Review: Devil’s Spawn by Sarah Masters

After an altercation with Vincent, Julian leaves the ton as captain of Le Frai de Démon, trading his wares in foreign parts. Two years pass, two years of Vincent abstaining from sex and mourning the loss of his love. Week nights, gay men gather in Devil’s Spawn, Julian’s club, and though Vincent doesn’t partake in sexual contact, he visits the club as a way to bring Julian closer despite his absence. One night, Vincent’s life is turned upside down with the return of Julian. Though his heart tells him to open up and allow Julian in, his pride rears its stubborn head. Will Julian be able to break down the barriers? And will Vincent find out why Julian is really called The Master?

Review by Alex Beecroft

The blurb for this 30 page story pretty much sums up the entire plot – particularly when it’s obvious that the answer to the rhetorical questions at the end is “yes”.

I feel I should preface everything I say by confessing up front that I am not a fan of erotica, and I’m particularly not a fan of the combination of porn and schmoop. You know the kind of thing—where five pages of throbbing cocks and spunk and improbable recovery times are punctuated by scenes of men talking like teenage girls about soulmates and saving themselves for their one true love and calling each other “baby”.

This story is very much something of that kind. If you like that kind of thing, you may well like this. And you may like it better if you prefer your ‘history’ to be nothing more than a thin veneer of flowery language and a tall ship on the cover.

If you prefer your history to be history and your characters to be firmly men of their century, however, you are unlikely to be enthralled by the level of detail and accuracy in this one. I… can’t tell when in history this is supposed to be set. The characters’ way of speaking and the mention of the ton would indicate possibly Regency. But the inside layout of Julian’s ship is more like something you’d find in a pleasure liner of a century later or more. A double bed on an 18th Century ship? At the end of a passageway lined by doors? Really no. Round portholes in the Captain’s cabin, with no cannon to fire through them? No.

Equally, Julian’s club bears little resemblance to the kind of molly house described in Rictor Norton’s research. Perhaps it’s not meant to—perhaps it’s meant to be a gay gentleman’s club, like a gay version of Whites. But even so, I doubt it would have topless bartenders. It’s a modern nightclub, retrofitted with period costume.

The backstory of Vincent, our POV character, makes no sense at all at any historical period. Vincent’s grandfather was the sort of farmer who held down his own sheep at shearing time. That makes him a peasant. A salt-of-the-earth working man. Yet we’re told he left Vincent enough money to enable Vincent not to have to work at all. That’s one impossibility before breakfast. Then we learn that Vincent—who is, throughout, successfully passing as a gentleman—was bored, not working, so he decided to become a bank clerk instead. No. No way. This would have been social suicide. This back story could only have been written by someone who knew nothing whatsoever about the workings of the British class system in this or any other century. It’s frankly unbelievable.

Does it matter? To me it does. If I can’t believe the character’s background or his surroundings, I find it harder to care about him. And I found it very hard to care about either Vincent or Julian in this. Vincent—aside from the implausible backstory—has no personality. He’s been implausibly celibate for the last two years after (if I’m reading this right) Julian didn’t actually get around to shagging him the last time. This may be supposed to be romantic but I just thought it was rather pathetic of him.

Julian in the mean time has set things up so that his current squeeze will come along as he’s penetrating Vincent, just in time to be thrown away like a used condom. I get the impression that this was supposed to be romantic too, in an “I never cared for anyone but you, Vincent” way, but surprisingly, Julian acting like a complete tosser to one boyfriend in the middle of rodgering another one did not endear him to me.

Add in a little, half-hearted, “is it really supposed to be BDSM or am I just reading too much into the whole ‘Master’ thing?” And it all adds up to something that just did nothing for me at all. I didn’t find any of it hot, but then I generally don’t, with erotica, so it’s hard for me to say whether this was good erotica or not.

If you enjoy porn + schmoop + a window dressing of ‘historical’ without too much of the inconvenient reality, it may be just the thing for you. If not, it is at least short, so you wouldn’t be wasting too much time if you decided to check it out just in case, but I really can’t recommend it.


16 Responses

  1. Oh dear, that sounds like I have to review “The Sheikh and the Servant”, which is just as improbable…

  2. I went and read the sample of this at Fictionwise and it was just painful. Waiters in tight breeches, stockings, and topless (with men pawing them) pouring frothy mugs of ale? Some men wearing wigs? And then…the unforgiveable sin (to me)…people saying Mayhap to each other. Mayhap! Thanks for this review, Alex. I’ll give this one a pass.

    • Yes, the wigs were another clue that it was supposed to be 18th Century-ish (could have been an old fashioned gent in the early 19th, I suppose). But then the ship became all that much more implausible. *g* Mayhap doesn’t bother me as much as “Milord”, but I can see how it would 🙂

  3. Topless waiters! *boggles* Serves you right for picking the shortest story, I say. Mayhap.

    • LOL! I didn’t know it was the shortest when I chose it 🙂

      I should probably declare that I got the ebook for free in order to review it, shouldn’t I?

      • I’ve got a “fits all” disclaimer on the sidebar which I put up there last week – that should certainly cover us – not that I think anyone is going to bother with something so petty.

  4. Hmm…I’ve read this, and I’d argue with ‘schmoop’. Anyone here ever read ‘Teleny’? I know that dates from a good few decades later than Sarah Masters’ series is set (although she never does give a concrete date), but I was reminded of it.

  5. If you don’t like erotica, why read and review it? It seems a bit crazy to me. I don’t like stories about serial killers, so I don’t read them, because I would hate and slate, seems like a waste of everyone’s time.

    As it happens, I’ve read the story too, and don’t agree with your assement. I understood Vincent to be at the lower end of middle class, for a start, and found no serious jarring there.

  6. @Nimue…

    I was thinking the same thing. If a person isn’t a fan of erotica, why read it? The fact that she doesn’t like erotica in the first place most certainly invalidates this review. And she doesn’t find erotica hot? This is a very interesting review, one that appears to be from a reviewer who could not get into the story because she spent too much time trying to dislike it.

  7. @Catherine Stone and Nimue. I did not spend time trying to dislike this book. I prefer to enjoy the books I read, wherever possible. However, I was unable to like this book, and I have given my reasons for why this was so.

    I have given my reasons in a way which I hope makes it clear that if you do not share my preferences, you may not share my opinion of the book. This appears to be the case with you, and I am happy that you enjoyed the book when I couldn’t.

    I read erotica even though I’m not fond of it because I review books according to the historical period in which they are set. This is so that when I make an assertion about what is or isn’t believable in the era concerned, I am doing so from a basis of research and knowledge.

    This site prides itself on its attention to historical detail, and that is why a book set during the Age of Sail is given to a reviewer who knows about the Age of Sail, while a book about the Crusaders is given to a reviewer who knows about the Crusaders, regardless of whether the book is erotica, inspirational, or somewhere in between.

  8. I”ve had some decent reviews from people who started out saying “I don’t usually read m/m” or “I don’t usually read historical.” The point being–if the story is strong enough, it can overcome the reader’s unfamiliarity with the genre. If not… not.

    The criticism of this story wasn’t based on the erotic content – it’s based on the historical accuracy, or lack thereof. A round porthole is exactly the sort of detail that makes a difference. (I had a long discussion about a round portholes with a cover artist, once.) If I’m not mistaken, those didn’t appear until the advent of steel-hulled ships, when it was easier to bore a circular hole than to build a port the same way as a window. Round windows through eight inches of solid oak = not likely. Some people do like ‘wallpaper’ historicals — modern characters in period costume. I like the reviews at Speak Its Name because this site doesn’t cater to that

    If a writer doesn’t want to go to the trouble of doing research, why not just do what J Langley did with her “regency” space series? That’s not really historical, but it doesn’t pretend to be. Just because a particular genre is popular doesn’t mean everyone’s able to write it well. Paranormal is popular, but I don’t think I’d ever try writing teenage sparkly vampires.

    • I”ve had some decent reviews from people who started out saying “I don’t usually read m/m” or “I don’t usually read historical.”

      Yes, I always treasure those ones most, if they’re positive, because I feel I overcame an initial resistance. And if they’re negative, I don’t worry so much because I think “oh well, it may be the genre itself you don’t like.”

      SiN is an unusual site because it takes the history so seriously, but that’s the thing that distinguishes SiN from other review sites. It can hardly go easy on one book while it continues to go hard on all the others.

  9. I certainly value SIN for reviews of historical novels. I’m not likely to try to get away with anything in an historical (see me, see me flee from writing in the genre as a whole) and have Speak Its Name look the other way. (That’s why I like you guys.)

    Bad research pushes a reader out of even a great story if they expect it to be accurate. If you don’t care if your historical novels are accurate then no big deal, right?

    On the other hand, I do believe an amazing, gifted writer and thorough professional like Alex Beecroft can be completely objective about a book’s merits, whether she likes the genre or not. I may not enjoy reading a horror novel but that doesn’t mean I can’t tell if it’s well written.

    • Thank you, Z.A. In this case, Alex was the best person to review the book – I don’t have the same level of historical knowledge about the era, although I would have picked up on the same flaws regarding the gay relationship. Generally we do try to match the book to the reviewer if they can. As our mission statement says, we will review the writing AND the history–otherwise what’s the point of being a “historical review site”?

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