Review: The Phoenix by Ruth Sims

At fourteen, Kit St. Denys brought down his abusive father with a knife. At twenty-one his theatrical genius brought down the house. At thirty, his past and his forbidden love nearly brought down the curtain for good. This is a Victorian saga of two men whose love for each other transcends time and distance and the society that considers it an abomination. Set in the last twenty years of the 19th century, The Phoenix is a multi-layered historical novel that illuminates poverty and child abuse, theatre history in America and England, betrayal, a crisis of conscience, violence and vengeance, and the treatment of insanity at a time when such treatment was in its infant stage. Most of all it is a tale of love on many levels, from carnal to devoted friendship to sacrifice.

Review by Erastes

What a joy to read this book proved to be. From the very first page I was drawn in with the action, was instantly attracted to the characters and was very impressed how with so few strokes of her pen, Sims managed to draw the situation, the era, the environment and the characters. Language is certainly Sims’ gift but she doesn’t drown you in it. It’s an intelligent read, but steers clear of being a morass where the words become more important than the story itself.

Jack Rourke and his sickly twin brother Michael live by the river in London, picking a living any way they can, (which in Jack’s case means a bit of stealing) while they wait for sporadic visits by their father, away at sea. As the boys grow they dread his visits more and more, as Rourke is increasingly violent, both to them and to their mother. Matters come to a head with such a violent visit that Jack is forced to flee, and friends he has made in local theatre take him in.

The book is marginally longer than some of the books I’ve read recently, but there are points (like this early section) where I’d like it be even longer. I felt it – wasn’t rushed, exactly – but I’d have like to have seen more of this early life explored in the same lush detail that Sims goes on in other sections of the book. Jack’s (soon to renamed Christopher, and then Kit – and yes, this is important) rise from guttersnipe to an heir of a small fortune and a damned good actor could have been padded out and I wouldn’t have minded a bit. He had a worrying tendancy to be a little Sue-ish, or tainted with “Woman-of-Substance-itis” but I overlooked that for he does have faults, and these are brought into sharp relief when he meets Nicholas, a dour doctor – brought up in a strict religious environment who has fallen quite in love with Kit without Kit knowing.

It’s a lovely seduction and love affair, Kit’s licentiousness is contrasted starkly with Nick’s puritanical ideals and when the invevitable happens and both behave far too much like themselves for either of them to forgive each other….. Well – I don’t want to do too many spoilers, but this is where the book really kicks in.

Characterisation: Is great. I could really get under the skin of both main characters without any problem. Even when she shifted between one and the other, it was so starkly contrasted – the difference in their characters – that you simply thought as one then the other. While Nick’s choices made me want to brain him, they made perfect sense in the world he inhabited, and that’s the true test of a good homosexual historical for my money. Ruth doesn’t stick modern day characters in Victorian clothes, everything they do, even the much more openly shocking Kit – is coloured by what society thought and what society would and could do. It wasn’t quite as dangerous for men in 1890 as it was in 1820 – you weren’t hanged: but you still risked prison, disgrace and being exiled from polite society – even more rigid than it had been 150 years before. Sims shows the “salons” of the aesthetes – where the only safe place for a gentleman of a certain persuasion to meet others was in the drawing rooms of his friends.

Kit is larger than life throughout, and that’s perfectly in character, even when his life spirals out of control, it’s in a wonderfully tragedian way with Nick hardly able to keep up.

Period Feel: Wonderfully done, with no Dan Brown tub-thumping explanations of what is going on and the politics of the time. Sims doesn’t talk down to her reader. For someone who self-admittedly has rarely ventured from her own corner of the USA, to be able to recreate Victorian slums is pretty impressive.

Sexual Level. Warm and erotic, without being graphic in any way, a true lesson to me in less is more.

Summing Up. Very highly recommended. Certainly the best written gay historical I’ve read since At Swim Two Boys, and a book that convinces me that I can do better with my own prose. This is not a “romance” btw, chaps – so while I’m giving no clues to the ending, I adored it, because it left me guessing right up until the very last chapter. It’s a real keeper.

Excerpts here

Amazon UK Amazon USA

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