Review: The Valiant One by Jay E Hughes

Ragnar, a hardened Scottish soldier, is indifferent to English rule of his homeland until he falls in love with Gylis McIvoy, a fellow Scotsman. They have a brief and passionate affair, but circumstances tear them apart permanently. Ragnar swears vengeance, and soon becomes a freedom fighter modeled on the recently captured and executed William Wallace.

Ragnar manages to raise a ragtag army that rains terror down on Longshanks’ occupying forces, but in the process, he has a chance meeting with the king’s son, Prince Edward of Wales. Sparks fly between them despite the impossibility of an English prince taking a Scottish enemy soldier as his lover—giving new meaning to “the love that dare not speak its name”. These two star-crossed lovers may cross swords on the battlefield by day, but they still manage to heat up the night.

Review by Sal Davis

Firstly the cover. On the whole I think the cover gives you a very fair idea of what you will get – battles royalty, richness and massive pecs. There’s something a little odd about the crown – it looks as though it is made for a much bigger head, but possibly this is a reference to the uneasy relationship between Prince Edward and Edward I.

As for the plot, the author is up-front about it on his website. He says he has written the “Gay Braveheart” (just as his novel “The Shunned” is the “Gay Witness“). His main character, Ragnar, is a Scottish freedom fighter driven to a vow of vengeance against the  English by the brutal murder of
his lover. In his quest for revenge he meets and falls for Prince Edward, who falls back equally hard, but their budding romance is almost destroyed before it starts by the continuing war between their two countries, plus some really bad judgement on Ragnar’s part. Readers who enjoy a HEA will be glad to hear that Ragnar doesn’t suffer Wallace’s gruesome fate. There is a full cast of supporting characters – King Edward ‘Longshanks’, Isabella of France (please note that there are some m/f sex scenes), Mortimer, various Scots and English courtiers, soldiers and mercenaries – and a complex series of rides, marches, counter-marches, plotting, betrayal, retribution and caber tossing (this is not a euphemism) bearing in mind that the novel is only about 140 pages long.

The historical content is problematical. Perhaps the best way to get this across is to say that the book is set in 1283 – the year before the birth of main protagonist Prince Edward. “Alternative universe” history might be a fitting description but this is VERY alternative. Ragnar’s uncle Angus, a key character who lost one eye and one arm (or, later in the book, one leg) to English archers, remembers Richard the Lionheart (a beloved and respected king who kept a dungeon full of young boys for his pleasure and nobody thought the worse of him for it. Edward feels that standards of tolerance have dropped). Ragnar wears a kilt and drinks lager . He also has a price on his head of “ten thousand pounds”. The English longbow ‘fires’ an arrow over one thousand yards and it is possible to lurk out of range until the archers shoot then charge in to get to grips with them. Hadrian’s Wall is in Yorkshire. Edward has read the Roman chronicles of Venerable Bede and Plautus. Men on foot can manage a three mile “charge” with enough breath to fight at the end of it. This is Hollywood ‘history’, as warned, about as accurate as  Braveheart and, as such, I would be able to accept or ignore it if the characters had engaged my sympathy.

Longshanks is an ignorant thug. Isabella is a treacherous, predatory adulteress. Mortimer is a tool in every sense of the word. That’s all fine because they are the villains and we need good villains. However, I found both the protagonists very unlikeable. Ragnar is brave and a good swordsman. He looks the part but it is actually what’s left of Uncle Angus who is the military mind behind his successes. The one time that Ragnar is in command on his own he becomes so distracted by Edward’s charms that he causes an accidental massacre. Edward is dainty, well dressed and well educated, but sexually predatory, careless of his lovers’s feelings and, quite correctly, prone to political intrigue.  While I found it possible to believe that he and Ragnar felt that ‘lust at first sight’ shock, I never ‘got’ why they might love each other. Yes, I know that love at first sight exists in real life, but in fiction I like there to be a good solid basis for it. I don’t want to be ‘told’ that they love each other, I want to be ‘shown’ and Hughes does a vast amount of telling in this story.

He also uses certain phrases ad nauseam – ragtag, for instance, appears every time Ragnar’s army is mentioned, and the phrase “stunning, pure white Arabian stallion” appears three times in one paragraph. As for the sex scenes, presumably Mr Hughes knows what is what, what is possible and what isn’t but I have to admit to feeling some confusion.

Amongst the titles I have reviewed fo SiN have been books that made me cry, or laugh, that have entertained, educated and enthralled me. Some have stayed with me to be mulled over again and again – a particularly interesting character, some superb description, a fine joke to be savoured, that fruitless ‘oh if only THIS had happened instead’ thought process where one wishes for characters to be happy despite it being impossible. I suspect that this book will stay with me a long time as well, but because of the involuntary yelps of disbelieving laughter I kept emitting and the astounded look on my master bowmaker husband’s face as I read him some of the longbow bits. I’ll also be thinking about all the authors who spend YEARS researching their historical novels and write with such care and respect for their subject then I’ll think of this one and I’ll weep.

So – in short – if you really enjoyed “Braveheart” but think Wallace should have boinked Prince Edward this might be the book for you, but, I’m sorry, it really wasn’t the book for me.
Published by Ellora’s Cave

Review: Duke of Orleans by John Simpson

Twenty year old Richard Giles is living on the streets of London in the year 1660, scrounging for food and shelter the best he is able after the closure of his place of employment and death of his mother.

After being given shelter for the night by a kindly old man Richard is back on the streets when an unfortunate incident brings him into contact with a man who may just change the direction of his life, for the better.

Review by T J Pennington

John Simpson’s The Duke of Orleans reads, in part, like a history book…and not in a good way. The descriptions of the time and place are stilted, sounding as if they were chucks of an essay by a very earnest student rather than observations by an omniscient narrator or by the main character. For example:

Many turned to crime, becoming pickpockets and petty thieves, transforming the streets into a morass of corruption.

For those caught plying their trade, it was a stint in Newgate Prison, which far surpassed the definition of cruel in any decent person’s mind. Women and their children were housed along with common debtors in cellblocks considered to be austere at best, unless you had the coin. Then you could buy your way into the section of the prison containing upscale furnishings and comforts, while enlarging the pockets of the jailors whose tender mercies you were subjected too.(sic)

All of which is more or less accurate (“austere” is a remarkably charitable description of the Newgate cells)…but all of which is irrelevant, at that point. We know nothing about the the main character yet save his name, so we don’t care for him. And we don’t wonder if Newgate Prison will be a threat somewhat later. (It isn’t.)

We learn more about the main character on the next page. Unfortunately, the author has not mastered the art of showing rather than telling. We are told that he won’t steal unless he’s on the verge of starving; we aren’t shown him having an opportunity to steal and resisting it despite the temptation. We’re told that he sold off everything that he inherited long ago, though we aren’t told why. And finally we read a sentence that pushes us away from the time, the place and the main character: In the jargon of the day, Richard was a pauper.”

We learn that Richard Giles is the world’s most passive prostitute. His method of attracting business? Standing in front of restaurants and looking attractive and pathetic so that rich men will pity him, feed him and take him home for sex. This doesn’t strike me as a viable way of attracting multitudes of customers, especially if one is homeless, penniless and starving—when was the last time that you went out to dinner and invited a street person to dine with you?–but apparently it works for Richard.

Well, a lord strolls by as lords are wont to do (he’s called “my lord” three or four times, so I presumed that he was intended to be nobility), sees Richard looking hungry and sad, and immediately invites him to partake of “some hot food and cool drink.” We get no sense that Lord X is looking for a bit of fun or that Richard is offering any. The man who owns the pub that they enter behaves believably, shouting at Richard to leave, as he doesn’t want paupers and potential thieves hanging about his pub. Of course, he is immediately smacked down by the lord for daring to suggest that he doesn’t have the money to pay and for criticizing the lord’s guest.

The lord, as it turns out, is not a lord. He is Henry Walker, merchant. He asks Richard why he’s on the streets and Richard recites his true biography. If the narrative had not told us that this was his real background, I would have thought that he had memorized a false story and was reeling it out for a customer. When questioned further about the job he lost, he slips from the formal recitation into 21st-century slang:“I kinda kept the records of what was made and who bought what we sold.”

Sadly, Simpson alternates between stiffly formal and anachronistic language and behavior throughout the book. The barmaid sing-songs, “May I take your order?” much as a waitress in today’s family restaurant would. Richard’s problem with finding employment is one that today’s homeless face; employers require an address for their records. I think that would have been less of a problem in the days when people could be hired on for X amount of hours and paid at the end of the day.

There’s also the problem of how much money was worth back then. Richard states that he came to London after he lost his job with only six shillings in his pocket. That doesn’t sound like much to us. But in 1660, £0 6s 0d would have the same worth of 2008’s £33.70 (using the retail price index) or £459.00 (using the average earnings of the time). Economist Jan Luiten van Zanden says that the income of an unskilled laborer on a construction site in Oxford, Cambridge, Dover or Canterbury was 12 pence (or one shilling) a week (worth £5.61 using the 2008 retail price index and £76.50 using average earnings); in London, the wage for an unskilled laborer was 20 pence (or one shilling eightpence) per week (£9.35 using the 2008 retail price index and £128.00 using average earnings).

So when Richard got to London, he was ridiculously well off. He had a small fortune in his pocket. And we haven’t seen any reason yet why he couldn’t live on that.

Walker takes Richard home. Not because he’s interested in men or boys—he states that openly—but because he “had a rough childhood and young adulthood.” I’m not sure what that has to do with anything, as Richard is neither a child nor an adolescent but a grown man. The housekeeper is only too happy to scrub and mend Richard’s clothes after a long day of work, just as Walker himself is only too happy to do a footman’s job and build the fire in the guest room that Richard is occupying.

The next day, though, Richard has to leave; Walker has relatives coming from York, and well, you know how it is. Richard, effusively grateful for the one night’s sleep, the bath and the newly mended, clean clothes, goes out onto London’s streets again. And that’s it. That’s the last we see of Walker until the end of the story, when Richard pops up again to tell him how well he’s doing.

Now that Richard is cleaner and more rested than he’s been in weeks, does he try to go get a day job somewhere, as would have been possible in his time? Does he tell a proprietor of a store or an inn that he’ll work for food? Does he go to a carriage house or livery stable and offer to help muck it out so that he’ll have somewhere to sleep for the night? Oh, no. He heads to Parliament to beg. And “[h]e hoped his clothes didn’t look too good for people to believe he was a pauper.”

When he gets to Parliament, he is “run off continuously by the local constabulary and finally threatened with arrest.” I’m not sure how that managed to happen, since Henry Fielding didn’t found the Bow Street Runners, an unofficial police force that worked for the Bow Street Magistrate’s office, until 1749 and Sir Robert Peel didn’t establish the Metropolitan Police Force in London—the first modern police force–until 1829.

Anyway, Richard gets rousted from one of the front doors of Parliament, so he starts wandering about in front of the more fashionable shops and gets splashed by a carriage drawing up to the curb. Richard charges up to the coachman and starts berating him. This is the point at which a “youngish” French noble (the eponymous Duc d’Orléans, who would have been twenty at the time of this story, and not, as the character later says, twenty-six) gets out of the carriage himself and goes over to talk to Richard. And he apologizes for the driver splashing Richard.

Philippe I, Duc d’Orléans

Let me repeat that. An aristocrat who is the younger son of King Louis XIII and his consort, Anne of Austria, the grandson of Philip III of Spain, the younger brother of King Louis XIV, and the Duke of Anjou and Duke of Orléans in his own right gets out of his carriage and apologizes to the poorly dressed commoner who is now soaking wet, covered in mud and shit, and screaming at his coachman.

Philippe (for that was the name of the Duke of Orléans) offers to make it up to Richard by buying him an entire set (read: suit) of new clothes. He also introduces himself as “Philippe, Duke of Orléans, Duke of Valois, Duke of Chartres and Lord of Montargis,” which is jumping the gun a bit; he was styling himself as Duke of Orléans as of February 2, 1660, but Louis didn’t grant his brother that title or any of the others until May 10, 1661.

Richard protests that he lacks “employ, money, or a place to rest each night” and that he’s “a non-person”—a word that didn’t exist in the seventeenth century—and, with that, tries to leave. The duke shouts at him not to do so…and Richard is instantly attacked by servants and shopkeepers who think that he’s trying to rob the duke. The duke explains that no, he wasn’t being robbed, he just wants to talk to Richard. Oh, and make him three sets of clothes. One in full evening dress.

While Richard is taking a bath in a washtub in one of the back rooms of this fancy tailor shop, the Duke of Orléans asks Richard what kind of work he’s looking for. When Richard says he can write and figure, Philippe hires him as a valet and personal secretary, despite the fact that Richard can neither read nor write French and says so. His appraising gaze as he looks at Richard’s naked soapy body says exactly why he’s hiring the man. He also notes that despite deprivation—and Philippe thinks to himself that he’s seen such deprivation before on the battlefield, though the first war that Philippe seems to have been in was the War of Devolution in 1667—despite it, Richard is “fairly well muscled.” He also talks to Richard about “the stunning beauty of your ass.”

Once the clothes are taken care of, Philippe explains to Richard why he’s in England—his brother and his advisors sent him to England to keep him from starting a civil war to grab the throne. This would be an interesting Dumaseque plot. Unfortunately, that’s all there is to it. The story contains no further information about a conspiracy to overthrow Louis or an upcoming civil war. Which is a pity. It would have made a compelling alternate universe story.

After a long section in which Philippe takes Richard to his ambassadorial residence, gives Richard all sorts of instructions about his duties and proper etiquette, and has a couple of meals with Richard (because servants always sat down and ate with their employers), Philippe finally asks Richard if he prefers men. Upon Richard admitting that he does, the Duke says that he prefers men as well…and would Richard “care to join [him] in bed tonight where we both can remain warmer?”

Of course Richard says yes, and of course Philippe assures him that nothing will happen that night…while at the same time asking Richard if he will be his “student in love.” You would expect that night to feature a passionate sex scene. But instead, Philippe curls up next to Richard and falls asleep. They don’t have sex until a week later—over the protests of Richard, who tells the duke, “I am not very experienced in the ways of physical love and I might disappoint you.” Um…Richard? Weren’t you working as a streetwalker earlier, sexually obliging men who would feed you?

After a couple of fairly standard sex scenes, Philippe tells Richard that he loves him and wants him to come back to France with him…as his lover. And, after a conversation with Charles II, in which Charles wants an Anglo-French alliance against Spain—never mind that an Anglo-French alliance already defeated Spain in the Franco-Spanish War in 1658 and England profited from that alliance in the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659—Philippe suggests sending Richard to Louis XIV as a messenger.

Of course, Philippe says, a mere commoner can’t meet with his brother. So Charles agrees to make Richard the Earl of Dunleavy. The title doesn’t bring Richard any land, but it does give him what Charles calls “a token”–one hundred pounds a year. According to Measuring Worth, that’s about £11,200.00 in 2008 pounds, using the retail price index, or £153,000.00 in 2008 pounds, using average earnings. (I wouldn’t mind getting that kind of “small token” each year myself.)

And, naturally, as the story concludes, it is implied that Richard and Philippe are going to live together happily for the rest of their days. Unfortunately, the only way that works is if you ignore not only Philippe’s marriage in November 1660 to Henrietta of England (called Minette, and mother of four of his children) and his later marriage to Elisabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate (called Liselotte, and mother of three more), but also the existence of the man who was allegedly the love of Philippe’s life, Philippe de Lorraine-Armagnac, called the Chevalier de Lorraine, whom Philippe met in 1668. The Chevalier was described as “fait comme on peint les anges”–“made as the angels are painted”–and remained with the Duc d’Orléans until the Duke’s death.

The story itself has problems. First, I must mention both the cover and the editing—which are not the author’s responsibility, but which do count, nevertheless. The cover is attractive, and looks as if it were modeled on the Running Press covers, but it is not even vaguely accurate; of the two men on the cover, the one on the left is dressed in what appears to be late-eighteenth to early nineteenth century garb, while the one on the right is clad in what looks like a black jacket and a white mock-turtleneck. Neither is wearing anything approaching seventeenth-century attire…or the long and elaborate curly wigs that were the hallmark of fashionable men’s hairstyles in the seventeenth century, either. And the editing is ill-done; there are many, many missing quotation marks, missing commas and commas inserted scattershot into the text. The errors were distracting and annoying; they kept pulling me out of the story.

As for the writing itself…well, as mentioned throughout this review, the story is very, very poorly researched; even the age of the bisexual Duc d’Orléans is wrong. The language is alternates between being stilted and being slangy and anachronistically modern. And the characters are not developed; we never get a sense of them as people with thoughts, likes, dislikes, hopes and fears. I’ve finished the book, but I don’t feel that I know Richard any better now than I did on the first page.

Finally—and this is linked to the lack of characterization–there is no overarching plot. The novella is, fundamentally, a series of anecdotes about a impoverished young man who is given everything that he could ever want because he is a wonderful, noble, humble and saintly person. We never see Richard being poor or unhappy or struggling or starving; we hear about it, but we don’t see him suffering. Richard, like many fairy tale heroes and heroines, is kind and courteous to the right mysterious old man and old woman (Henry Walker and the housekeeper Martha, respectively) and gets his heart’s desire. It is the Cinderella story with the wicked stepmother and wicked stepsisters left out.

And because there is no opponent, no antagonist, no threat to Richard, no conflict at all, and because Richard, who is the quintessential Passive Protagonist, never needs to accomplish any goals through his own efforts (and, indeed, never tries to do so), the story is not interesting. It’s a wish fulfillment fantasy—and while everyone on earth has daydreamed about getting wealth, power, the perfect job and the perfect lover, a daydream is not a fully developed story.

Because there are so many basic problems with the book, the most I can give it is one star.

Author’s website

Silver Publishing Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: Say To Me Where The Flowers Are

Say To Me Where the Flowers Are
Augusta Li and Eon de Beaumont
World War II draws to a close. Hope and happiness are scarce on the streets of Berlin, but step inside one of the city’s celebrated cabaret nightclubs and one can escape the ugliness of war, if only for a few hours. Heinrich, a young German officer visits “Die Comedie des Lebens,” one of the most popular, each night for a chance to see Marika, whose music and heart he immediately falls for. Heinrich is a dream come true for the vocalist, but Marika keeps a dangerous secret and as the love between the two blossom, Marika worries that the secret may tear them apart. Torn between two lives, Marika must make a decision before it’s too late.
Review
We seem to be on a roll here at Speak Its Name, with lots of books that purport to be historical and are anything but.  I had the unfortunate experience of reading Say To Me Where the Flowers Are, the latest casualty in this trend of non-historical historicals. Lucky me.
The blurb states that WWII is drawing to a close so I would date this as 1944 or 1945. The location is Berlin. Now, I have only read about Berlin at that time, but by all accounts, it was a city at the tail-end of a war that the Nazis were losing, bombed and ravaged, its citizens barely able to eke out their lives.  At least that is what history tells us Berlin was like. In the world envisioned by authors Li and de Beaumont, we get this in the second paragraph:
He pushed the small round glasses he wore up his thin nose with one finger and read the gaudy sign that sparkled like a jeweled brooch compared to the gray city surrounding it. Die Komödie des Lebens, one of the many Cabarets that had popped up in the city, afforded the citizenry an escape from the fear and frustration so prevalent in the world. Inside a person could sit down, have a meal and a few drinks, and be entertained by an array of performers. Although the only performer occupying Heinrich’s thoughts as he descended the familiar steps into the Club was Marika.
Cabarets were popping up in 1944? I don’t think so. I almost stopped reading then and there, but I’m a good trooper and Erastes is a friend, so I plowed on.
Believe me, it doesn’t get better. People drink scotch and soda and gin and tonics (in Germany?) and eat steak and lobster and drink fine wine. Marika wears nylons and a garter belt. Everyone lives in nice, big, warm apartments with lots heat and running hot water. “Jewish sympathizers” conveniently appear on the sidewalk to shoot high ranking Nazi officers, allowing the cross-dressing hero/heroine to escape from his evil clutches. When said hero/heroine decides that it is too dangerous to stay in Berlin with his/her new boyfriend, s/he announces, “Let’s go to Amsterdam! There are plenty of people there like me, we’ll be safe!”, they are immediately able to procure tickets for the next evening’s train. And so on.
I’m sorry, but in my eyes, war is a tragedy and when writing story that take place in times of war, the historical context should be treated with dignity and respect. I’m not saying an author can’t write about the futility of war or its pointlessness, but to write a story that totally ignores the reality of what was going on is wrong. In fact, it’s more than wrong, it’s offensive.
The story was only 12K words and so much plot was crammed in there that of course, it was superficial and silly. When Heinrich finds out that the love of his life, Marika, is really Mark, he responds with a blithe, “No problem, I’ve known that all along,” and he’s instantly gay. That might work as the punchline in Some Like It Hot, a romantic comedy, but not in an alleged war-time drama.
I could go on but it’s pointless to do so. Believe me when I say that there is nothing that makes this book worthwhile. The dialog is silly (they all sound like present-day Americans), the history is nonexistent and the story is preposterous. Even the sex is dull. All in all, one star and a reminder to myself to pass on future books from this writing team.

World War II draws to a close. Hope and happiness are scarce on the streets of Berlin, but step inside one of the city’s celebrated cabaret nightclubs and one can escape the ugliness of war, if only for a few hours. Heinrich, a young German officer visits “Die Comedie des Lebens,” one of the most popular, each night for a chance to see Marika, whose music and heart he immediately falls for. Heinrich is a dream come true for the vocalist, but Marika keeps a dangerous secret and as the love between the two blossom, Marika worries that the secret may tear them apart. Torn between two lives, Marika must make a decision before it’s too late.

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

We seem to be on a roll here at Speak Its Name, with lots of books that purport to be historical and are anything but.  I had the unfortunate experience of reading Say To Me Where the Flowers Are, the latest casualty in this trend of non-historical historicals. Lucky me.

The blurb states that WWII is drawing to a close so I would date this as 1944 or 1945. The location is Berlin. Now, I have only read about Berlin at that time, but by all accounts, it was a city at the tail-end of a war that the Nazis were losing, bombed and ravaged, its citizens barely able to eke out their lives.  At least that is what history tells us Berlin was like. In the world envisioned by authors Li and de Beaumont, we get this in the second paragraph:

He pushed the small round glasses he wore up his thin nose with one finger and read the gaudy sign that sparkled like a jeweled brooch compared to the gray city surrounding it. Die Komödie des Lebens, one of the many Cabarets that had popped up in the city, afforded the citizenry an escape from the fear and frustration so prevalent in the world. Inside a person could sit down, have a meal and a few drinks, and be entertained by an array of performers. Although the only performer occupying Heinrich’s thoughts as he descended the familiar steps into the Club was Marika.

Cabarets were popping up in 1944? I don’t think so. I almost stopped reading then and there, but I’m a good trooper and Erastes is a friend, so I plowed on.

Believe me, it doesn’t get better. People drink scotch and soda and gin and tonics (in Germany?) and eat steak and lobster and drink fine wine. Marika wears nylons and a garter belt. Everyone lives in nice, big, warm apartments with lots of heat and running hot water. “Jewish sympathizers” conveniently appear on the sidewalk to shoot high ranking Nazi officers, allowing the cross-dressing hero/heroine to escape from his evil clutches. When said hero/heroine decides that it is too dangerous to stay in Berlin with his/her new boyfriend, s/he announces, “Let’s go to Amsterdam! There are plenty of people there like me, we’ll be safe!”, they are immediately able to procure tickets for the next evening’s train. And so on.

I’m sorry, but in my eyes, war is a tragedy and when writing story that take place in times of war, the historical context should be treated with dignity and respect. I’m not saying an author can’t write about the futility of war or its pointlessness, but to write a story that totally ignores the reality of what was going on is wrong. In fact, it’s more than wrong, it’s offensive.

The story was only 12K words and so much plot was crammed in there that of course, it was superficial and silly. When Heinrich finds out that the love of his life, Marika, is really Mark, he responds with a blithe, “No problem, I’ve known that all along,” and he’s instantly gay. That might work as the punchline in Some Like It Hot, a romantic comedy movie, but not in an alleged war-time drama.

I could go on but it’s pointless to do so. Believe me when I say that there is nothing that makes this book worthwhile. The dialog is silly (they all sound like present-day Americans), the history is nonexistent and the story is preposterous. Even the sex is dull. All in all, one star and a reminder to myself to pass on future books from this writing team.

Available for purchase (but really, you don’t want to do that) here.

Disclaimer: A free copy of this ebook was provided to me by Erastes, owner of this site, for this review.

Review: Mark Antonious deMortford by G.A. Hauser

Handsome Mark Antonious deMontford had been raised on a farm in Newbury, England, unaware of his parentage until his nineteenth birthday when, during a visit to London, he encounters a world of wealth, intense sexual appetites, and an Italian by the name of Francesco. Francesco Cavalla is bold and fearless. But the powerful bodyguard who lives by the sword is also a slave to his heart. Abandoned by a former lover, stranded in a foreign land, Francesco loses himself in London’s red light district where he spends his nights drowning in taking and giving pleasure. Then he meets Mark, a man who needs so much, and who he can deny nothing. Mark and Francesco begin a journey of discovery, which takes them to new heights of passion. But when an unexpected turn of events threatens to reveal secrets that mark them for death, the two men are faced with a decision. Abandon one another, or truly embark on the quest of a lifetime.

I have to say that this was one of the funniest (unintentionally) books that I’ve read for a long while. There was nothing I could take seriously, because the entire thing read like it had been translated by someone who didn’t speak English as a first language and had done their research (if any) with movies.

The main character, the bizarrely named Mark Antonious deMontford is the ubiquitous “innocent” who has been gently raised on a farm in Newbury and who is taken to London to meet some cousins. He is immediately sexually predated upon by everyone in the house, and his reaction is … well, none, really. The mother, the father, the son and even the 15 year old daughter (who he spurns for being a child, but that’s obviously for the American censor rather than for any realism) make passes at him and in 3 of the 4 cases, suceed in doing anything to Mark they want.

I nearly stopped on page one because right from the first paragraph the facts were wrong:

During the final year of Queen Anne’s reign of England, Antonio Vivaldi astonished audiences with his miraculous Four Seasons…”

I don’t remember any time when Vivaldi came to England and surely the most cursory search on The Four Seasons should havs shown that it was not composed until 1723.

One fact, I thought anyone can make mistakes – It’s all right, so I moved on. Only to find on the next page “brownstone houses” in London. Then there’s mention of polo ponies, pooftahs,  gaslight in 1713(!) performances of operas that couldn’t have happened, streets in the wrong locations, places mentioned-like Mayfair-that didn’t even exist… the list goes on and on.

I say bizarrely named, because it’s never explained why he’s got such a peculiar name. He’s the illegitimate son of a travelling singer called Elizabeth Jones and a rich and powerful Venetian politician called Marc Antinous Caeserni. So where the deMontford comes in, (as he would have been called Jones) and why he’s Antonious and not Antinous, is just never explained. I have to say that it was not the only thing I was baffled about.

I won’t waste much time on the characterization because there really isn’t any. We are told that Mark is beautiful–so beautiful that every single person, male female eunuch and child wants him immediately–but other than his green eyes and velvet skin and interminably mentioned long hair, we get no idea of why he’s so irresistable. He wavers from disgust at his mother’s fall from grace (while fucking everyone in sight) to fury at his father’s abandonment, so much so he behaves like a positive psycho.

The secondary characters are no better, unable to think with anything but their gonads once they’ve set eyes on Mark, and unable to speak in anything but the most appalling stilted prose.

Here’s an exchange with his cousin who he has just met, and who comes to his room.

“You lovely thing. Why have they kept you away from us for so long?” Richard closed the gap between them and dug his left hand into Mark’s long hair.

Mark swallowed down a dry throat. Could he have been right then?

“God, you are glorious. I must have you!” Richard pressed against his length. “Don’t say no, it isn’t polite.”

Then there’s this whole theme running throughout the book about Mark having to be reminded to eat with his knife and I really didn’t get this at all. It was the fork that was the new innovation at this time, and although had been around for a while, it was still considered an affection and wasn’t generally used except by the rich. Also, the forks generally had only two tines, so  this passage:

Mark sat straighter and realized he’d forgotten to use the knife.  He cursed under his breath and grabbed it, trying to remember how to use the darn thing. Let’s see, scoop? No. Oh, that’s right, use it as a wall to fill the fork.

I wouldn’t make such a big deal about this, if the author didn’t, but this is brought up at least four or five times and I was entirely baffled. Why doesn’t he know how to use his knife? Then I realised. This is an American author, and the Americans tend to use their knife rarely and the English use both knife and fork.  This makes this passage highly amusing, particularly so as you couldn’t mash the food against a two tined fork. Without knife or fork I can only imagine he was eating with his fingers in Newbury.

Factual errors aside, I found this a painful read. Had every fact been correct I would still have found it so, because the prose is so dreadful throughout. Having worked with Linden Bay Romance myself, I find it hard to believe that that company edited it, as the pronoun confusion and often bizarre sentences need red-penning. Badly.

To make matters worse, if that’s possible, there’s literally no sex in the book. Oh yes, Mark has sex with just about everyone he meets, but it’s almost closed door sex, so briefly described that I can’t even recommend it as a wank book.

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Review: The Butcher and the Beast by Sean Michael

Stephen is a doctor, a practical man who wishes his sister wouldn’t worry so about the pirates that plague their island home. So it’s ironic that Stephen himself is set upon by just those pirates, who carry him off to heal their wounded captain. John is a pirate Captain, master of his fate, and used to getting what he wants. And he decides he wants Stephen, even when the good doctor wants nothing more than to run away from him. Can the beast convince the doctor the sailors call the butcher to stay with him?

Review by Erastes

First off – the cover. I don’t get the cover. I don’t know what that triangular shape is in the middle of the shot, it looks like a nose– I’ve seen this pose on a couple of books now and I still don’t get it. Perhaps it’s sort of like one of those pictures where there’s an old woman and a young woman in the same picture and one day I’ll see what it’s supposed to represent. But it’s creepy.

I admit that I nearly gave up reading within the first six pages due to some extremely clunky prose, and then I wanted to give up when it went downhill from there.

Very hard to ascertain when this was set by the clues set therein. Ether wasn’t used until the 1840s, “roustabout” wasn’t used until 20 years later, “hooligans” not even in the 19th century and yet, pirates were in their heyday a lot earlier than this.

The main character, Stephen, was so obviously a girl that I couldn’t help but think that this book had been converted from a hetero romance to a gay romance without any care for re-characterisation. He stamps his dear little feet, he shouts “Demon. You beast!” at every available opportunity, along with “Unhand me ruffian” and my eyes were rolling madly. As for the Pirate Captain, I think he’s a cat as the only thing he ever seems to do is purr.

The story is predictable: eroticised rape, lots of “unhand me you imprecator of penisy goodness!!” which gradually turns to desire and love–it might hit someone’s buttons but not mine. There’s no plot. It’s just sex.  “Do you do nothing but rut?” asks Stephen at one point. No. He doesn’t.

The editing…well there’s no word for it but appalling. Unforgivable homonyms such as passed instead of past. Missing apostrophes, plurals where there shouldn’t be plurals.  Standard Torquere output. Some people have said that it’s not fair to mention editing in a review but I disagree hugely. The author and the publisher are jointly responsible for bringing a book to the public eye and the book–any book–deserves better than this.

Quite aside from all that, endless repetitive conversations, 90% sex, and the blatant rip off of the Pirates of the Caribbean themes of kidnapping due to a misworded promise and phrases like “so we have an accord,” this is simply a book that will make you laugh, but for all the wrong reasons.  The only research that went on for this book seems to have been watching cliched pirate movies, and is nothing better than a bad wallpaper historical.

I can’t recommend it in the slightest.

Buy at Fictionwise

Review: Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander by Ann Herendeen

HarperCollins Publishers
ISBN: 978-0-06-145136-2


Andrew Carrington is the ideal Regency gentleman: heir to an earldom, wealthy, handsome, athletic—and gay. When he decides to do his duty to his family, he wants marriage on his terms: an honest arrangement, with no disruption to his way of life. But in the penniless, spirited—and curvaceous—Phyllida Lewis, a self-educated author of romances, Andrew gets more than he bargained for, perhaps even love. And when he meets honorable, shrewd—and hunky—Matthew Thornby, son of a self-made baronet, Andrew seems to have everything a man could desire, until a spy and blackmailer tries to ruin him and his friends.

Review by T J Pennington (WARNING: Review has many spoilers)

I get the feeling that this book garnered the attention it did because the romance reviewers were, by and large, not familiar with stories involving gay or bisexual characters and therefore found this kind of romance new and daring. I, on the other hand, have read, proofread, written and published both, and I know a great many people who have done the same. Consequently, I’m not looking at this book as something innovative, but as part of a long-established genre.

Originally published by AuthorHouse on September 12, 2005 (and re-published by Harper Collins on April 29, 2008), it is the tale of a peer’s nephew named Andrew Carrington, who wants to marry a young woman named Phyllida Lewis. Andrew is rich and needs an heir. He’s also homosexual.

We know that the story takes place in 1812 because the Prime Minister is assassinated at the end of the book, and Spencer Perceval, the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated, died on May 11, 1812. Now…in 1812, mind you, when homosexuality was a hanging offense and even being rumored to be homosexual got you three to six months in Newgate…Phyllida not only knows that Andrew is gay but talks about it casually and states that she has no objection to men of that sort.

“Well,” I can hear people whispering, “perhaps Phyllida is ahead of her time. Perhaps she is simply less prejudiced than most people in her era. That’s possible, right?” But then the situation with Andrew and Phyllida gets better.

Phyllida agrees to consider Andrew as a prospective husband. He comes to her mother’s house to visit her. Her mother immediately leaves Phil without herself or another older woman as a chaperone (which would be enough to ruin the young woman socially) and exits stage left with Andrew’s friend and lover, Verney. Andrew and Phyllida talk, mostly about sex and marriage, for five minutes. Then he convinces her to sit in his lap, gives her a French kiss, puts her hand on his erection and starts pinching and stroking one of her nipples.

Five minutes after meeting her.

Now, I don’t know about you, but if someone started forcing me to stroke him and grabbing my nipple five minutes after meeting me, that guy would get a knee to the crotch and a punch in the nose. I cannot think of any society in which Andrew’s behavior is acceptable, never mind the heavily mannered world of the Regency. At the very least, I would expect Phyllida to slap the rude, crude bastard’s face and flounce out of the room, not press herself against his erection. This is a young woman who has already turned down one suitor for being “debauched,” after all.

Never mind the implication that gayness can be fixed by the right woman. Because Phil’s so awesomely female that she instantly turns Andrew, who has previously had no attraction to women, bisexual. *headdesk *

I could accept the idea of a straight man suppressing homosexual impulses for years until one day he couldn’t ignore them any longer. But that’s not the case here. What we have is a gay man in a heteronormative society which is strongly geared toward male/female pairings and marriages who somehow fails to notice until he’s in his mid-thirties that he’s actually interested in women as well as men. I cannot shake the feeling that Andrew should have recognized this attraction a little earlier.

Moreover, we get other contradictions. Phyllida states that she’s twenty-two and “not on the shelf”– which I think is supposed to mean that she’s not yet a spinster. However, the term and the attitude are both wrong. The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue says that at the time “on the shelf” meant “pawned.” And a woman of twenty-two, four years past her first season, would be decidedly long in the tooth as far as the marriage market was concerned.

Of course, the heroine is blessed with every virtue. We are told this before we are shown it. We are informed that Phyllida has inherited her father’s good looks and her mother’s brains, that she is independent, the picture of maidenly innocence, generous, dutiful, modest and the prettiest girl in the county. She is also a somewhat successful writer of gothic romances. The only reason that such a paragon is unmarried, of course, is not that no one has proposed–but that she has never found a man that she wishes to wed.

Phyllida is oddly knowledgeable about homosexuality for a young lady of her time, and oddly casual about it too. I found this jarring. I ended up reading over her first speech about Andrew several times. “Did she really say that the man doesn’t care for women?” I found myself asking. “Does she know what that means? And…wait a second! She ‘doesn’t have any objection to men of that sort’? Moreover, she comfortably engages in “a technical but spicy discussion of the safest way to express unnatural relationships between men, sexual acts not confined to the standard one between men and women, and other interesting topics” at her publisher’s. I tried to imagine Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters having such a discussion with their publishers, and nearly broke my brain.

As I read on, however, I learned that Phyllida’s attitude was not so strange. Phyllida, you see, inhabits the world of OK Homo. It is common knowledge that Andrew Carrington—whose name makes me think of the old soap opera, Dynasty–is a sodomite; this is established early on. Now, according to A History of Criminal Law: The Movement for Reform, 1750-1833 by Leon Radzinowicz, the penalty for sodomy and what was termed “the crime against nature” (a catch-all term which could mean oral sex, homosexual acts in general, bestiality…oh, and sodomy itself) was deprivation of clergy (no last-minute confessions or forgiveness from God, in other words) and death by hanging. Provided that penetration and emission could both be proven, both the top AND the bottom would be hanged…provided that the bottom was aged fourteen or over. If the bottom was under fourteen, he was not guilty of a felony, though the top was.

Yet, despite the fact that homosexual acts are allegedly a crime in this book, as they were in real life, nothing happens to Andrew—or to Monkton, Verney or any of the members of the Brotherhood of Philander. The gay club is never raided, though everyone knows it is a gay club and that sexual acts take place on the premises. Andrew’s younger brother is not only aware of his brother’s homosexuality, but—I suppose jokingly, though it’s not funny—asks Andrew not to expect him to service Andrew on his knees as one of his male lovers would. No, really. He says that.

“Just as long as you don’t ask me to do what your ganymedes do on their knees,” Richard said. “Although considering the fate you’ve spared me [by paying all his debts], I’d accept that as a fair trade.”

Nor is Richard the only one saying inappropriate things. Andrew’s sister Lady Fanshawe gossips about her brother’s sexual orientation to his new bride and thinks nothing of it. Phyllida herself speaks openly and before witnesses about Andrew having male lovers; she’s reproved for speaking “brazenly,” but Andrew suffers no adverse consequences at all. Indeed, his sexuality is discussed openly at dances, at parties, and at the theatre by all and sundry, and it is no more than a topic of curiosity—and a bet. Yes, all of upper-crust society is knows that Andrew has a taste for men, and is betting on whether or not he can consummate the marriage and get Phyllida with child. Phyllida is told about this bet on at least twelve separate occasions. Andrew’s sexual preference is certainly not a criminal matter; it’s a source of amusement. I could not help but wonder why the Brotherhood of Philander, with its devotion to secrecy, needed to exist in the first place.

As the book goes on, it becomes clear that not only is this the world of OK Homo, but also a large proportion of the cast is a) bisexual and b) attracted to everyone else. Phyllida starts things off by declaring that Lady Fanshawe, Andrew’s sister, is “magnetically, erotically fascinating,” which I think is rather hard to misunderstand. Andrew, of course, is proclaimed to be gay throughout but can’t get enough of Phyllida in bed, so I’ll say that he’s bi. An allegedly bisexual actor and his equally bisexual actress sister both find Phyllida charming and fascinating. Lord Isham, the founder of the Brotherhood of Philander is married, and his male lover, Lord Rupert, is the father of one of Isham’s supposed sons. Isham, Isham’s wife and Rupert give Phyllida marital advice and quite a lot of information about how their menagé a trois works. Andrew’s doctor is both the physician for the Brotherhood of Philander and one of Andrew’s former lovers, yet he finds Phyllida appealing and doesn’t doubt for a minute that Andrew could have fallen in love with a woman. And of course, Monkton—a self-described completely homosexual man who reminded me of the camp Anthony Blanche in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited –tells Phyllida after a few minutes acquaintance that she inspires irresistible lust even in him.

Please note that the common denominator for all of this het lust in the non-straight is Phyllida, for Phyllida is the anti-gay. It even says so in the text. Here Monkton speaks to her:

“Have you looked in the glass lately? I mean within the past five years? You are beautiful. Not perhaps in the current ideal, but in a much more meaningful way, a carnal way, that men find irresistible, even men like me, to an extent. For the majority, those who are closer to the middle of the spectrum, like Carrington, you must appear as a very dainty morsel indeed.”

Look at what Monkton is saying:

1) There’s a spectrum of sexuality—a concept that popularized by the Kinsey Reports [Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948 ) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953).] Monkton mentioning it, therefore, is a blatant anachronism.

2) The majority of people are in the middle of the spectrum and therefore bisexual. This is an anachronistic opinion based on an anachronism—heterosexuality would definitely have been regarded as the norm in 1812. And speaking of alternate sexuality to a respectable married woman after only a few minutes acquaintance? In the heavily mannered world of the Regency? This is not merely anachronistic; it is surrealistic.

3) Beauty means more if it inspires lust.

4) Phyllida is so desirable, she can even make a completely homosexual man lust after her and find her irresistible.

I dislike this last intensely, for it says that homosexuality is something that can be changed if a gay man just meets the right woman. This is not a pro-gay attitude; it’s a reactionary one. It’s the basis of the whole idea that homosexuality is a condition that can and should be cured. That such an attitude exists in a novel rife with homosexuality and bisexuality I find deplorable.

But Monkton doesn’t stop there. I could have passed off his previous comment as exaggeration or sarcasm if he had, but no.

“…you have true beauty, and wit and intelligence. And while you are neither spiteful nor cruel, you have not allowed your natural kindness and generosity to cloud the shining purity of your malice. There is a remarkable openness in your conversation, with just the hint of acid that makes for a perfect bouquet, like a dry wine of superior vintage.”

You would think that anything that praised malice and acidity would be a back-handed compliment at best. However, Monkton has already told Phyllida that he finds most women dull and insipid and that he likes her wit and her sense of humor, so this is praise for what ought to be a flaw, as well as laudation for all of her other virtues.

There were moments that I had to struggle to read on. For example, Phyllida’s mother “eye[s] her daughter in her lush nakedness with gloating admiration” and makes a point of cutting twenty-two-year-old Phyllida’s pubic hair…for no clear and convincing reason. She says that Andrew “won’t want a dirty bush down there”–but since Andrew has no experience with women whatsoever, I don’t see why he would care. It seems more like an excuse to get close to her adult daughter’s genitalia. I’m not a fan of incest, lesbian or otherwise…and yet Mrs. Lewis’s actions strongly hint that this is not your average mother-daughter relationship.

Herendeen also produces quite the worst sexual scenes and sexual descriptions I’ve ever read. The gay sex scenes are brief and vague to the point of non-existence and focus on Andrew verbally flagellating his partners for being willing to have sex with him. It reads as if the author has no idea how gay sex even works, anatomically and emotionally, and is trying desperately to skim over the details.

Yet the het sex is no better. In the honeymoon scene, Andrew coyly refers to his penis as his “beef bayonet,” and acts as if he thinks is a very witty and sexy phrase. He also compares female arousal to “ordinary female sliminess” and thinks of Phyllida’s dampness as “clear mucus.” I found it most peculiar that an allegedly bisexual man who described things in such terms would want to have sex with a woman at all. Phyllida, for her part, thinks of “fucking,” “screwing” and “rape,” terms which a gently reared young lady of the Regency almost certainly would not use, and observes that “[t]he sound of him pulling out” was “a sucking, farting sound.” If any of this sounds even remotely attractive, I’m not telling it right.

It’s very strange, incidentally, that Phyllida thinks in terms of marital rape. The concept simply didn’t exist during the Regency. I can remember when the question of whether a woman could be raped by her husband first arose, in fact—during the 1970s. Before that, a woman was legally presumed to be “in a constant state of readiness for her husband”–that her body was his property, and that by marrying him, she’d already said yes. That, given the time and the place, is the concept that Phyllida should logically have. She doesn’t have to like it, and I do not expect that she would. But she should be aware that any man she married would have total access to her body at all times, because that’s the norm for her world. Instead, she repeatedly protests, screams and whines that she’s been raped…after thinking, time and again, how much she desires Andrew, and after eagerly and enthusiastically responding to her husband’s advances. It’s mad, illogical, anachronistic behavior, and it makes about as much sense as a member of the Boston Tea Party protesting the war with Iraq.

However, when Phyllida actually is assaulted by her husband’s steward, she doesn’t even think of rape, although there is no question that is what he’s attempting. Even more ludicrous is the fact that the attempted rapist blackmails her into silence by threatening to tell all “[a]bout your sodomite husband and all his friends at the Brotherhood of Philander”–even though Phyllida knows perfectly well that everyone already knows about her sodomite husband and all his friends at the Brotherhood of Philander. An author cannot create tension by stressing a danger that’s already been shown to be negligible.

Not only is marital rape a topic in the novel, but so are inheritance, divorce and illegitimacy. Unfortunately, they, too, are mentioned in a way that betrays the author’s ignorance. Francis Newburn (Andrew’s uncle, the earl) states the following:

“Better have it out now,” Newburn said. “No point in having someone else’s brat inheriting the title when it’s too late to do anything about it. Better a divorce now than the entire estate passing to the by-blow of an actor or a libertine.”

Let me count the ways in which that little speech is wrong.

First, the matter of inheritance. Newburn has no sons of his own who would inherit the title and his property. His younger brother, Andrew’s father, would inherit, but he’s dead. Andrew, Newburn’s oldest nephew, is the closest male relative that Newburn has. Assuming that the closest male relative is eligible to inherit—which wasn’t always the case, but seems to be so here–Andrew will inherit both his uncle’s title and his uncle’s estate. The only ways that he could fail to inherit would be if he were a minor at the time of his uncle’s death (and even then he’d inherit when he came of age), a bankrupt, insane, or dead. Francis Newburn has no say in the matter of who will have the title after him. (And being a scandalous and disgraceful person never stopped anyone from inheriting, though Andrew doesn’t seem to know this.)

Secondly, Newburn speaks as if divorce were commonplace and easy to obtain. Prior to the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, divorce was very, very difficult to get. It cost hundreds of pounds, dragged on for years and required the passing of a private act of Parliament. Only four women ever got divorces by act of Parliament. Furthermore, a divorced couple would not be allowed to remarry in the church, as their ex-spouses were still alive. This would rather inconvenience anyone like a peer or a peer’s heir, i.e. Andrew, who needed to sire a legitimate son.

Third, illegitimacy. If a wife had an affair and got pregnant–which Newburn is as good as telling Phyllida he thinks she’s going to do—it was up to the husband to accept or reject the child. If he accepted the child, the child was, under the law, his. (Before the days of DNA testing, it would be rather hard to disprove parentage, after all.) Newburn shouldn’t be focusing on Phyllida; he should be trying to persuade Andrew to reject any child Andrew isn’t absolutely certain is his, because Andrew is the one who can confer or deny legitimacy to his wife’s offspring.

Newburn is protesting situations that do not exist, and is proposing solutions that do not exist, either. I must say that I consider this strange for a work that has been described as “meticulously researched.”

There are other bits that make no sense in the social context of the novel. For example, the matter of servants. Andrew has a staff of twenty at his townhouse, including a butler. Yet no servant ever answers the door or announces visitors, as would be the duty of a footman or butler. Instead, guests—and I use the term loosely–just walk right in off the street and announce themselves loudly to all and sundry, in the hopes of finding the master or mistress of the house at home. (For some reason, Yardley the butler never locks the front door.)

Then, too, Andrew hires Nan, a scullery maid, to act as Phyllida’s lady’s maid. This is patently ridiculous; the two jobs were light-years apart in terms of training and social status. No jumped-up girl from the scullery, whose job would have involved stoking the kitchen stove, emptying chamber pots, scrubbing the kitchen and the pantry, setting the table and washing dishes, pots and pans, would ever be a lady’s maid. Ladies’ maids were companions to their mistress, second only to the housekeeper in terms of status. They took care of the mistress’s hair and clothes, packed for her, helped her change five or six times a day, and accompanied her on trips to country houses. It was an enviable position in the servant hierarchy, and everyone upstairs and downstairs would know it. For Andrew to promote a Cockney scullery maid to such a job, he’d have to be extraordinarily ignorant of the norms of his own class and society, extraordinarily insulting toward his new wife, or both.

Phyllida also isn’t familiar with the society of her day, though she should be. For example, she claims that the Season begins after Easter. This is erroneous. The Season began when Parliament sat for the first time. This could be anytime from after Christmas through January. Admittedly, things did tend to pick up a bit after Easter (and no wonder, given the difficulties of riding in a horse-drawn carriage across unpaved, unplowed, icy roads), but nevertheless, the Season started in the winter.

Stranger than the characters’ vast ignorance of the world around them are the odd contradictions in Phyllida’s personality. She’s a demure and innocent young miss while also possessing a fiery temper, coarse manners and cursing like a stevedore. She is supposed to be a businesswoman who deals with editors and publishers. Yet at the same time, she is so naive that she has no idea that the average upper-class Regency woman is NOT wearing a “low-cut bodice that expose[s] the top of the nipples” or a “net tunic over the sheer underskirt through which the dark triangle at the top of her thighs showed as a dim shadow” in public.

This is not to say that diaphanous clothing never existed in England. It did, circa 1789, during the Directoire period. However, it only lasted a few years. “[B]y 1812,” writes Venetia Murray in An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England, “they [N.B. the English] had gone back to their false bosoms and familiar corsets.”

You would think that Phyllida would recognize that the diaphanous clothes are of a fashion twenty-three years out of date. Most young women would stick at wearing the hopelessly out-of-fashion garments that their mothers used to wear. And surely a young woman brought up in a small, conservative village would press for something slightly more modest. The only conclusion I can draw is that Phyllida is the Regency’s proto-nudist.

I have mentioned Phyllida being a writer of gothic romances. There is nothing wrong with that; gothics were indeed being written at the time. However, gothic fiction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was very different from the stories that Phyllida writes. Books that readers of gothics would have read—for Frankenstein, The Vampyre, tales by Hawthorne and Poe, as well as Jane Austen’s parody of gothic fiction, Northanger Abbey, had not yet been written in 1812—would have been The Monk (1796) by Matthew Gregory Lewis, The Italian (1797) by Ann Radcliffe, Clermont (1797) and The Children of the Abbey (1800) by Regina Maria Roche, and Wieland (1797) by Charles Brockton Brown.

But Phyllida does not write about terror, curses, ghosts, demons, madness, the evils of science, or the power of the Devil, which would have been typical for gothic fiction. No. She writes about the villainous Lord Iskander who wants Melisande, a woman he is holding captive and with whom he has already had orgasmic sex, to give him a blowjob.

This might qualify as gothic romance nowadays. It is not, however, what would have qualified as gothic back then.

As for sex being so blatantly portrayed in a novel of the time—not in a mainstream press. Possibly in an underground press, but not a mainstream one. The precedent was set in 1727 when Edmund Curl, an English publisher, was convicted for disturbing the peace for publishing Venus in the Cloister, in which two nuns merely talk about sex. Obviously, disturbing the peace is not a felony, and yet a lawsuit is a lawsuit. I doubt if Phyllida’s publisher would agree to publish anything that might get him, his publishing company or foolish Phyllida into legal trouble; mud has a nasty habit of sticking.

Phyllida also speaks of earning her own income through writing. This made me hurl the book across the room in fury, for it’s blatantly wrong, as the 1836 Caroline Norton case attests. Caroline Norton was a member of upper-class society who tried to separate from her husband. After she left her husband, Norton made it impossible for her to see her children, cut off all access to the marital property and charged Caroline and Lord Melbourne with adultery. The court case was unsuccessful, but it wore on for years. Caroline tried getting a divorce from Norton on the grounds of cruelty after the adultery case ended. She failed, for his behavior was not considered cruelty under the law.

Without any other income, Caroline began selling stories and poems. However, Caroline was still legally married—and her husband, as was his legal right, claimed a great deal of what she earned as his property.

The Caroline Norton case was the impetus for reform of the laws regarding married women and property. And the laws were changed, yes. But the Married Women’s Property Law was not passed until 1882…seventy years from Phyllida’s time.

So Phyllida, like Caroline Norton, has no legal rights. Any money she earns from her books belongs to Andrew. Phyllida’s contract with her publisher is now null and void, because any contracts made by an unmarried woman dissolved the day she married; all of her property was belonged to her husband. And Phyllida cannot re-negotiate a new one on her own, for no married woman could make a contract without her husband’s consent, or sign one without her husband being co-signer. It’s most peculiar that the author missed all of this, seeing as how it impacts her subplot of Phyllida as writer. It’s not as if the information were inaccessible. I found it in two minutes.

I must add that Phyllida has a most peculiar morality. She doesn’t understand why her husband’s brother, Dick, is considered a rake when he’s notorious for seducing women and, on at least one occasion, got a widow pregnant with his illegitimate son. I was under the impression that this was the kind of behavior that one could expect from a rake. As far as Phyllida is concerned, however, Dick just likes women, and what’s wrong with that? She also considers Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to be guilty of two sins—the sins of disbedience to their parents and another that isn’t specified…though she seems unaware that the two were married. At the same time, she gets sexually turned on by seeing a young allegedly bisexual actor dry-hump her husband in front of her, and, when the actor apologizes for his behavior, tells him with a soft smile, a laugh and shining eyes, “There is nothing to forgive, Mr. Powyl. I am delighted that Andrew has such an interesting friend.”

Phyllida reminds me very strongly of the original characters who populate every fandom—the ones who are shy yet outspoken, happy yet harboring a secret sorrow, loving yet friendless, calm but ill-tempered. The author seems to want her to have things not only both ways, but every which way. I kept wishing that Herendeen would pick one set of traits for Phyllida and stick with them for the rest of the book.

Also, there is a great deal wrong with Andrew. He is continually presented as having come to terms with his sexuality and having absolutely no shame, yet he angrily addresses the men he has sex with as “sluts” and “whores,” and curses Harry Swain, when he receives Harry’s “Dear John” letter, as a “whoring cunt” and “a goddamned two-timing bitch.” He does this whether he’s talking to a rentboy, an actor or a fellow nobleman. (Personally I found it interesting that all of the words that Andrew uses to revile men are words about women. This goes a long way toward dissuading me that he likes or respects women, much less loves Phyllida.)

He also spends a great deal of time brooding about whether the alleged love of his life, Harry, has been physically faithful to him for the three years that he has been in the army. Yet Andrew has been rather blatantly unfaithful to Harry Swain…with, as near as I can tell, half the male population of England. Nor does he bother to write to the man he supposedly loves and tell him, “Oh, by the way, I’m married now, but don’t worry, I still love you.” He is, to be blunt, a selfish and emotionally frozen creature who lacks the ability to speak to anyone he’s been physically intimate with as if they are human beings.

Yet, at the same time, Andrew behaves like a stereotypical queen. He not only bursts into tears when Harry breaks things off with him because Harry’s fallen in love with someone else—and after three years of playing around, I can hardly believe Andrew is heartbroken–he also goes into shock and needs brandy to revive him, then vomits and faints. This doesn’t fit Andrew’s previous behavior; I can only conclude that Herendeen thinks that this is how a gay man, regardless of his personality, would inevitably act under emotional stress. More practical questions— such as “Why didn’t Andrew enlist in the same company as Harry, if he wanted to be with Harry?” and “Why didn’t Harry get any leave in three years?”–are simply never answered.

Quite a few other stereotypes are trotted out and claimed to be facts, too. For example, Andrew’s doctor, Reginald Stevens, informs Phyllida that “[t]hree years is a ridiculously long time to hold onto the memory of a love affair,” though it’s clear that the love affair ended that morning and not three years ago. Nor does Stevens qualify his statement by adding that it’s a long time “if one of the men is away at war” or “given the fact that couples who love each other can’t be together openly.” This sounds like a reiteration of a stereotype I remember hearing when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s: that homosexual men simply could not commit in any relationship. Phyllida, for her part, wonders whether Harry Swain played husband or wife in his relationship with Andrew…another persistent stereotype.

And then there is Matthew Thornby. He is allegedly the love of Andrew’s life, though he doesn’t show up until almost three hundred pages in. I was not convinced that Andrew loved him; he acted the same way toward Matthew that he did toward all of his sexual partners, swearing at and reviling him. That he was sexually attracted, I had no doubt. I simply did not believe that Andrew could be in everlastingly true love with Matthew after a little small talk and a quick screw outside. I think that a little getting to know each other and building a friendship between the two men would have been nice—but no. Sex first.

Herendeen cannot seem to keep details about Thornby straight. He bounces between speaking the King’s English flawlessly and dropping into the broad accent of a Yorkshire farmer—as if everyone from Yorkshire spoke the same way. He’s described as being quite wealthy, the son of a baronet who earned his money through cotton and of sufficient social stature to attend White’s and Almack’s…yet Andrew tries to hire him as his secretary for two hundred pounds a year on the grounds that “it’s more than you’re getting now” as “a wage slave, grubbing in that wretched warehouse in the City or wherever you go.” And oh, yes, he’s quite serious. He’s trying to place his lover in his household, yes, but Andrew really thinks he’s doing the man a favor by giving him a good job. Andrew never wonders once how anyone who “grubbed in a warehouse” could afford to associate with him in the first place.

But then, there is a lot of confusion in this book. On one page, Phyllida is punching her husband for having sex with her; a few pages later, she’s dreaming about how amazing the sex felt and wondering when they’ll do it again. In another section, Phyllida and Nan dress up like men so that they can get into the Brotherhood of Philander to spy; a page or so later, she’s teaching Nan, one of their neighbors and Nan’s male prostitute lover how to read by using one of her novels as a primer. There is talk about lords wanting a career in politics (members of the peerage couldn’t run for the House of Commons), a muddling of corporal punishment and capital punishment, the suggestion that peers were exempt from hanging (they weren’t—though they were entitled to be hanged with a silk rope rather than one made from hemp), and a convoluted spy plot that involves a government official who deals with espionage putting a spy of French ancestry in Andrew’s house as an employee, and the spy then trying to blackmail homosexual men who are very obviously out. The spy, Philip Turner, was passing on coded messages about the Brotherhood of Philander—no, he didn’t know anything about it until he was brought to the club. Turner is completely straight and repulsed by homosexuality; no, he’s bisexual; no, he’s homosexual and repulsed by women. Turner is an English agent; no, he’s an American and a former slave working for the French, but he’s still guilty of treason because he was spying on England.

The language, too, is somewhat jarring—inaccurate to a distracting degree. For example, there is a reference to a gentleman’s club for gays as “an exclusive madge house.” I looked it up in Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811). “Madge” was the slang term for a woman’s private parts. A “madge cull”–someone severed or separated from a woman’s private parts—was a male homosexual. So the club most emphatically has the wrong name—it might as well be called a pussy palace.

On the other hand, readers are also confronted with language that could not possibly have been used in 1812. “Gold digger,” in the sense of “woman who pursues men for their money,” was first recorded in 1915; “plaster saint,” in 1890; “teenager,” in 1941. “Making love,” in the sense of having sex, was first used in the USA in the 1950s; before then, it was a synonym for courting or wooing someone. “Migraine” is surprisingly legal—the word has been around since 1373—but I have to admit that I’ve heard the terms “megrims” and “sick headaches” used more often in books of the time.

A diligent proofreader who was unafraid to use a red pen would have done wonders…but this copy of the book was published by AuthorHouse, and AuthorHouse does not proofread, edit or even read the manuscripts they publish.

Doubtless at this point some people are fuming. I can hear them from here. “You’re being far too critical! She did her best! What do you want, a history textbook?”

No. No, I don’t. However, when a book is being sold as a historical novel—and the blurb cites the fact that this takes place in the Regency twice and praises it for “taking the reader to a little-known side of Regency life” once—I expect the novel to include well-written history interwoven with the plot. I do not like being jarred from a book with a reaction of “Wait, WHAT did the author just say?” every two pages or so. I don’t enjoy finding blatant error after blatant error in a book lauded for its attention to historical detail. What troubles me is that it wouldn’t have been hard to find and use correct historical information, and yet the author didn’t bother to do so—or, if she did, did not bother to incorporate it into the story. I am at a loss to understand why.

The writer herself says in an afterword that since the book is a romance, she considers it to be a form of fantasy fiction. This may well be her wish-fulfillment fantasy—given the idealization of her beautiful, virtuous, sexually desirable romance novelist heroine who is loved and wanted by all men, I don’t doubt it for an instant—but it is not fantasy fiction. That’s a different genre altogether. If the book is being sold as a historical, then saying after the novel is done that it only contains “elements of fact” and that she “wanted to create a mood, not a gussied-up history lesson” by using anachronistic language demonstrates rather clearly that Herendeen is writing in the wrong genre. She should not be writing historicals if she doesn’t want to bother with history or research. Since she could not be bothered to get one thing right in this book, and chose to make excuses for her sloppy work afterwards, I must conclude that she cares nothing for either.

Rating: one star. The best that I can say about it is that the work, at least, was Herendeen’s. It simply wasn’t good work.

A native New Yorker and lifelong resident of Brooklyn, Ann Herendeen has worked as a researcher for an urban planning consultant; an advertising media planner; a public and academic business reference librarian; a trademarks monitor for an intellectual property law firm; and a cataloging librarian specializing in natural history. Ann is a graduate of Princeton University, where she majored in English while maintaining a strong interest in English history.

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Review: Erotic Tales of the Knights Templar by Jay Starre

From (part of) the blurb:

Jay Starre offers up a raunchy, non-stop feast of lusty medieval adventures in his new book EROTIC TALES OF THE KNIGHTS TEMPLAR. A prolific wizard of the gay erotic short story, Starre has written twenty tales of nasty Knights in the middle ages as they battle and debauch their way through the Latin Kingdom of the thirteenth century Holy Land. Every page sizzles with unabashed hot gay eroticism. The erotic tales are intertwined with a back story of bondage, respect, discipline and servitude.

Review by Erastes

And that sort of sums it up I’m afraid. It’s hard for me to review this as a book within the genre because as a gay book it passes – there is more than enough gay sex here to please a regiment of gay men – but as a work of historical fiction it means almost nothing at all.

I’m informed by research and by more knowledgable friends that it’s perfectly possible that homosexual behaviour occurred in the Order – always the way when large groups of men are kept in together in “celibate conditions” – but there were strict rules against it within the Order (and of course in law of the the land). In fact I’m told that even showing yourself naked in the dormitory was against Order law. As my Templar expert says “…allegedly so they would be militarily prepared, but the source I read figured it was also to prevent the occasion of sin). You don’t make rules if there’s no behavior to legislate against.”

Having sex with a woman caused a Brother to have his worldly good (habit, weapons and horse) confiscated – but sodomy was punishable by expulsion.

The book itself is twenty short stories, loosely linked by character and plot – all porn filled. The stories are progressive in their porn too, and they don’t start soft – you’d expect the first story to perhaps have a blow-job, move up to anal in the second and so on – but here we start with fisting in the first, and they get gradually harder from there on in. BDSM features prominently in a lot of the stories, gang “dubious consent”, and a great deal of ye anciente objecte insertione. Hot they are. Historical? Perhaps. A new category, perhaps – rather than wallpaper historical, this is wallpaper historical porn. Frankly I can’t see the point of them wearing surplices or armour in the first place as they aren’t in them long enough to worry which century they are stripping off in.

The language has a tendancy to be giggleworthy rather than erotic though at times, because there are phrases such as “take it like a Templar” which caused me to nearly choke with laughter. As my Templar expert says: What does that mean? At prayer eight times a day? On a horse?

So really, it’s a big shame because of the lack of novels in this genre, and also because STARbooks have made a specific call for gay historical fiction – and they point this particular book out for prospective readers to use as an example of the sort of thing they are looking for.

It’s perfectly possible for gay historical novels to be erotic whilst still holding on to the period and having a strong plot and there have been many books that have ably illustrated this. But I’m afraid that this, other than being a quite effective wank book, didn’t give me any insight into the Order, the Crusades, or the era at all. But – for those who want to dream of a lusty Templar rogering you with a Saracen dildo, this is the book for you. For me, all I could think of as an alternative title was. Shagalot.

Shagalot by T J Pennington

A law was made a distant moon ago here
Medieval tales must always be quite hot
And not a single person says, “Go slow, dear
In Shagalot.

Vanilla is forbidden–it’s too boring
The readers much prefer kinks (and a lot)
Forget the plot–the characters are scoring
In Shagalot.

Each serf wears but the skimpiest of tunics
each Arab has a dildo, crystal clear
In short, there’s simply not; A more orgasmic spot
For harlots, knights and eunuchs than here
In Shagalot.

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