Review: Raised by Wolves Volume 1: Brethren by W A Hoffman

Review by Erastes
(From Frontiers Magazine)
Brethren is the story of John Williams, Viscount of Marsdale (known for most of the book as Will), sent by his estranged father to manage the family’s sugar plantation in 1667 Jamaica. On his arrival, he instead joins up with the Brethren of the Coast (a predominantly gay tribe of buccaneers raiding Spanish settlements and ships under the auspices of Jamaica’s British governor); in particular, he falls in love with a mostly straight and intermittently mad buccaneer called Gaston the Ghoul.

It’s a big book. About 550 pages. Big in scope and ambition. Slightly too large a paperback to hold comfortably in bed or in the bath. That being said it’s set in a fascinating era which isn’t often written about in a fictional and accurate capacity, so I was looking forward to tackling it, although a little daunted by the size.

(It must be said that this was originally part of a trilogy, and now the author has announced that this has expanded and will be a quartet.)

At its core it follows the traditions of a typical love story – an arranged marriage which isn’t consumated and a long long road in which the two protagonists learn to love and trust each other. Layered on top of this is a healthy dose of piratey action with some good secondary characters and some obvious hard research.

The author tries a little too hard, and she’s guilty of “doing a Dan Brown” from time to time and info dumping hard about buccaneers and filibusters and the history behind it all – and mostly that was ok, as I didn’t know a lot of it, but I also shook my head at times and said “And I should care about this over-richness of facts WHY exactly?” Too much of it and I was pulled away from the story itself. It is the same with the interractions between Gaston and Will (of which there are legion.) Granted, I admit there are boring bits in a sailor’s life, but all these two seem to do is yak; chapters and chapters of it, and it got rather boring at times.

As for the actual daily life of the seaman, it was disappointingly absent for much of the book, replaced by the conversations. Only at rare points did I get the tang of salt in my nostrils and feel the rigging beneath my bare feet. They sailed around without the crew doing very much except shag and talk.

There is a over-arching plot, though and eventually it kicks in and starts to progress, but it takes too long getting there, and I had lost interest, both in the love affair and the backstory. I didn’t like Will much – he didn’t catch my imagination. He was a murderer/mercenary, and although Hoffman attempted to show me he was a “Good Egg” at the beginning by getting him to look after his bondsmen, and rescuing a sailor who was being abused, he lost any sympathy he gained there by promptly sailing off and leaving the bondsmen to rot in the hands of his overseer without a backward wave and never bothering much with the rescued sailor again.

As to the “Wolves” motif: it was overdone – He’s a nobleman, he considers himself a wolf, being on top of society and he’s always explaining about the wolves and the sheep (those who take orders.) I understood the concept after half a page, but the point was rammed home so often I was screaming at Will not to treat me like an idiot. The repetitive “hook” at the end of each chapter discussing “the Gods” too affected me like a dripping tap after 10 chapters, and I was dreading the last line of each one.

There were a few confusing or inaccurate details that I noticed. Right in chapter 1 Will says “I was not a Protestant” and then later he refers to “You Papists” so I’m all confused and thinking “well, what are you, then? Jewish?” No matter what he considered himself to be, he’d be one or the other. Then he celebrates Mass with his family so he must have been a Catholic. But even in the Restoration, I am fairly sure that Catholics weren’t celebrating Mass so openly. But feel free to contradict me, I haven’t checked this.

However, it’s not a bad read. The inaccuracies didn’t make me want to throw it against the wall, and as an adventure story it’s well researched and not horribly written. Some of the speech is a little too modern and there are some typos, but that’s to be expected in a self-published novel. Where the self-publishing REALLY lets Hoffman down, however, is the bloated size of the book itself. She would have done the book a favour to let a professional editor loose on it and rip out large sections; all the unnecessary chit-chat and scenes where nothing happens. It could have been reduced to 350 pages without losing any of its flavour, and would have been a much better, tighter book for the reduction.

Fans of seafaring tales will love this – and they do by all accounts but it wasn’t for me. After the cliffhanger ending, I don’t care enough about the characters to find out what happens to them next and the emotional involvement in reading a book 2 or 3 times the size of the average novel wasn’t repaid, as the book, in essence, contained no more actual content than a book of 200 pages.

Buy from Amazon US Buy from Amazon UK

9 Responses

  1. I am so glad to find someone who shares my opinion of this book- I haven’t even finished it yet and it has disappointed me so much I went back to the reviews that persuaded me to buy in the first place to see whether I’d missed anything.

    I read a lot of gay fiction, I love history and adore pirates, so this trilogy seemed perfect. Maybe therefore I had over-high expectations which might explain why I feel letdown, though I should probably know by now not to trust Amazon reviews or at least take overwhelmingly gushing ones without a large pinch of salt.

    I concur with your verdict what it needs most is a decent editor to cut the novel down to a manageable size. However even that would not overcome the difficulty I have believing the characters really live in the 17th century. It just isn’t convincing me at all, despite details thrown in by Hoffman to show he/she did the research. Also the backstory is rather clumsily filled in through exposition, something that irritates me.

    For me any book set in this period falls under the shadow of Maria McCann’s masterly As Meat Loves Salt, and Hoffman’s epic suffers greatly by comparison: now there is a story that convinces in every way its characters aren’t 21st century men tossed backwards in time, a story that doesn’t try to convince the reader its morally ambiguous lead character is a lovable rogue, really. I have read MS Hunter’s Buccaneer, a pirate novel I have no hesitation recommending in which background information (very educational) is imparted without dragging the reader away from the story- it even has footnotes and a bibliography.

    I will continue with Brethren – oh boy do I agree with your comments about that laboured and over-used ‘wolf’ metaphor- because I love the era and its buccaneers, but to be honest I’ve read better Pirates of the Caribbean slash fanfiction!

  2. Thanks – I’m glad you enjoyed the review – and I agree, As Meat Loves Salt is one of the best books I’ve read in recent years and when I read now, I hold that up (and the Charioteer) as beacons for people to strive for. So many people are writing modern men plonked down in past times and it just rubs me up the wrong way – and people saying “oh it’s just Romance” or “it’s escapism, lighten up” just drives me bonkers.

    If there are any gay historicals not on my list that you know of, please don’t hesitate to yell.

  3. Okay, I do have to contradict some things in your review… first of all, Will is an atheist. He says it flat out (to a priest, no less) toward the end of the book. I think perhaps you skipped over some of the conversations you seemed to have issue with because Will and Gaston had at least one conversation about whether or not they believed in God (Gaston, also, is an atheist… he used to believe in God, then ceased to after what happened to him). They were of course not *raised* to be atheists, and Will went to church with his family because it was a socially expected thing to do, not because he was being pious in any way (and by the way, it was a Protestant mass).

    Second of all, the conversations were rather the point… the point of the story is their relationship, learning to love and trust one another, philosophy, and their pasts. The point was not for us to learn which side of the ship is port and which is starboard. I did not find the conversations to be superfluous at all.

    And as for the size… I like longer books. I find 200- and 300- page books to be painfully short sometimes. I know some people like fast reads, but I consider a book to be an investment… of time, money, and emotion… if the book is good I get emotionally attached to at least one character. I don’t want to blaze through it in an afternoon and think, “Hm. Okay, next.” That is just not enough time to fall in love with a character properly. In this book, I became emotionally attached to more than one character. It may be a bit big to take with you in the bath, but I don’t buy my books based on portability. : )

    Oh, and also, Will did not abandon his rescued sailor… said sailor went roving with them and eventually paired up with another guy and got himself a matelot.

  4. Well, that’s exactly what a review site is about, personal opinion, I’m glad you like the book – I liked it well enough to give it three stars, after all. What works for me often doesn’t work for others.

    As to him being an atheist, yes, I missed that completely, with all the talk of gods every chapter and going to mass – you are right, I did skip over the conversations as they did bore me, sad to say.

    It’s a popular series, and I’m glad it’s doing well.

  5. I’m pleased to read your review, but I have to agree with Clarsah – I really liked this book, and the conversations between Will and Gaston were the highlights for me. I also enjoyed the info “dumps” – I found them fascinating. In fact there was very little I didn’t like about this book, except maybe Will’s morals in the beginning. He doesn’t appear to have many scruples about killing in cold blood. That was a large hurdle to overcome for me, but I managed to get over it, and liked Will from then on. I believe that says a lot about the skill of the writer (and maybe something about me? I wonder … )

    Anyway, it’s always interesting to see other people’s thoughts, even if we don’t agree with them. 🙂

  6. I love the book. Just like Clarsah and Sue, I adore the conversation between Will and Gaston. It really is the highlight.

    For me, there is no problem with the length of the book. I get totally invested in the characters this way. Also, I like the facts and info in it. I’m not into pirates but got really into it after reading this book.

    It’s very nice to read other people’s take on this book, though.

  7. I have read all three of the Raised as Wolves novels. Volume 1, 2 and most recently 3. I must agree with Clarsah and Sue… the details and conversations in all three made them a real stand-out. That some readers did not know Will was an atheists must have missed the the point that Gaston was insane as well. Oh well, I love a long
    heavily involved “read” with a cast of extraordinary secondary characters like Pet, Stryker, Theo etc.
    What not to love about this series. If you want a “fast food” M/M book these are not for you.

  8. DA; this is why a review site is subjective – although I was pleased to see another professional reviewer agree with me (Cerisaye at the top).

    I didn’t at all catch that Will was a atheist as he talks about gods all the time, so that’s a big surprise to me, considering that it is broadly defined as “the absence of belief in deities”

    I’m sorry that I couldn’t like it, but there are far too many amateur errors in it that would have been much improved by a professional editor. It is to the author’s credit, of course, that she has done so well self-publishing. Imagine how well the book would have done if it had been published by a real publisher.

  9. Ahh, you didn’t read the book, you read the editing.

    Will talks about the gods (plural) the same way he talks about wolves, centaurs, horses, and sheep. They are metaphors for human experience. In book two there are some compelling thoughts using Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” as a metaphor for the madness that both Gaston and Will experience. While I’m not a fan of Plato, I find Hoffman’s use of the metaphor enlightening.

    Yes, these men are singularly modern in their attempts to liberate any oppressed soul they come across. However I’m sure we (women at least) would be horrified at the opinions of men truly of that era. So I will allow the author this conceit.

    Yes, the novels drag in places, but there are many authors of mainstream large tomes with real editors that are guilty of the same. (Or do publishers stop editing novels when the author becomes popular?)

    Count me as one the readers who have fallen in love with the characters and want to spend as much time as possible with them. I’m reading too many books where I just want to get to the end to find out “who done it”. In a sea of snacks these books are banquets.

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