Review: Fortunes of War by Mel Keegan

In the spring of 1588 two young men fell in love: an Irish mercenary serving the Spanish ambassador in London, and the son of an English earl. Then Dermot Channon must leave England when the embassy is expelled just prior to the onset of war, and Robin despairs of ever seeing him again. Seven years pass, and when Robin’s brother is kidnapped for ransom in Panama in the years following the war between England and Spain, Robin sets sail with a fleet commanded by Francis Drake, hoping to bring home his brother. But soon enough the ship on which Robin is traveling is sunk by privateers — pirates led by none other than Dermot Channon. Reunited by a cruel twist of fate, the two men embark with passion on a series of swashbuskling adventures around the Spanish Main.

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

I enjoyed this book. The tale of Irish-Spanish mercenary Dermot Channon who, during a diplomatic mission, seduced Robin Armagh, son of an English earl. Love blooms, politics and war get in the way. This is a plotty, meaty histoprical novel that sees Dermot softened and committed and Robin grown up into Dermot’s equal.

I’m a sucker for gay novels where both men are equals. And also masculine. While Robin starts out as a young man, innocent and quite willingly seduced and taught about love, much of the novel is about negotiating the relationship, until both settle on the fact they are equals.

The historical detail rings true (the time is not my speciality, and I enjoyed it too much to go out hunting for inconsistencies). The novel has plenty of historical meat to sink your teeth into, from map making to types of ships. There’s plenty of conflict. English versus Spanish, Catholic versus Protestant, add privateering adventures and grim tales of rape and slavery, and you have a novel that will keep you turning pages.

In terms of gay history, the author shows us two different worlds. The continent, where gay sex is forbidden (the English court is a little more permissive) and is punished, and the Caribbean, where a captured man might end up gang-raped, and then the couples that form quite naturally while at sea.

This is also my first book by Mel Keegan, who’s been around a lot longer than most of the writers in the genre I’ve read, and I’m not disappointed. The style is quite different to what I’ve read recently for Speak Its Name. Keegan does a fair job making the prose sound archaic and infuses it with plenty of flavour. For the most part, that’s successful – there are some bits that clash a bit, but the energy and drive of the writing sweeps you easily past the rockier bits.

What does need work, however, is the editing. Punctuation is very hit-and-miss, and there are more typos than necessary. In addition, the book (I have the PDF) is strangely formatted, with blanks separating the paragraphs, and the lines ending sometimes after two thirds of the page rather than fill the whole breadth.

Some scenes feel quite repetitive, and there’s a scene when Dermot Channon, our hyper-virile proud Spanish mercenary, sulks and throws a passive-aggressive hissy fit that felt completely out of character and seemed to mainly serve to ramp up the conflict at a point in the book when both characters were without a care in the world.

In the end, this is a book that is interesting in a different way from those I’ve rated similarly. Keegan has a distinctive voice and a distinctive style and in terms of history and plotting, this is way more ambitious than most other books I’ve read in the genre. For that, I would have liked to give 4.5 stars, but the poor editing, formatting and the pretty weak cover shave off half a star. I will, however, seek out more books by Keegan and recommend this to anybody who is looking for a different voice, pirates and 16th century gay adventure and love.

Author’s website

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In the spring of 1588 two young men fell in love: an Irish mercenary serving the Spanish ambassador in London, and the son of an English earl. Then Dermot Channon must leave England when the embassy is expelled just prior to the onset of war, and Robin despairs of ever seeing him again. Seven years pass, and when Robin’s brother is kidnapped for ransom in Panama in the years following the war between England and Spain, Robin sets sail with a fleet commanded by Francis Drake, hoping to bring home his brother. But soon enough the ship on which Robin is traveling is sunk by privateers — pirates led by none other than Dermot Channon. Reunited by a cruel twist of fate, the two men embark with passion on a series of swashbuskling adventures around the Spanish Main.

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