can't do the same.
Luck in the Shadows
Immensely enjoyable set of books--follows Alec, an orphaned young fur trapper, after he gets picked up by a cheerfully unscrupulous man named Seregil and whisked into a dangerous life of magic and espionage. Luck in the Shadows was Flewelling's first novel and in some places it shows, but it's great fun--action and adventure, comedy and drama, and a gradual romance. My only major complaint is with the third book--on the whole, it lacks the fun and flair of the other two books, and it feels like she was having to force herself to write it.
After a several-year hiatus, the Nightrunner boys are back in this fourth installment. The book kicks off with them in the city again, still doing their various intrigues but getting a little bored with the scene, until they are soon tapped for a diplomatic mission that will take them back to Seregil's homeland. Things don't go as planned, of course, and they are ambushed en route, with most of their retinue slaughtered and Alec and Seregil sold separately into slavery. (Rest at ease, they are not sent to brothels.) Cue the long struggle home!
While this is better than Traitor's Moon, where they spent much of their time being angsty and doing not much, I still wouldn't put it up there with the original two. Now that they're together, the established relationship has become sort of dull, all "tension" provided by small, manufactured disagreements. I also feel that the book moves too fast, not slowing down to properly flesh out the world or the characters' interiorities, and with far too much telling instead of showing. Still, it has an engaging plot and the promise of an interesting sequel.
The White Road
Free of servitude and on the move again, Alec and Seregil are now saddled with a magical mute monster-baby, courtesy of the events in the previous book, and are dealing with the twin problems of figuring what the hell it is and what the hell to do with it. Meanwhile, faie from the north are en route to reclaim said monster-baby, and probably kill everyone who's learned of its existence.
I'd rank this book above Shadows Return, but below the original trilogy -- mainly because I couldn't understand or much sympathize with Alec's attachment to his monster-baby, and that's the motivation that drives the plot. (Seregil's not too thrilled with the thing either. I really feel for him in this book.) Since it doesn't talk, it's more of a MacGuffin than a character, and I don't see why they don't just give it away to the first person willing to take it off their hands. Hopefully after this Flewelling will take the series back to its spy-fantasy roots, because she's better at writing politics than magic.
The Tamir Trilogy
(Consists of The Bone-Doll's Twin, Hidden Warrior, The Oracle's Queen)
Deals with a historical figure from the Nightrunner world, a queen who was disguised as a boy through her childhood to save her from the systematic assassination being carried out on women of the royal family. Tamir, called Tobin through the first two books, doesn't know that he's not really a boy which makes for some interesting issues to explore. However, the sort of gender-bending that Flewelling is playing with here is a pet issue of mine and ultimately I think she doesn't explore it deeply enough. (Namely, that the attempted suicide rate for transsexuals--which Tobin is, for lack of a better word--hovers around 50%, but he's largely unaffected by any sense of gender incongruity as he's growing up.) On the whole though it's quite good, if not as much fun as the Nightrunner series.
I like to think of this as the gay version of Lady Chatterley's Lover. Forster was a contemporary of D.H. Laurence which means, yes, that the writing style is slightly archaic, but it is still a marvelous book and quite easy to read. The protagonist is Maurice Hall, your average upper middle class British man in every way--except that he's homosexual. This book follows Maurice as he grapples with being gay and trying to find happiness despite that. And here Forster has my undying respect and admiration, because Maurice does get his happy ending, even though that prevented the book from ever being published in Forster's lifetime. *salutes*
If you can't bring yourself to read it, the movie is great and sticks to the book almost verbatim. It features James Wilby, Hugh Grant, Rupert Graves, and is rated R for gay sex. Just putting that out there.
Mind Fuck, and other stories
Freireich, Valerie J.
Imagine a dystopic future Europe controlled by a totalitarian autocracy that ruthlessly crushes all suspected resistance. Now picture a protagonist who works in middle management for said government. That's not precisely accurate, but catches the feel for Mind Fuck quite nicely, because in any other book the "heroes" of this one would be the nameless, faceless bad guys. But as the author herself states, there are no good guys and bad guys here, only better guys and worse guys. The main character is Val Toreth, a "para-investigator," which is a cross between a high-ranking police detective and a government-sanctioned torturer. He's also, literally, a high-functioning sociopath -- a requirement for the job. The other main character is Keir Warrick, the young CEO of a company that's about to take their ground-breaking virtual reality technology public. They're both Type-A control freaks (who turn out to be surprisingly compatible in bed) and they have a fair bit of kinky sex, but what hooked my interest in the first book turned out to be the plot: people using Warrick's VR technology are dying and it could be mechanical or it could be corporate sabotage, but Toreth is on the case and it would be an engaging read for the mystery alone.
The problem I initially had with the romance, briefly stated, is that we see it mostly from Toreth's perspective, and from his perspective there is none. It took half the book before I remembered that this is because Toreth is a sociopath -- something that's deceptively easy to forget while you're reading. He's not vicious by nature; he's motivated sometimes by pride and sometimes by spite, but mostly just curiosity. He has a steady job that he likes well enough, spends more time doing paperwork than torturing people, goes out for drinks with his coworkers, has hobbies that include swimming and S&M. It's very subtly done, but then suddenly you realize that all of his interactions with other people are missing some crucial element of human connection; that he just doesn't care about them the way he's supposed to, he doesn't connect to them right, and it never even occurs to him. There's something deeply, fundamentally wrong with him, that no amount of love or friendship is ever going to cure -- and my adoration for authors who can take risks like that and pull them off knows no bounds. Mind Fuck focuses mainly on the plot, but Francis explores the relationship further in the short stories that follow it, posing the very real question: what sort of genuine relationship can you have with someone who doesn't care about people? Sometimes it's funny, sometimes painful, sometimes even sweet, and altogether fascinating.
(In related news, Susan Matthews, author of Prisoner of Conscience had better be taking fucking notes. Look sharp, lady, this is how it's done.)
You'll probably never find it in a bookstore, but it is in print and on Amazon, go go go!
Somewhere in the future, a confederation of worlds is ruled over by a small, elite group called the Electors. Electors have at their disposal bio-engineered beings called probes, whose loyalty is built-in and whose lifespans are kept deliberately short. The story kicks off with a probe named Alexander, who in the course of some very complicated political maneuverings, acts according to his conscience instead of the best interests of his Elector and is put down. The story picks up again some twenty years later--our new protagonist is August, a clone of Alexander's, continuing the political struggle that remains unresolved and trying to work out his own identity and loyalties.
This book was very engaging--I would even call it gripping in parts--but ultimately very frustrating because (and it sounds trite to say it) of August's love interest. He feels intense loyalty toward Alexander's Elector and fancies it to be love, but pursuing him relentlessly is a rival Elector, Lee, who also happens to have been August's designer. Lee created August to be an "ideal companion" for himself, and doesn't hesitate to use pre-programming to bring August round to his advances when he wasn't doing it on his own. I didn't like Lee and I found the whole thing distasteful. Meanwhile, a charming foreign diplomat named Evan Kolet that I did quite like (despite the fact that he was pronounced "inflexibly heterosexual" and sadly remained in that state) treats August like a human, with basic, uncomplicated respect, and never takes advantage of his sub-human status--the same of which cannot be said for anyone else in the cast. Yet even though August is supposedly starved for such affection, he hardly seems to notice. This book would have been infinitely better if Kolet had been given center stage instead of Lee, but since he wasn't--very frustrating. The best part remains the cover art.
Jim Grimsley isn't a fantasy writer--his usual fare is realistic fiction and stage plays--so it seems almost criminal that he should sweep in and write one of the best fantasy novels I've ever read. It tells the story of a boy named Jessex, from his childhood in a peasant farming family to becoming one of the most powerful magicians in the world and working to restore Kirith Kirin, the dethroned king, to his rightful place. Jessex is a marvelous narrator, wry and gentle and unexpectedly funny. Kirith Kirin is adorable too, even if everyone tends to treat him more like an errant schoolboy than an immortal king. The descriptive passages are atmospheric and gorgeous, and bring his marvelously vast and detailed world to life. But where Grimsley really shines is in the treatment of their relationship; this is one of the very, very few books that manages to keep it just as fascinating after consumnation as it was before. I cannot recommend it enough.
Steal it from the library. No seriously--that, or cross your fingers for a reprint. If you try to buy it online, you'll be paying seventy dollars for a copy that someone else stole from the library. If you would rather be hopelessly optimistic and keep an eye out for it at used bookstores, be aware that it's a trade paperback so you won't find it on the mass-market shelves. UPDATE 4/2011 -- Holy homosexuality, Batman! Rare sighting in the wild. UPDATE 8/2011 -- Now available on Kindle! I can stop telling people to steal it from the library, yay.
(Yes, it is both.)
When Jim Grimsley wrote Kirith Kirin a lot of people who were fans of his other works criticized it quite harshly, as they believed that writing fantasy was beneath him. And though in many ways I consider Kirith Kirin to be a perfection of the genre, it stays quite firmly in the realm of fantasy. The Ordinary, although I liked it less, is an astonishing work that transcends genre.
It's set in the same world as Kirith Kirin, but a millennium or so later. Kirith Kirin has long ago crossed the mountains to the afterworld although Jessex remains--a distant, almost godlike figure now known as Irion. Moreover, he has opened a portal between Aeryn, his contained, magic-ruled world, and a vast, space-age empire that looks to Aeryn as a resource to fuel its endless wars. The protagonist of the book is a woman named Jedda, a trader from the space-age society recruited as a diplomatic translator between the two civilizations. Character development though, which was the cornerstone of Kirith Kirin, gets sacrificed in favor of the setting, which is my chronic complaint with science fiction. The world-building that Grimsley does with Jedda's sci-fi society is unremarkable compared to his work with Aeryn in Kirith Kirin, but the scope of his ideas for their interaction is astounding. It's the magic-vs-technology struggle where magic is never once at the disadvantage, it's creation myth and philosophy, it's atheism in a man who has met God.
And after I finished it, I wished he hadn't used the same world as Kirith Kirin, although I realize there wasn't another option. I didn't like seeing how much Jessex had changed; I missed Kirith Kirin, and his new characters--Jedda and her lover Malin, Jessex's niece--were no replacement. Grimsley's ideas are fascinating, but I didn't like seeing them applied to the world I was so attached to. This has ended up being as hard to give a numeric rating to as Fall of the Kings, because once again, it's a phenomenal book that I didn't really like.
The Last Green Tree
Continues the saga told in Kirith Kirin and The Ordinary, now even more thousands of years into the future. Malin, now known as the Great Mage, rules the space-age empire (with Jedda as her consort) and is forcibly shifting it to socialism, but they're both no more than mentions. Jessex is still kicking around, along with a handful of copies of himself that he's made. Major characters are Phineas Figg, a member of the wealthy elite until Malin's wealth-redistribution went into effect, and his ward, a strangely damaged young boy named Keely File. To escape Malin's tax reforms and metropolitan overcrowding, Figg decides to move them to property he owns out on a distant, rural planet; he doesn't anticipate it erupting into planetwide civil war as soon as he arrives. This war is brutal and Grimsley's ever-fertile imagination takes the cake for grotesque sci-fi horrors.
I didn't like what the sequels did to the world of Kirith Kirin, even retrospectively, but as far as I was concerned the damage had been done in The Ordinary and I might as well ride it out to the end. The Last Green Tree is science fiction; there is nothing left of the sweeping fantasy that made Kirith Kirin such a pleasure. It's heavy on the world-building and the uncovering of ancient mysteries, and light on characterization. I got the feeling that I could have liked Keely if he'd had more chance to develop, but the story pulls in too many different directions and he ends up just being a function of the plot. Jessex was the only character I cared about, with glimpses of the boy he used to be shining through.
And then the ending. Christ, the ending. If I come across Jim Grimsley at a sci-fi conference I'm going to give him a good shake and ask what that the hell was supposed to mean, because from where I'm sitting it looks pointless. Which is about as much as I can say without giving away unforgivable spoilers. (And I can't even work out my frustration in a good rant with a friend, because I don't know anyone else who's read it. Definitely drop me a line if you have and want to discuss it.)
This is more along the lines of what Grimsley usually writes, gay coming-of-age stories. Like the title suggests, it has a floating, unreal sort of atmosphere to it, dreams verging into nightmares. It's the story of an adolescent boy named Nathan and his sweet, tentative romance with the boy next door, all overshadowed by the threat of violence from Nathan's abusive father. Abuse is a frequent theme is Grimsley's mainstream books but he handles it like no author I've read before--none of it gets shown or even talked about, it's all in the silence and the deadly tension that permeates the story every time his father is present. Extreme violence at the end with a strange, deus ex machina sort of intervention, but ultimately uplifting.
Another gay bildungsroman, with Grimsley's same beautiful prose but a very different feel to it. This one follows Newell, small town boy from rural Alabama newly arrived in New Orleans to embrace the decadent gay subculture there. Its lows aren't as dark as Dream Boy, but consequently its highs aren't as bright either, just a slow descent into a tawdry life where sexual gratification becomes the only priority. The narrative slides around between several other characters, to give a wider view than Newell's rose-colored one, and they're interesting but just leave you feeling even worse.
The God Eaters
I was reluctant to read this book because I saw the cover, read the description for a different book, got them confused and thought, "Cowboys and indians? Christ, what a gay cliche, I'll leave it till I'm starving." That, as you might guess from the four-star rating, was an error in judgment. The prologue suffers from some choppy storytelling and deals with one protagonist's dark past rather heavy-handedly, but it smoothes out within a chapter and the rest of the book proceeds apace.
The God Eaters is steampunk fantasy with a dystopic, frontier feel to it. In this world, a large variety of psychic talents crop up in the population and are either assimilated to work for the government, or done away with by other means. Our bold heroes are Kieran Trevarde, a smokin' hot badass who's still human enough to get the shit kicked out of him on a regular basis, and Ashleigh Trine, an Everyman in it somewhat over his head. They're both in trouble with the government for concealing their Talents (among other things; Kieran robs stagecoaches and kills people "by the batch, to save time," while Ash has been producing anti-government propaganda) and the first third of the book involves them being quite proactively in prison. And, mea culpa, I have a terrible weakness for prison lit.
I liked this much, much more than I expected to. Hajicek has a fantastic hand for banter, with both Kieran and Ash holding their own and delivering lines that are laugh-out-loud funny. Kieran is delightfully badass and though his angsty past nearly goes overboard with horrors, it's more than redeemed by the fact that he pities himself not at all, just takes the shit that life throws at him, dusts himself off and keeps going. Ash is a less hyperbolic character, a shy, clever intellectual, an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances, but who grows and adapts to his circumstances as he needs to. The prose waxes purple sometimes when talking about their epic love for each other, and waxes abstract at others when describing various magic stuff, but on the whole I very much recommend this book.
Free download at the author's website, or if you want to support the author and buy a hardcopy to cuddle, print on demand.
The premise: in the not-too-distant future, a university space-monitoring station has discovered a mysterious object hurtling toward earth, hundreds of light-years away but closing the distance fast, and received the curt message: We're coming. The viewpoint characters: professors, policemen, porn stars, reporters, mobsters, barristas, junkies, hobos, and possibly an alien. From a veritable collage of narrators, Haldeman writes an engaging, believable world abuzz with a mix of panic and optimism over the impending first contact.
This was an interesting book, neither plot-driven nor character-driven; as far as the first contact plot goes, not much happens for most of the book and yet the viewpoint changes too often for readers to get particularly attached to any of the characters. It's more about how humanity on the whole would react in this situation, and how worrying about aliens doesn't preclude you from worrying about taxes and in-laws and ordinary day-to-day life. The gay angle comes in when a mobster attempts to use it as blackmail material against a closeted professor, which sort of backfires because the professor is an ex-marine and wins at life, or at least wins at blackmail. There's very little in the way of gay people being gay, but it's got gay people kicking ass, which I enjoy about equally much. Unfortunately, after that subplot is resolved the gay professor is mostly written out of it and the book loses steam. Contact, when it happens, doesn't live up to the hype and I found the ending terribly trite and anticlimactic.
The premise: in an alternate, pseudo-Victorian England, a deal was struck several hundred years before that allowed a handful of fallen angels (re: devils) to return to earth and be given a second chance at salvation if they can live out their lives virtuously. However, human nature being what it is, there's an understandable prejudice against the descendents of these demons (called the Prodigal) and they have become a righteously despised underclass, relegated to an underground ghetto called Hells Below. Dramatis personae: Capt. William Harper, an investigator for the Inquisition, and Belimai Sykes, a Prodigal who's pretty damned fallen even by Prodigal standards. Belimai is hired to help with a kidnapping investigation, and the two of them fall into bed pretty easily, though it takes far longer for them to learn to trust each other.
Apart from a few angsty things that I felt the characters ought to GTFOver already, my only real problem with this book is that it's way too short. The two leads have enormous potential for development, the framework of their personalities is solid and intriguing, and I got the impression that the unsatisfying lack of character development was a function of the book's length, not any lack of talent on the author's part. The relationship too progresses realistically, but it progresses mostly offstage. If there were an additional fifty pages of random interaction between Belimai and Harper, I'd have no complaints.
Dreamers: A Novel of the Silent Empire
The first of a series, evidently, and though the story kept me quite interested as I was reading it, I felt no need to buy it or seek out the sequels. The premise is that there is a plane of consciousness called The Dream, which affects all sentient minds even though only a handful of psychics called the Silent can voluntarily reach it. Recently there have been ominous disturbances in the Dream that are killing Silents and subconsciously instigating non-Silents to murder and suicide, along with rumors of a terribly powerful Silent who can control the minds of others. Kendi is a Silent who has been dispatched to find this alleged Silent; Sejal is the terribly powerful Silent in question. Kendi is gay and in a boring established relationship; Sejal, though he makes his living turning tricks, seems wholly indifferent to sex of any sort. Sejal is the much more interesting of the two, but the rest of the series looks like it follows Kendi.
Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander
The other day I was reading a book by Georgette Heyer and I thought, "Man, I love Regency fiction. I only wish I could find gay Regency fiction." So when I stumbled across Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, which seemed to have drawn favorable reviews, I went in with moderately high hopes -- which were quickly dashed.
The plot: Andrew Carrington, hot and hot-for-men, decides that it's time for him to do right by his family and marry and settle down as a man of his age ought to. (So far so good; men did.) On a friend's recommendation, he proposes to the poor-but-genteel Phyllida, and surprises both of them when he finds himself more aroused by female charms than he'd thought. Also fine -- bisexuals exist, and being interested in Phyllida doesn't make Andrew any less interested in men. Rumor has it there's even another guy who comes in later to complete their menage-a-trois, BUT I never made it to that point because this book is terrible and I couldn't bring myself to keep reading it when there are so many other books in my queue.
The problems: Myriad -- the most glaring of which is that the characters are poorly-disguised versions of the protagonists from Heyer's Sylvester, the honorable-but-off-puttingly-arrogant nobleman and the aspiring authoress, but with none of the charm or humanity of the originals. (Herendeen also steals a subplot practically verbatim.) The plot events are a series of well-worn cliches, while the dialogue and prose read like bad fanfiction. The characters behave erratically, their words and actions frequently at odds with their stated intentions/characterization, and often incongruously with the norms and values of the Regency period. Give it a miss, unless romance novels are your favored genre and you don't care if they suck. (Longer and less polite critique of this book on my blog.)
The Fire's Stone
Jones, Jaida (and Danielle Bennett, I'm sorry I don't know who to list first)
This was one of her earlier novels and the pacing reflects that a little, but every time I reread it I'm impressed anew at how masterful her grasp of characters and relationships already was. It features a trio of characters, all of whom are flawed when you first meet them, who need to grow and change and then actually do. Darvish, a happily slutty, alcoholic prince; Chandra, a prissy princess and exceedingly powerful wizard (and hoo boy does she know it); and Aaron, an foreign thief in exile who is Angsty McAngst. But then they all get thrown together on a quest For Great Justice and none of them are allowed to stay that way. If I had to pick my favorite Tanya Huff book, I think this would be it.
Unless you happen to find the first edition at a used bookstore (which isn't all that unusual), you ought to look for it under the title Of Darkness, Light, and Fire, the reprint where it was packaged together with her other early book Gate of Darkness, Circle of Light.
The "Smoke and" series
(Consists of Smoke and Shadows, Smoke and Mirrors, Smoke and Ashes)
Arguably a sequel, this features a minor character from her earlier Blood series, the street kid Tony, a former hustler who has now cleaned up his act and works as a production assistant for a low-budget TV show about vampire detectives. The plots are crazy, but suspend your disbelief and run with it -- Tony is endlessly entertaining in his attempts to juggle saving the world, finding a boyfriend, and not getting fired. Huff's dialogue is as sharp and funny as ever, and there's plenty of gay to go around. (Including a threesome -- to save the world!!)
The Quarters Series
All set in the same fantasy world, with three different sets of characters. In this world, there are elemental spirits called the kigh, who can be "sung" and controlled by bards with an affinity for one or more of the four elements. Bisexuality is more or less standard with most characters being "cheerfully indiscriminate," to use Huff's own words.
Sing the Four Quarters
Annice is one of the rare bards who can sing all four elements. Her lover is a woman, but a one-night stand while she's out journeying on bard duties leaves her knocked up and subsequently obliged to help when the man gets framed for treason and sentenced to death. This was the first Tanya Huff book I read, and I liked it enough to keep reading the series but I've never felt the need to reread it. Annice is, sadly, somewhat boring compared to her later characters.
This pair of books follows a sister-brother duo, Vree and Bannon, who have been raised by the Imperial army and trained as expert assassins. An assignment gone awry leaves them with both minds stuck in Vree's body, while their intended target, a man named Gyhard, runs off in Bannon's. The incest overtones run heavy, but Huff is making a point rather than trying to titillate. The primary romantic subplot is heterosexual, but there are plenty of side characters in gay relationships and Gyhard's psycho ex-boyfriend is the main antagonist. I think these books are Huff at her finest -- fast-paced, both funny and dramatic, and packed with interesting, likable characters.
The Quartered Sea
In my opinion, the weakest of the Quarters series. Benedikt is a bard who can sing water, very powerfully, but only water which is rather unusual and serves to alienate him from most of the other bards. It doesn't help his cause that he's surly and defensive about it. He volunteers to go on a sailing mission that will take them far beyond charted waters, and ends up shipwrecked in a distant country torn by two rulers vying for the throne. Both immediately see the potential uses for him, but their keen interest in him puts him in a lot of danger. Benedikt's eventual love interest is male, but it is so absent from the plot as to be non-existant. It's Tanya Huff and she's always fun, but Benedikt is a prickly character and doesn't generate much audience sympathy.
"So there are these giant metal dragons," my friend began, right before I started snickering because I thought she couldn't be serious. Which I wouldn't mention except that the dedication of the book also says, "To ___, for not laughing when I said 'metal dragons.'" These ladies have a sense of humor about their premise (and about everything else, really) and this book is gem.
There are four viewpoint characters in Havemercy who are involved in two mostly-independent storylines: an upper-class magician named Roystan (1) who sort of maybe had really diplomatically incorrect sex and gets exiled to the countryside to ponder his actions for the rest of forever, where he meets Hal (2) a rural tutor who's not as dumb as he looks and would really rather be reading in a tree than talking to people. Meanwhile, one of the metal dragon pilots named Rook (3) who is sort of the Alpha Asshole of a squadron of assholes has made a diplomatic blunder of his own, but since he's not as easily exiled as (1), the whole insular, testosterone-laden cadre of them gets slapped with "sensitivity training" in the form of a young university professor named Thom (4), who has been given a great opportunity that he's going to appreciate in the distant future, but sure as hell doesn't right now. The stories wind their separate ways, until a crisis among the mages brings their paths together.
I think the characters are the strongest part of this book -- absolutely lovely, well-drawn and well-reasoned in their actions, both entertaining and sympathetic. The world-building for the city is a little weak, but makes up for it in other areas such as the dragon corps and their system of magic.
So ever since Havemercy when a character was mentioned as being "an extremely useful little inbred lunatic" I was like, HIM. HE WILL BE MY FAVORITE CHARACTER. And here he is, enter Caius Greylace as one of the protagonists in Shadow Magic. That said, he's even more fantastic than I expected him to be and I loved this book SO MUCH.
The structure of this book is the same as the last: four viewpoint characters, two interconnecting stories. On the heels of Volstov's military victory against the Kehan comes the inevitable diplomatic wrangling where they try to make it stick. For reasons that are not immediately apparent, two of the participants are tiny crazy person Caius Greylace (1) -- who's insane but not stupid, and astutely wondering why anybody would choose his notoriously crazy self for this mission -- and grumpy bastard Alcibiades (2), who made a cameo in Havemercy as the guy who told Royston and Hal to get a room. Caius, whose crazy power is being always happy, decides immediately that he and Alcibiades are going to become bestest friends, much to Alcibiades' everlasting chagrin.
The other section caused me some distress, because in this book it becomes apparent that Kehan = Japan. That bothered me much less after I stopped trying to process it as a fantasy world that was strongly eastern-flavored and just said, Okay, Kehan = feudal Japan. Ms. Jones did her thesis in Asian Studies, she knows what she's talking about, and I don't mind her portrayal of Japanese culture, but that's what it is. Mamoru (3) is a Kehan prince, younger brother of the new emperor, terribly sweet and without a political bone in his body. It's up to his loyal bodyguard Kouje (4) -- who apparently read the memo that "yojimbo" is Japanese for "rent-a-seme" -- to see to it that Mamoru survives. I prefer the sections with Caius and Alcibiades, just because Caius is a wholly unique character and endlessly entertaining, but this whole book is great fun and one of my new all-time favorites.
Funny, that this should be one of my top picks when I didn't even really like it until I was quite a ways in, at which point I was rather charmed by it, and by the time I finished I was in love with it. Subtitled "A Melodrama of Manners", Swordspoint has a very different atmosphere than most fantasy. It's set in a pseudo-18th century instead of pseudo-medieval period, in a city where nobles can hire swordsmen to settle their quarrels in proxy. (But god forbid that formalities should fail to be observed!) The protagonists are Alec, a snarky, aggressively insulting university student and his lover, Richard St Vier, the most brilliant swordsman in recent history. Alec may be a certifiably crazy, or he may just be antisocial, but either way he's incredibly entertaining. St Vier makes a nice foil to him, more subdued but charming in his own right, and their contretemps are a pleasure to read. Kushner's dialogue is brilliant, clever and dryly hilarious.
The Fall of the Kings
(With Delia Sherman)
I don't quite know what to make of this book. It's set in the same city as Swordspoint, but it's not exactly a sequel; all of the characters from the original are dead, either legends or ghosts. The new protagonists are Basil St Cloud, a professor of history at the university, and Theron Campion, a young nobleman who becomes his lover. Basil gets involved in an academic duel, so to speak, with another professor, and his research takes him deep into the mysteries of a magic that has been all but forgotten. And that's the plot, but that really doesn't cover it; the plot just serves to keep the characters moving around, what keeps the story going is the prose. It seems to carry you, almost dreamlike, through the book as it keeps getting stranger and stranger, and when it throws cold water on your face with the ending, you're left shaking your head for days afterward. Or I was, anyway. Like I said, I don't know what to think of it--it's powerfully written and shook me up something good, but it didn't leave me feeling as though I'd liked it much.
The Privilege of the Sword
Finally, the sequel to Swordspoint that we were all hoping for, set only a decade or so later. Alec has come into his inheritance, although he's no less crazy than before, and the protagonist is his niece Katharine whom he's trying to make into a swordswoman for the novelty of it. Katharine is thoroughly lovable, and refreshingly different from most swashbuckling fantasy heroines. She has a very different outlook on life than any of the previous characters, shaping the book with her energetic, youthful optimism. Yet the tone is sadder than Swordspoint, because those were days when Alec and Richard were at their peak, and they miss it with a longing that's palpable. The ending, though, is absolutely inspired--of the three, I'd recommend saving this book for last so that you're left with this happy ending instead of the mindjob that is Fall of the Kings.
Last Herald-Mage series
LeGuin, Ursula K.
(Consists of Magic's Pawn, Magic's Promise, Magic's Price)
This is probably the most well-known gay fantasy in existence, but it is far from being the best. Vanyel, eldest son of a minor provincial lord, would rather wear pretty clothes and become a bard than swordfight or inherit the estate; when he gets sent to the big city he finds out that there are other boys like him and oh yeah eventually he becomes a crazy-powerful herald mage. Plot issues notwithstanding, homosexuality is treated in an unrealistic, cliche-ridden manner -- essentially, this is a book for the yaoi crowd. Relationships go from nonexistant to married-couple-level stability overnight, Vanyel spends most of his life being lonely instead of being gay, and the ending is crap.
Yes, it ends tragically--I just spoiled it for you. And that is something that raises my hackles, because a whole lot of gay media ends in tragedy and I think it sends a very negative message. (Also, I didn't spoil it much since he sees his own death as early as book one.) But on the flip side, the books are quite fun when they're not trying to be angsty or preachy, which is unfortunately somewhat a lot; I bought them (used) and have reread them a couple times.
The Left Hand of Darkness
Classic, groundbreaking sci-fi generally doesn't agree with me -- perhaps because by the time I usually come along, the general concept has passed into common use and subsequent authors have better explored the character-oriented minutiae -- but this concept hasn't been done better, and this classic really, really worked for me. It is a fantastically realized world with equally well-drawn characters, and I recommend it without reservation. (Note: I came to this after attempting to read the Earthsea Quartet, in which the Epic writing style almost put me off LeGuin forever. If you had a similar experience, or even if you didn't, it's worth noting that this book is very different.)
Genly Ai is an ambassador for the intergalactic council interested in bringing the remote planet of Winter (so they've dubbed it, on account of it being really fucking cold) into the fold. Local politics, meanwhile, aren't sure what to make of this guy who claims to have come from space, and all the kings on Winter are sort of inbred and paranoid anyway. He winds up falling in with a character named Estraven, who is canny and awesome and in political disgrace for different reasons, and whom Genly doesn't trust at all but I wish he would. (More on him at the end) Fair warning, this book makes the gaylist for being gender-bending, but as much as I was rooting for a relationship between Genly and Estraven, they never make it beyond friendship. Not surprising, considering the time (1969) and target audience (sci-fi dudes not receptive to The Gay) when this was written.
If you've heard about Left Hand of Darkness from other sources, it's probably because they've said that the humans who live on Winter are hermaphroditic -- which is true, and very interesting, but not nearly the sum total of the book. Here, LeGuin does world-building exactly the way I like to read it: she takes a premise (hermaphroditic humans that assume a sex only when they're in heat) and says, Okay, so what? How does that affect their view on sexuality? There is no male or female gender to treated as second-class, and intercourse is by definition between equals. And while changes to sexual mores are a given, what about family structures? Succession? Religion? What about people like Genly who are locked to only one gender? (What perverts!) We get it from two very different viewpoints: Genly, who gives us an outsider's, almost a tourist's look at the society, and Estraven, who lives it from the inside.
(An aside about Estraven: He is my new gold standard. I am so goddamned sick of male characters, regardless of their sexual orientation, who are willing to act like goddamn dumbasses when someone hot of their target gender bats their eyelashes. Seriously, how smart does a character need to be to say, "Yes, you're quite hot, but I can tell when people are blatantly trying to manipulate me, so how about, uhm -- HELL NO?" Estraven can tell someone hot-and-manipulative to fuck off while he is in heat. SIR, I SALUTE YOU!)
This is an absolutely superb book; it's almost impossible to believe that it's her first. Warchild tells the story of Jos, initially kidnapped as a child from his parents' freight ship and kept by a creepy, charismatic space pirate with ambiguous intentions for him. He nearly dies attempting to escape and is picked up again, this time by aliens that his own race is at war with. Jos is forced to reconsider things he took for granted, and choose sides in a war that he never expected to fight in.
I devoured this whole book in one sitting; Lowachee made me care about Jos the way no author had done for quite a while. Her world is vast and fascinating while still intensely character-driven. Jos is an incredible character, his actions and emotions completely congruent with the traumatic experiences of his past. As far as gay relationships go it never gets beyond heavy subtext, but it's Jos's issues getting in the way, not the writer, and you'll ache for him. Run, don't walk, to buy this book.
Burndive picks up where Warchild left off--but with an entirely new protagonist. Our new narrator is Ryan Azarcon, the bratty rich-kid son of Captain Azarcon from the previous book, who gets hauled kicking and screaming into the war that Jos and his father have been fighting. Jos does show up later and becomes a distant sort of friend to Ryan, but he remains as asocial and incommunicative as ever, and without his POV we really don't know what's gone on with him and Niko in the mean time. Burndive is as well-written as the first, but despite the leaps and bounds his character progresses, Ryan is simply less interesting than Jos.
Wow--this book makes me wish I hadn't given Warchild the highest possible rating, just so I could give Cagebird one more. The newest protagonist in Lowachee's space opera is Yuri Kirov, the pirate who kidnapped Ryan at the end of Burndive, and a protege of the same space pirate who took on Jos... only Yuri never ran away. I would say that this book is darker even than Warchild, because Yuri has no Niko to save him--everything he does, for himself and the ones he loves, he has to do alone, and it seems like the only choices he ever gets are between bad and worse. Both sex and violence are ramped up in this book, and fairly well run the gamut of squicks. The only frustrating thing is the knowledge that the next book will pick up with a different protagonist, and we won't get to see how Yuri's life, which is finally looking up at the end, will pan out.
Matthews, Susan R.
Not so much "gay fiction" as literature by a gay author, who of course couldn't keep himself from making the protagonist bisexual. It's neither sci-fi nor fantasy, but has the loose relationship with reality that is characteristic of Japanese literature. Dream Messenger follows the story of Matthew (aka Masao) from his youth as a "rental child" in New York (which is not what it sounds like, but rather children who can be borrowed part-time by couples who want to play like the children are their own) to his floating, freelancing life in Tokyo where he continues the tradition by being a rental friend, among other things. Reception to Dream Messenger when it came out in the U.S. was mixed, with a lot of people complaining about his empty, materialistic life and the lack of a message--I think they missed the point entirely, but even I'll admit that Japanese literature is an acquired taste.
Prisoner of Conscience
(Other books in the series are The Devil and Deep Space, An Exchange of Hostages, and Hour of Judgment but they are and damned if they ever will be.)
If I had stopped reading this book when I first wanted to, it would have gotten a star and a half, or maybe two. At 57% of the way through, it was down to zero and I couldn't continue. If I kept going it would probably end up negative. It's not even really gay, and the only reason it's on my damn list is to keep some other poor schmuck from seeing it on the Lambda Sci-Fi Recommended Booklist (what were you thinking, lambda people??) and wasting their time and/or money on it.
The plot: Andrej Koscuisko is a physician and dyed-in-the-wool sadist, which makes him well-suited for his job as an official Inquistor, re: torturer. If I were a movie critic, I would make some snarky one-liner about how this book was torture. He gets transferred to a prison, the man that it's implied he was sleeping with gets killed in a terrorist attack, and he tortures a bunch of people. According to other reviews he has some crisis of conscience later, but I didn't read that far. I know that makes this review suspect, and I apologize, but I couldn't take it anymore.
The problems: Let's start with her distractingly horrid prose. It's not even amateur, it's something else entirely--a third person omniscient narrator that slides between different points of view for only a few lines at a time, has an inconsistent, inexplicable, painful use of 'thee' and 'thou,' and is riddled with asides that are dumb, irrelevant, and often contradictory. Also she has a tendency to. Break up. Her sentences. In really stupid ways. I wish I were joking. Not to mention the absolutely moronic way that she anthropomorphizes Andrej's penis and refers to it as his "fish." And that's just the style problems--now picture plot and characterization handled with the same finesse.
(Incidentally, see Mind Fuck, by Manna Francis, for a torturer-protagonist done right.)
The Object of My Affection
McHugh, Maureen F.
The plot, in one line: A gay man named George and his roommate/BFF, a straight woman named Nina, are forced to reconsider their lives and their relationships when she gets pregnant and wants him to be a surrogate father. The problem, in two words: They're boring.
Or perhaps not boring, but certainly not very likable. As a narrator, George is judgmental, waffling, and only about 85% as witty as the author thinks he is. Although he and Nina are supposed to be very close and care about each other immensely, they spend most of the book sniping at one another while George feels bad for feeling exasperated with her. Their relationship suffers from the same problem that a lot of other media sporting the fag-plus-hag dynamic does -- that you don't get a good sense of why these two people are friends, apart from the assumption that of course any straight woman and any gay man will automatically become BFFs. (On the flip side, I point to Julie Andrews and Robert Preston in Victor Victoria for a gay-male/straight-female friendship done beautifully.)
In terms of romantic entanglements, nobody has chemistry with anybody, least of all George and the sort-of boyfriend he picks up along the way. Pro-tip: when you're worried that your boyfriend is more into you than you're into him, that's a sign to cut him loose. Yes, I know, it's called settling, and a lot of people end up doing that in the real world, but it doesn't make for interesting fiction and as a reader I could not be less invested in their relationship. When I'm reading a book I want to know why these two people dig each other. I don't give a damn about a protagonist who's fixated on finding a man, any man, and putting a ring on the first one with generic good-boyfriend qualities to wander by.
Come on, people, play for higher stakes -- that's what makes fiction interesting.
China Mountain Zhang
Sci-fi of the most un-science-fiction-esque sort -- there are no aliens or flying cars here, just a future that's a little bit ahead of ours and populated by people real enough to have come from anywhere. The main character is a gay man named Zhang, and the book follows him as he travels from a socialist US that seems to have taken its cues from communist China, to a lonely stint on the arctic circle, to vibrant, impersonal, totalitarian Shanghai, and back again. There are narrative detours along the way to explore other people whose lives intersect briefly with Zhang's.
I wanted to like this book more than I did. It touched on a lot of themes that resonate strongly with me -- wandering through life without knowing what you want from it; searching for friends and lovers but not really clicking with anybody; the lonely, liminal state of being an expatriate. It's extremely realistic, which is usually a good thing, but in this case I think it went too far and the resulting novel is rather dreary, lacking the flair of fiction. Zhang is not a particularly compelling character, but he's more interesting than the other narrators whose POV we occasionally delve into, and those sections weaken the story overall. A bland review for a fairly bland book.
An Arrow's Flight
One word summary of this book: Wow. It is... utterly unlike anything I've ever read before, bizarre and outrageously funny and I mostly loved it. It's the Iliad set to the seventies gay subculture, with all the camp and enthusiastic promiscuity that goes along with that. The main character is Pyrrhus, the extremely gay son of Achilles, who it has been prophecied must join the war before the Greeks can win--a task that Pyrrhus himself doesn't find very appealing. In many respects the book is very dated--as homosexuality becomes more mainstream, that aggressively free-love subculture is quickly becoming an anachronism; as AIDS becomes more manageable, the impact of AIDS allegories lessens. Still, Merlis has a marvelous knack for writing true-to-form humans, and you can empathize with each and every one of his characters, alternately rooting for and resenting the same people as the POV shifts.
Morgan, Richard K.
It always hurts to recommend a book and have to amend it with "it takes a while to get rolling, but..." ...but you have to read this. Melusine has two main characters and splits the POV between them: Felix, a high-handed wizard aristocrat, and Mildmay, a scarred, snarky, aggressively pragmatic cat burglar from the lower end of the city. Very early on in the book (unfortunately, before we get a good handle on Felix's character), Felix is framed for the destruction of a very powerful, very important artifact and cursed with an insanity that prevents him from proving his innocence. His insanity, initially, is not very interesting and it's Mildmay's sections that keep the book afloat, as we gnaw on our nails waiting for fate to finally throw them together--which doesn't happen until over halfway through the book.
That's the problem with this book, that it drags until they meet, but HOT DAMN when they do. Don't get your hopes up for a romance between Felix and Mildmay (not now, not ever, and for a number of reasons), but Monette's hand for sharp, witty dialogue is brilliant and her character interactions are unparalleled. There is not a dull moment for the rest of the book, or for the rest of the sequel.
If Melusine's only flaw was the downtime before Felix and Mildmay met, then The Virtu is flawless. Finally cured of his insanity, Felix sets out with Mildmay to return home and attempt to fix the Virtu before their country is overrun. The sexual tension, which was largely absent in the last book due to Felix being busy with the crazy, runs hot and heavy all the way through. We finally get to learn what Felix is really like and find out that he is as fascinating a character as Mildmay, with even deeper flaws. Plot-wise, it doesn't end in a cliffhanger, but the lack of resolution in their relationship will leave you desperately waiting for the next installment in the series.
Edit: I think it bears discussing that several people who have read these books have wound up loving Mildmay but hating Felix with astonishing intensity--we're talking about hating him so much that these slashfans are rooting for Mildmay to end up with a woman instead. Now I'll freely acknowledge that Felix fucks up--he fucks up a lot, and very big sometimes. He does some rather horrible things, but not out of malice and moreover (this is where they would disagree with me) he's not a horrible person. He reminds me a lot of Cal from the Wraeththu books; vicious to his enemies, careless with his loved ones, and always sorry when it's too damned late. Mildmay is an immensely likeable character, so when Felix hurts him it provokes a response for the reader to take his side against Felix, but Felix is not a simple "bad guy" and writing him off as such does Monette's books a huge disservice. That's my firm belief, but said Felix-haters have heard me out and been unmoved, so it really is subjective. And as someone else pointed out, in real life I am much more frequently the giver of abuse than the receiver, which could explain why I empathize more with Felix than Mildmay.
I have become a Felix-apologist. I suppose there are worse things to be.
I didn't get a chance to read The Mirador until many months after it had come out, but critical reaction to it had been a deafening silence, which was in itself telling. I knew that it had added Mehitabel, a woman introduced in the last book, as a viewpoint character, which I wasn't particularly looking forward to because I'd found her thoroughly unmemorable. Though as irony would have it, she turned out to be far more interesting than I'd expected, and the rest of the book far less.
Following their adventures in the last book, Felix and Mildmay are getting (re)accustomed to life in the Mirador, where Felix is somewhat of a social pariah and Mildmay is totally a social pariah. Mehitabel's story runs mostly independent of theirs, as she juggles being a stage actress with being blackmailed into spying on the Mirador's major players for the Bastion, Melusine's ancient rival. The budding romance between Mehitabel and Mildmay, which had been hinted at toward the end of The Virtu, gets put out of its misery right away, which is a relief because that leaves Mehitabel free to be her own character instead of a love interest.
And then... nothing happens. Seriously. Nuthin. Felix is bitchy, Mildmay is passive-aggressive, and they spend the entire book getting in petty fights with each other and with all the supporting characters. They both make some desultory investigations into separate matters -- Felix checking around to make sure that Malkar is going to stay dead, Mildmay investigating who killed his lady-love in Melusine -- but on the whole, this book might as well have not happened. It is four hundred pages of them wandering around accomplishing very little, followed by twenty pages of frenetic action as if the author realized that it couldn't be a book unless it had some kind of climax. Granted, Monette's writing style is very good and she makes it fairly interesting to watch her characters do nothing, but that doesn't change the fact that this book is absolutely stagnant in terms of character and plot development.
After the disappointment that was The Mirador, I went into the last book of the series with rock-bottom expectations. That actually worked out well for me, because I got to be pleasantly surprised and ended up enjoying it immensely -- despite its undeniable flaws.
So the Mirador has decided to wash their hands of Felix and kick him on down the line to seek judgement/punishment in Corambis, which means that Felix and Mildmay are on the road again. They're sharing the narrative this time with a man named Kay, the sole survivor of an unsuccessful coup in Corambis, now blind, bereaved, and disgraced. They get to the city and stuff happens.
Characters - Brilliant, all of them. Felix and Mildmay are finally, finally starting to get their relationship on this side of functional, and growing into people who can survive on their own. The side characters are engaging, well-drawn individuals with lives independent of the protagonists -- the friends that Felix and Mildmay make, Kay's fiancee (who could easily have turned into a stereotype) and his brother-in-law (who had RAGING chemistry with Felix, Jesus Christ, I wish they'd ended up together).
World-building - The Titan clocks are cool and appropriately menacing. Monette's system of magic is well-defined and credible, and the cultural context for magic -- history, schisms, religious influences, differing disciplines -- is beautifully rich and developed. I cannot stress enough how believable and real her world feels.
Prose & Dialogue - Goes without saying by this point, I think. By turns funny, poignant, and horrifying, this woman knows how to write.
The earlier books showed signs of this too -- an overall lack of focus that led to a lot of cool ideas mentioned but never followed up on, characters introduced and then ignored, plot threads dropped and never picked up again. This wasn't a deal-killer, because the series is primarily character-driven and characters are Monette's forte, so most readers were willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and wait to see if Corambis was going to do something really, really clever and tie it all together. Spoiler -- it doesn't. If you reconcile yourself to that before setting out, you'll be able to enjoy this book; if you don't, you will be frustrated and angry with it. Even disregarding dropped threads from the previous books (Malkar, Mehitabel, Keeper, the Bastion, the Khloidanikos, etc), plenty of major-seeming plot events in Corambis wind up being unused and unnecessary. Including Kay, whom I liked a lot and whose subplot was very interesting, but ultimately not relevant enough to Mildmay and Felix's to justify his inclusion as a viewpoint character.
All in all, I loved this series. Loved it passionately. If I had such things as Top-10 lists, this would make it. Which is why it breaks my heart that I can't tell people, It's perfect, when I rec it to them.
A Companion to Wolves
(Written in collaboration with Elizabeth Bear)
In a Norse-Germanic flavored fantasy world of the far north, young men are chosen from among the villages to join the Wolfheall, an elite brotherhood of warriors psychically bonded to wolves in order to fight against the cannibalistic trolls that descend from the mountains to prey on the villagers. The main character is Njall (Isolfr after he bonds), the son of a chieftain who gets tapped to join the brotherhood.
As I was reading this, I couldn't tell if this book was a realistic, unflinching portrayal of a society with sexual practices shaped by wolves and thereby quite different from our own, or whether the world-building was just a vehicle for the gay porn, of which there is rather a lot. (Naked male torso on the cover, we know what that means.) To be sure, this is very different than most books you'll find in the Telepathically Bonded Companion subgenre -- these are no shiny white horses with sparkling blue eyes, or hawks or dragons that speak in complete sentences and exert only minimal effect on their handler despite the ostensibly reciprocal bonding. In Companion to Wolves, the wolves have as much influence as their human companions, if not more.
That said, I think exploring the sexual aspects of the world-building overwhelmed the first half of the book. I found myself reading for the porny bits, because initially there's not much plot stuff going on, the other world-building is less interesting, and Isolfr is a reactive and not very strongly-sketched protagonist. There's plot in the second half, but the conflict is very black-and-white and there are no character-centered subplots to help drive it.
The Tempering of Men
(Written in collaboration with Elizabeth Bear)
Okay, so one of the things that made me less than enthusiastic about Companion to Wolves is that the main character, Isolfr, is the straightest straight man ever to engage in gratuitous amounts of hardcore gay sex. It's the wolf-bond, played much the same as McCaffrey did with dragons -- when Isolfr's lady-wolf is in heat, he doesn't have much of a choice who he ends up in bed with. But apart from that: nada. There are several guys around who really, really wish he weren't straight, but 99% of the time he's politely fending them off. It doesn't matter that these guys who are into him are fully hot and have many admirable qualities -- he's just not into dudes, and never will be.
And that's life sometimes. But I get enough of that in reality; in fiction, that's not the story I want to read.
In any case, plot: with the trolls gone and vanquished, the wolf-bonded warriors find themselves at a distinct loss for what to do, and are trying both to rebuild themselves and find a purpose as to what they're rebuilding for. The Tempering of Men uses Skjaldwulf and Vethulf (Isolfr's two co-pack leaders, in case you forgot, as I did) for viewpoint characters, both of whom are into dudes, even in a society that doesn't conceptualize homosexuality the same way that ours does.
I think I preferred Tempering of Men to Companion to Wolves; the conflict is more nuanced, men vs. men rather than men vs. cannibalistic monsters, and I don't have to deal with a gay book narrated by a straight guy. Still, neither one is as interesting as the books that Monette and Bear have written independently.
The Bone Key
This book is different from Monette's other published works, in that it is horror and a short story collection, both of which kept me from looking for it too hard. Turns out both are true, but it's horror in the Gothic, atmospheric tradition of Poe and Lovecraft rather than wallowing in gore for the sake of shock value (Hail, Ms. Brite), and all ten stories revolve around the same character, making it more episodic than anthological.
Our protagonist is Kyle Murchison Booth, a museum archivist in the vein of Poe's neurotic heroes, intelligent but nervy and horrifically uncomfortable with people, and implied to be latently homosexual. In the first story he's talked into attempting to resurrect his friend's dead wife, and after that brush with the other side he can't get the other side to leave him alone. As always, Monette's writing is great, and her deft hand for characterization saves Booth from becoming the pathetic, painful-to-read oaf that such socially awkward characters usually get treated as. (Hail, Philip K. Dick.) Booth is sympathetic, engaging, and self-aware, never as inept on the outside as he feels on the inside, as if he hasn't quite caught up with the fact that adults don't bully each other the way kids do. Highly recommended.
The Steel Remains
One of the many grim-n-gritty fantasies spawned by George RR Martin's successors, The Steel Remains has the distinction of being the only one with a gay protagonist. Two, in fact -- an embittered veteran named Ringil who has now been tasked to track down his cousin, who was sold into slavery, and Archeth, a gay lady and the last remaining member of some ancient race. Also sharing the narrative is their token straight friend, a
Mongol nomadic steppe warrior named Egar.
The problem: I could not give a fuck.
Morgan's prose is excellent; the story starts off strong and initially I quite liked Ringil. The way he constructs his sexuality vis-a-vis his society is different from the way most queer fantasies play it, very interesting and very plausible. But then... it goes nowhere. Our protagonists spend almost the entire book engaged in three unrelated plotlines that not one of them gives any shits about. Ringil is sort of looking for his cousin, but he doesn't care. Archeth is sort of investigating a thing, but she doesn't care. Egar is getting laid, and you'd think he'd be able to work up some enthusiasm for that, but no. Not a one of them has any emotional connection to the other characters they're associating with, so every interaction is dreary and tedious. (Presumably they like each other, since the three are stated to be old war buddies, but considering that they're never even in the same room until 50 pages from the end...) Frankly, if they don't give a flying fuck about what they're doing, then how am I supposed to?
The Steel Remains has also drawn criticism for being all rape, all the time, as is currently in vogue for grim-n-gritty fantasy. That's not the deal-killer for me that it is for others, but Morgan certainly didn't bring anything new to the table with it. More in-depth analysis of the book's structural flaws at my blog.
Set in a brutal, heavily ritualized fantasy society with a distinctly Aztec feel, our protagonist is a young man named Carnelian, heir to the empire's class of ruling elite. Living with his exiled father, Carnelian has spent most of his life on a lonely island far removed from the decadence and intrigue of the capital. When the emperor dies and his father is summoned back to society, Carnelian suddenly finds himself trapped in dangerous political games that threaten both him and those he loves... which could have made for a good ride if it weren't so freaking dull.
My initial complaint had been with this book was the pointless, over-the-top violence -- not because it made me squeamish but because it made me go, Bitch, please. Jim Grimsley's The Last Green Tree remains the only book that's been able to faze me with sci-fi grotesqueries, and while I certainly wouldn't want to live in George R.R. Martin's brutal fantasyland, it's imminently believable. The Chosen is not -- the ruling elite is so excessively, indiscriminately hazardous to the health of everyone within a ten mile radius that, had this been real, their society would have quickly destabilized in its own violence and collapsed in bloody revolution. Laws are only worth obeying as long as they provide some degree of degree of protection -- when you can be minding your own business and still get slaughtered for no reason by passing aristocrats, that's not going to fly. The book was alternately boring and off-putting, and even the gay part, about 2/3 of the way through, couldn't salvage it. I'd been endeavoring to finish it for the sake of the booklist, but then it occurred to me with sudden clarity, Life is too short to waste on books that suck! I put it down and never looked back.
Since then I've discussed the book with someone well versed in pre-modern anthropology who liked The Chosen and has assured me that Pinto (an anthropologist himself) knows what he's talking about; Aztec culture really was that pointlessly brutal. "Oh," I said. "Hmm. Well it's still really boring." "Yes," she replied, "and if you've read that far, then there's nothing at the end that's going to change your mind." So my review stands.
Cry to Heaven
Robinson, Frank M.
It's been a long time since I read this, but I remember liking it overall despite a few objections. It tells the grand and sweeping story of castrati singers in Renaissance Italy--Guido, a eunuch who loses his voice in spite of the castration and feels his life over, and Tonio, a young nobleman who is enchanted by the music of the castrati but by virtue of his station unable (and obviously unwilling) to become one. The prose is vintage Anne Rice, before she got bigger than God and fired all her editors. The romance is between Guido and Tonio, but also between Tonio and a girl, who is as saccharine and boring as most of Anne Rice's female characters. The ending was unsatisfactory, but on the whole, very much worth reading.
The Dark Beyond the Stars
If you like sci-fi, this is brilliant sci-fi. If you're reading it for the gay, you're going to be sadly disappointed. Like countless other fictional societies in which "bisexuality is the norm", it's just a sideline activity until the protagonist manages to score with the heterosexual love interest. Typical.
But all bitching aside, this is a very cool book, dark and captivating and creepy as hell. It kicks off with our protagonist, Sparrow, losing all his previous memories and waking up to find himself on an ancient, dying ship that has been searching unsuccessfully for alien life for the past two thousand years. We're plunged into a mystery as Sparrow tries to figure who he was before, why he seems to be different from everyone else onboard, and why everyone's lying to him. I was, predictably, smitten with the villain, hateful and antisocial sex predator that he is. Unfortunately he turned out to be something of a disappointment, because his resolution never matched up to the hype he got, although plot-wise the book did a good job keeping me hooked even after the initial mystery was revealed.
Point of Hopes
Point of Hopes is set in a city in which horoscopes and astrology are both accurate and of major importance. The main characters are a policeman named Nicolas Rathe, the only cop in the city who doesn't take bribes and a bit of a curiousity for it, and a soldier named Philip Eslingen who's working as a bouncer in the off-season. Rathe is working to solve a case involving missing children, and Philip is sort of helping.
This is essentially a detective story, only it's the way detective work probably goes more in real life than in fiction: lots of legwork, lots of talking with people, lots of leads that go nowhere. As a result it's a rather slow read, though it never dragged so badly that I wanted to quit. Rathe and Eslingen are pleasant enough characters, but neither of them has much of a sense of humor. Any chemistry or sexual tension, at least in this book, run so subtly as to be nearly invisible. The book also has a bad habit of reiterating events that we've already seen as other characters get informed of what happened in their absence. All in all though, I'd recommend it.
Point of Dreams
So Nico and Philip were friendly acquaintances at the end of the last book, and in this one we are dropped into the story some six months later after they are already together, without so much as a flashback to indicate how it happened. To which I say, "Oh, you did NOT!" But they did, and worse--not only do the authors never show Nico and Philip carrying on like the lovers they're supposed to be, we don't even get to see so much as an intimate conversation. They're friendly but never affectionate; if I hadn't been told point-blank that they're sleeping together I wouldn't have believed it, because they have all the chemistry of Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman. Burn.
So the story kicks off with Philip losing his job, because he's with Nico now, and working for a crime lord while sleeping with a cop generates the sort of conflict of interest his employer would like to avoid. He gets a job at a theatre, teaching extras how to fence, and when inexplicably dead bodies start turning up onstage Nico finds himself hanging around a lot too. The mystery in this book is more interesting than the one in Point of Hopes and dialogue handled with less of the redundancy that I complained about before. Sadly, I remain distracted by how unbelievably stingy the authors were with Philip and Nico's relationship. Lesbian extras get more explicit lovin' than our bold heroes. Nico has a hot and heavy kissing scene with his ex-boyfriend but never exchanges so much as a smoldering glance with Philip. What's going on here, people? Seriously.
The Merro Tree
The plot in one line: Mikk is an artist who has mastered many different forms of live performance, but when he performs something forbidden he finds himself on trial for his life.
It's set in our own galaxy, with lots of different alien species that all seem to have sex with each other willy-nilly; Mikk is vaguely humanoid and his soulmate is a giant snake. A male giant snake, granted, which is where the gay comes in, but that pales beside the fact that his boyfriend is a giant fucking snake.
This book would have worked better in first person. Mikk is--no two ways around it--a hypersensitive weirdo, and without his perspective we're left shaking our heads at his bizarre responses the way all the other characters are. Crazy people can make marvelous protagonists, but you have to see it from their point of view as well so you realize they're not as random as they sound. (See Monette for Melusine) Without it, I can't empathize with Mikk or care much for his plight, and since the plot is all about his fate I'm not working up much enthusiasm for that either. Also, as other reviewers have pointed out, Mikk's trial reads like a Socratic discourse on censorship, and not a particularly inventive one at that.
Tipping the Velvet
Sarah Waters is probably the best-known writer of lesbian fiction at work today, writing Victorian historical fiction of such quality that it pushes her out of the niche of "gay writer" into the mainstream. Tipping the Velvet was the first of her books that I read, and it remains my favorite. The protagonist is Nancy -- quickly re-christened "Nan" -- a humble oyster girl whose life is changed forever when she meets Kitty, a vaudeville performer with a male-impersonation act. Powerfully drawn to the other girl, without quite knowing why, Nan ends up becoming a drag king herself and joining Kitty onstage in London. Everything's coming up roses... until suddenly it's not, and Nan is homeless, jobless, and loveless.
Waters is a fantastic writer of period fiction, expertly evoking the attitudes and atmosphere of the time. Nan is a thoroughly lovable protagonist -- down to earth, affectionate, resourceful, far more resilient than she realizes -- and we are right there with her as she struggles to survive in London's gay underbelly. (And if you like it, BBC also made a fantastic three-part miniseries of it.)
My only criticism -- which could double as a topic for a book-club discussion -- is that I thought Kitty was more interesting than Nan's later love interest, highlighting the fact that Nan's romances follow a formula I've seen in other gay fiction: the protagonist's first foray into gay relationships ends because their lover is too closeted; the protagonist is broken-hearted but eventually recovers and finds someone who appreciates them more. (Off the top of my head, Maurice and the movie Mambo Italiano do this too.) The only problem is that the first love interest gets lavished with character development, because the author has to show us what it was about this person that convinced the protagonist to bat for the home team. By the time the second one rolls around, the ice has been broken, and all you need is someone with the right plumbing and a few signifiers to indicate that this is a Good Person. (She campaigns for women's suffrage! He works at a suicide hotline for gay youth!) Cases like these, I'm inevitably rooting for the protagonist to get back with their ex.
Margaret Prior is a young woman growing up in affluence in Victorian England. In an attempt to rouse herself from her depression following the death of her father, she decides to take up visiting the female inmates at Millbanks prison, the sort of genteel community service deemed appropriate for a girl of her age and station. There she meets Selena Dawes -- beautiful, mysterious, ethereal -- who was a famed spirit medium until a seance-gone-wrong ended with a client dead and Selena in prison for his murder. As Margaret gets drawn deeper and deeper into Selena's orbit, strange things that seem like they could only be the work of spirits start happening.
The work Waters does with Margaret's characterization is masterful, how she manages a gradual reveal of the true depth of Margaret's repressed problems even though she's the viewpoint character. Her prose does a perfect job conjuring up the deadening, soul-destroying oppression of a Victorian prison, an institution committed to stripping all beauty, individuality, and dignity from its occupants, which makes the spark of connection between Margaret and Selena all the more breathtaking for its fragile, embattled humanity. The premise is excellent -- the problem is the ending, and it's difficult-nigh-impossible to explain why without giving away massive plot twists. So if you want a pristine reading experience, just be told: I don't know anyone who liked how it ended. For general spoilers, read on.
For all that Margaret was well-drawn and I felt for her very deeply, she is a very passive character, and moreover, she never changes. I'd been hoping for a story where her relationship with Selena helped her gain strength and confidence, and helped her break her reliance on laudanum. Without that added depth of growth and change, the ending is just tawdry -- Margaret is pathetic, and Selena is a worthless petty swindler. We don't even get the sense that Margaret's going to take anything away from this experience either, just suffer more heartbreak and humiliation.
And on a more idiosyncratic note, it also hit a particular pet peeve of mine: fiction that purports to be set in "our world," except there seems to be magic going on. The story goes back and forth, is-it-magic-or-isn't-it?, steadily stacking the deck in favor of "no other explanation but magic" until at last... they explain it all away by rational means. (The new Sherlock Holmes movie did this too, and I wasn't a fan of it there either.) It always feels so condescending, like, Oh teehee, you actually believed it was magic? How naive! Don't you know that magic doesn't exist in the REAL world? .....fuck you, it was fiction, it could have been magic.
In the Dickens-esque London of the poor and disreputable, Sue Trinder is a thief, raised by a loose "family" of like-minded individuals. One day a con man of their acquaintance, the handsome but otherwise despicable "Gentleman," comes to them with a scam that will land the ultimate score -- he's found an heiress named Maud, living on an isolated estate with her eccentric uncle, whose inheritance will make them rich beyond their wildest dreams if she can be enticed to marry Gentleman, after which he intends to throw her into an insane asylum and vanish with his ill-gotten gains. Gentleman wants to set Sue up as Maud's maid, so that she's in a position to help Gentleman woo the girl, and is willing to give her a generous share of the booty for her assistance.
The first half of the story is from Sue's point of view, their skullduggery as she infiltrates the household -- and her growing attachment to Maud, coupled with guilty unease whenever she remembers what they're planning to do to her. The second half is from Maud's point of view, in which we learn that everything we thought we knew was wrong. Plot twists, ahoy!
I liked both characters a lot; Sue is interesting because you get the sense that by nature she's a decent person, but raised as she was in a den of thieves whose attitude is one of entitlement to whatever they can get their hands on, her moral compass is way skewed. She lacks common empathy, to the point where she thinks nothing at all of throwing an innocent girl into an insane asylum so they can steal her fortune, and never balks at the idea until she finds herself falling in love with Maud and suddenly it's personal. But that's okay, because Maud's got a few secrets (and neuroses) of her own.
(WARNING: general spoilers follow) Again, I think it falls apart at the end though. The plot twists get just a little too incredible until they start to strain belief, and character motivations start to get very implausible. Seriously, Mrs. Sucksby raised Sue from infancy and didn't grow even a little fond of her? Did they sedate Maud? Because that's the only way to explain why she so readily and passively accepts her new situation in the Sucksby house, when it's obvious she thinks they're filthy degenerates and hates it there. And lastly, I would have liked the reconciliation scene between Sue and Maud expanded. Come on, it's been a very melodramatic ride; there's no call for subtlety at this point, and a little emotional outpouring would not have gone amiss.
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