Review: The Red King by Rosemary O’Malley

A man abused and discarded is left to rebuild himself with naught but vengeance in his heart. A youth cruelly torn from all he knew and loved is cast adrift with no hope for the future. What will happen when Fate thrusts them together?

He is known as Ruaidhri and his extraordinary strengths and stamina are said to be born of the Devil. His ferocity is matched solely by his ruthlessness. For seven years, he has sailed his ship the Taibhse with one goal in mind: to avenge the years of torment he suffered at the hands of a depraved Danish lord. He has one final plan to succeed, but he searches yet for the implement.

His family destroyed by violence and his body enslaved to a brutal master, Andrew’s future promises only misery. He is saved from this desolate fate by a pirate captain with fiery hair and an ultimatum; help him achieve his revenge and go free, or be sent to a horrific, painful death. As Andrew struggles with the choice of slave or assassin, he finds that all is not as it seems aboard the corsair’s ship.

Pain is tempered by pleasure and loss consumed by love in the flames stoked by…The Red King..

ebook only – 320 pages (approx)

Review by Erastes

I always enjoy a well-written nautical adventure and this doesn’t disappoint. It’s clear right from the beginning that the author knows her subject and while I’m clueless about knots and lines and sheets I don’t really care about that stuff in the long run, as long as the book appears to know what it’s on about. Perhaps some expert sailor will find mistakes “a Xebec isn’t rigged like that” blah blah but I don’t know and with all else going on in the book I don’t particularly care. It reads like it does and that’s good enough for me!

The trouble with many nautical books-and I’m assuming that this is a hangover from all those hetero romances where the feisty heroine is dragged onboard by a scurvy but dangerously handsome captain and sparks fly–is that they tend to have the same trope which is exactly as described above, but with a feisty, or otherwise young man captured by that ubiquitous captain. This starts out like that but moves into different territory soon enough not to bore.

Here we have Andrew who is not-quite-a-monk and whose ship was waylaid by pirates.  Andrew – as these captives often are – is beautiful and everyone wants either to rape him or to protect him. I know it’s hard (cough) for a man to be without sex for a long time, but surely not every sailor automatically turns to gay rape rather than the alternatives.

Andrew, as the trope demands, starts out as particularly feeble–although that didn’t stop me from liking him. It wasn’t his fault he was raised gently by monks, after all. He mans up quite quickly which I approved of, and his character arc is fun to read, and he’s soon topping from the bottom and we find he’s not as feeble as we thought.

“I was raised by simple men, not simpletons!”

he says at one point and I cheered. There’s a bit of that problem with age and consent though, he’s 18, and of course has to be for American audiences, but at that age he’d be considered completely grown up in the 17th century, and it seems odd that despite raised by monks he never got around to taking holy orders, as that was his aim when in his monastery.

We get the first inkling that Andrew might eventually be swayed by the Captain’s lust quite quickly in the book.

“This was the captain? This man who looked like barbarian but was tending his wounds with the gentle touch of a Holy Sister? Where am I?” Andrew asked again, pulling his hands out of the man’s grasp. His touch, while gentle, was…disturbing.

Yes. the dot dot dots of foreshadowing!

The captain himself, Ruaidhri  or Rory, the Red King himself, is a larger than life character and one we can quite believe in, those of us raised on stories of Henry Morgan and Edward Teach. He’s a protector as well as a pirate and his aim is to kill a man and he is quite willing to use Andrew to do it. He has the fanatical devotion of his crew, and they are a great mixed bunch of miscreants too.

Lovers of yaoi will like this as it has very much a yaoi feel, particularly at the beginning where the naked innocent, who looks a lot younger than he is, is predated upon by “grown up” men. But I think lovers of shipboard romances will like it a lot too as there’s enough salty action to satisfy. There didn’t seem to be a lot of actual managing the ship–this tends to happen in books I’ve found. More chat than hauling on lines, but ships seem to sail themselves for the most part except in battles or storms! There are one or two tiny tiny instances which made me suspect this was converted fanfic, mentions of apples for example and people simply saying “Pirate” at each other, but if it is then it’s very well converted as never once did I see parallels in characterisation as I have in other books I’ve reviewed.

The growing relationship between Andrew and Rory is nicely done. There’s a rather delicious scene where Andrew tells Rory about a monk in the abbey who had confessed to wanting to kiss his bare bottom which is titillating and far more sensuous than many love scenes I’ve ever read. The fact that Andrew can’t see the effect he’s having while telling the story is quite squirmingly nice. All in all, there was rather too many sex scenes for me, but they aren’t really gratuitous, they do all lead forward in a progression, but well, there are a lot–although well written.

Description is pretty great throughout, to be honest. Without pages of the stuff, O’Malley manages to bring out the huge ocean, the huge sky, the hot claustrophobia of Algiers, the scent of a horse, the noises of the market. I could very easily see this transfer to a great graphic novel, as there’s images here in abundance. It’s much much more than a romance, there’s adventure and danger and philosophy and Cromwellian history and all sorts but it’s certainly never dull.

In fact, I thought I was the master of torturing my heroes especially when they look set for a happy ending, but O’Malley beats me hands down, she had me begging the book for a happy ending, which is something I never do. The ending for me, though, was a bit too drawn out and I got rather impatient with it and found myself skipping to get to the conclusion.

Editing is good, a couple of jarring instances -“lightning” was spelled “lightening” throughout for an example, compliment/complement being confused and some phrases that needed a firmer editing such as:

Rory quelled his sudden, urgent desire to kiss those lips and carry Andrew to the nearest couch with difficulty.

For those who need to know such things, there is one hetero sex scene in the book, and Rory as a ten year old had been taken and used by an adult. These scenes are short, rightly disturbing and not at all for titillation and are dealt with in memory segments. There are some unpleasant scenes towards the end too which if your squick factor is quite low you might want to avoid, but I hope it doesn’t put you off trying the book.  I’ve seen this book labelled BDSM on some sites but I certainly would not label it thusly. BDSM for me means a relationship and the abuse featured here is certainly no relationship, it’s abuse and shouldn’t be prettified.

Overall this is very enjoyable book, one that surprised me with each successive scene for the variety and scope. It should appeal to you whether you like your gay historicals to be well written, exciting, adventurous, factual (as far as this landlubber could ascertain, anyway), romantic and/or sensual. Well done, Ms O’Malley!

No Website that I could find.

Amazon UK | Amazon USA |

Review: Lost and Won by Sarah Ann Watts

‘There was a battle and you lost.’ Philip prayed never to see Francis again. Now the man who stole his heart is his prisoner, staking his life on Philip’s honour. All Philip has to do is let him go.

 1651: the Battle of Worcester is lost and won. Charles Stuart is a fugitive with a price on his head and Cromwell has the ‘crowning mercy’ of victory. Philip, a sober, respectable young man, fought bravely for the parliamentary cause and is looking forward to peace at his own hearth.

Francis, his lover and childhood friend, returns to make peace with his dying father and to give back Philip’s heart.

Soon Philip finds himself reluctantly sheltering a royalist spy and protecting the witch in his family.

Philip’s duty is clear and Francis staked his life on his honour. All he has to do is let Francis go. But how can Francis ask Philip to deliver him to justice?

Novella (79 pages, 16k words) ebook only

Review by Erastes

As far as I can ascertain, this is the author’s second offering (the first being a short story) but this is her debut book – and what a debut it is. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, as it’s verging on the literary side of romance but that fact merely underlines–in my opinion–this author’s talent. My mental ears were pricked when I noticed that it had been edited by Joanne Soper-Cook who is a major literary talent herself, and so I had good expectations going in and boy, I wasn’t disappointed.

It’s a very simple tale, of a Roundhead (Philip) returning from the war and encountering a lost love, (Francis) who is — of course — a Cavalier, how they interact when they meet and Philip’s thought processes throughout. Does he protect himself and hand Francis (who’s a very wanted man) over to the militia? Should Francis break his allegiance to the new King, now hiding in France and stay with Philip?

The story–although quite a small novella of 16K words–manages to convey a great deal, not just of what is going on right now, but hints at such a wealth of back-story that I admit to–once again–wishing that the author had written the whole book, not just what really amounts to a longish short story about one part of these men’s lives, because this could easily fill a novel and more.

The atmosphere and the scene setting are blooming marvellous, and you can tell from the prose–and from the author’s blogspot–that they’ve put in a hell of a lot of research because the details are rapier sharp. From the description of ragged lace, to the weather and the interior of the houses–we are very firmly in 17th century England, and not here via Hollywood either. Next to Maria McAnn, I’ve not read anything in this era that evokes the sense of interior darkness and the constant paranoia that anyone would have had who had any brush with the two sides at this time in English history.

For those of you who buy a book with an eye to the sex, you’ll be disappointed, because it’s sparse and vague – but if you don’t get this because of that, you’ll be missing out. As the blurb suggests, there’s a mere hint of a paranormal element, but it is cleverly done, and given the times it could be entirely subjective rather than “a real witch” so I’ve chosen to ignore it.

There are some portions of the book which, due to the fractured dialogue (which makes it realistic, if somewhat tricky to read) and allusions to things the reader knew no wot of, that at times made it confusing. However, I am quite sure that on a second read it would iron itself out, and that each subsequent read would probably reveal more and more to a reader which is something I love about books like this. I’m sorry to say that due to time constraints, I have only read this once so far, but it’s a keeper and I’ll be reading it again very soon. Watch out for this author, I think she’s going to be good.

Author’s Blogspot

Buy at: Silver PublishingAmazon UK | Amazon USA

Review: Cross Bones (short story anthology)

Ahoy, me proud beauty, shiver me timbers! I ask ye to sail me jollyboat on the high seas, lubber, but will ye dare to accept? On offer be a pirate’s life full of danger and risk, and not just to yer neck, but to yer very virgin heart! There’s many a bodice to be ripped–or perhaps I should say many a codpiece to be snapped–and should ye be graced enough to cross bones with a corsair, don’t be an addlepate! Heave ho, lad, handsomely, and show him how ye bury yer treasure!

Pirates didn’t only sail the high seas in historical times. Modern-day renegades and futuristic rebels are just as ripe for adventure and plunder. No matter the time, place, or circumstances, bad boys steal affection as often as they salvage treasure, and in these stories of romance, a rogue’s black heart always conceals a center of gold.

Review by Sal Davis

This is one of the jolliest covers I have seen. Well done Catt Ford. Looking at it one knows EXACTLY what’s on offer – piratical passion, and that’s what the reader gets. Here are nine stories with an historical setting, 2 stories set in the present, 2 fantasies and 2 futuristic ‘piiiiirates in spaaaace’ romps, all of which are good fun too.

Captain Merric by Rebecca Cohen – Captain Daniel Horton risks losing more than his life when he falls into the hands of notorious Captain Merric, who is surprisingly familiar.

Touched by the West Wind by Ellen Holiday – The lyrical tale of Thomas’s love for Brendan.

The Golden Galleon by K.R. Foster – called in to work by his partner on his day off, restauranteur Flynn gets a surprise.

My Hand in Yours by Emily Moreton – pirate captain woos peace keeper in a world full of magic.

Ghost of Jupiter by Jana Denardo – space privateer Al is shocked to find his latest raid has netted him a collection of dangerous alien slaves.

Officer and a Gentleman Pirate by E.S. Douglas – the capture of pirate Rheinallt Jones causes a naval lieutenant a crisis of conscience.

Objectivity by K.J. Johnson – American journalist Matthew risks all to get a story about African pirates.

Worth the Price by Cornelia Grey – Lt Edward Moon, abandoned to pirates by his commanding officer, has to choose between loyalty to the Commodore he despises and the pirate he desires.

Peter and the Lost Boys by Juan Kenobi – Peter is drowning his job related sorrows in a cocktail bar when charismatic Kap offers a solution.

Irish Red by MJ O’Shea – Loving a pirate can so easily lead to heartbreak, as Chris, barman of The Dagger, discovers.

Black John by Piper Vaughn – Juan has to choose whether to declare himself or let his love go free when Jacob is returned to him by the sea.

Rough Trade by Cooper West – “Black market trader” Audacity Gunner, unofficial captain of the AI ship Carthage, has his already random lifestyle further disrupted by the embarkation of Dr Sagittarius Deifenbaker.

From a Simmer to a Burn by B. Snow – Sule Okonjo, ex-slave, hates the Dutch. Ship’s carpenter Olaf is Norwegian but that’s close enough to engage Sule’s fury.

On the Wings of Lir by Riley Shane – Hugh Edward, officer on one of Her Britannic Majesty’s airships, is determined to capture Patrick Kelly, airship pirate.

The Winds of Change by Maggie Lee – Theo Cook, pirate, is perpetually unfaithful to his mess mate Sebastiano. Then they ship out with Edward Teach and Theo suddenly has competition.

Good fun is what this selection of pirate stories is all about. But if you’re the sort of reader who demands pin-sharp historical accuracy before you can even begin to think about enjoying a book, you may not like this anthology. Some of the stories are much better than others in that respect but, as short stories, none of them have much time for world building. Some authors set the scene admirably but some have concentrated exclusively on the passion while hand-waving the historical/naval research. As a representation of generic pirate fiction the anthology is good – I enjoyed the rompy bits while greeting the more thoughtful stories with a cheer – but it’s not Patrick O’Brien.

Buy from Dreamspinner. (paperback and ebook)

Review: Raised by Wolves 3. Treasure by W.A. Hoffman

Gay buccaneer historical adventure/romance. The third novel in a series chronicling the adventures of Will, a disenchanted English Lord, and his beloved matelot/partner, Gaston, an exiled Frenchman, set among the buccaneers of Port Royal, Jamaica, in the 1660s. In this volume, the men ponder the true definition of sanity and the necessity of compromise in the name of love while contending with the arrival of Gaston’s father, their potential inheritances, the political machinations of Will’s father, Henry Morgan’s ambition, a bounty upon their heads, unwanted brides, and an unexpected child.

Review by Sally Davis

Honestly, you can’t go wrong with a Howard Pyle image on the cover of a novel about buccaneers! This 19th and early 20th century artist is responsible for a lot of our most enduring images of the period, his style being instantly recognisable. Very good choice.

I’m a big fan of the late 17th and early 18th century, a time when boundaries were being pushed in all kinds of interesting ways and the building blocks of modern thought were slowly and painstakingly being laid down. Great leaps were being made in science, politics, philosophy, medicine and man’s relationships with God. The buccaneers society of the 17th century was one of the more fascinating experiments, arriving at a form of democracy and satisfying emotional needs with formal same sex unions, and proving its worth over many decades. Any novel set in this era should make at least some attempt to address some of the above, but in additon, Hoffman takes a long hard look at how those unfortunate individuals suffering from mental illnesses were treated both in and out of society.

The amount of research that went into this novel is plainly to be seen. It is even written in a period appropriate style – the narrator’s voice and the descriptions of Will and Gaston’s life on Negril reminding me of Robinson Crusoe. I’m not familiar with ancient Port Royal but would lay money on the street names and distances between points being spot on. Ship names too and the over all progression of events on Morgan’s ramshackle expedition to Maracaibo were comfortingly familiar.

But this is fiction too. Will and Gaston, both noble, both emotionally damaged, one dangerously psychotic, tread a fine line as they attempt to negotiate with local government, other buccaneers, unwanted wives, much wanted babies, puppies, the sudden arrival of Gaston’s father and his interference in their affairs and the discovery that Will’s father, who appears even more psychotic than Gaston, has put a bounty on Gaston’s head. Add to that their involvement with Admiral Morgan’s expeditions and that’s a lot of plot to cover. It’s as well that this book is long – 550 pages.

Most of the first 400 pages are taken up with family matters, as described above. Will has an alcoholic and very pregnant wife, Will’s sister, Sarah, is pregnant, Gaston’s father wants a reconciliation and he also want Gaston to marry. All these stresses and strains need to be juggled without pushing Gaston into a violent episode of madness. A combination of love, laudanum, coercion, Platonic philosophy and BDSM is prescribed, to no avail, leading them to take ship to join Morgan for the last 150 pages.

There is a lot to like here but I struck an overwhelming snag – I just couldn’t warm to the narrator. I wanted very badly to like Will but I found him manipulative, reckless, smug and selfish. The personality fitted very well with the period and some of his attitudes, particularly his brutal contempt for women, rang very true. But he displayed little care for those he professed to love, even endangering Gaston. He knew he was putting them in danger, had plainly made a habit of it, but accepted their help as his due. Also, I found the continual discussions between the lovers, their adherents and enemies somewhat tedious. The reader is told huge amounts, some of the conversations go over the same ground time and again, and the action is crammed into little snapshots between. I feel that if the book had been red penned down to a tidy 400 pages with a bit more emphasis placed on buccaneering it would have been worth an excellent 4.5 stars. As it is, it’s good – 3 stars – but I feel no urge to read the 4th in the series. However, I will read the first, hoping that all the exciting military stuff happened in that one.

Author’s website

Amazon UK    Amazon USA

Review: The Puppet Master by Kate Cotoner

Istanbul, 1622. Considered hotbeds of sedition, the city’s coffee houses are in constant danger of being shut down by imperial command. Haluk, who runs a cafe in an old caravanserai, is more concerned with brewing the perfect cup of coffee than inciting rebellion. While storms in coffee cups rage around him, Haluk tends his clientele and waits for the right moment to tell his friend and lodger Aydin how he really feels about him.
Aydin has been entertaining the people of the Old City for three years, but still he doesn’t fit in. He hides his courtly manners and graceful charms behind the boisterous satire of the shadow puppet plays that have made him popular.  He’s not what he seems. Now he fears his past is catching up with him, bringing danger to Haluk, the man he loves

Review by Erastes

I was a little confused over the rating of this book; Torquere has it in their “Spice It Up” line, which I assumed was an imprint handling the more spicy and erotic books in their already spicy and erotic stable, but this book has absolutely no sex in it, so don’t buy it thinking you are going to get a one-handed read. It seems however, that the line is all based around one particular spice and in this case it’s sumac.

Cotoner is a master of atmosphere, and in this book she doesn’t disappoint on that score. Even though the era, the history, the politics, the location were pretty much muddy waters for me, she writes so deftly and so immersively that it doesn’t matter. The book opens with a man working in his coffee house, and stopping a fight between two janissaries. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know what a janissary  is, because it’s made clear in context, and there aren’t that many writers in the genre who can do that well with no info dumping at all.

The book is told mainly from Haluk’s point of view–the coffee shop owner–with forays into Aydin’s–and I particularly like how Cotoner doesn’t make the mistake of many books of this length, to dwell entirely on the charms of the love-interest, Aydin, and why Haluk loves him. No, in fact she whets my appetite with the way that coffee shops are considered to be hotbeds of sedition, and that coffee is thought to inflame the senses–and this simple drink is causing political unrest. True facts of course, but I wouldn’t have expected anything less from this very thorough researcher.

The wonderful detail grounds you entirely in time and place. I really felt as if I had been dropped into a time that I didn’t know exactly when it was, but I was standing there watching the customers, and seeing the bright colours, the copper trays, the smell of the coffee and the spices of the suk. The setting is play-like, as it mostly takes place in one or two rooms in the same location but this works well, and for the shortness of the story, helps the totally immersive feel.

The plot revolves around one simple point, but it’s well done, and had me wondering who Aydin really was. (In fact, I’ve taken the fact out of the blurb which spoils the little spot of suspense in the book)

The only problem I had was that I would have liked a little more of it, but that’s my problem, not a problem with the structure of the book.  I have no recourse but to give this short novel a well-deserved five stars.

Author’s Website

Buy from Torquere Press

Review: Casa Rodrigo by Johnny Miles

On a lush, tropical island inhabited by rogues, thieves and villains, where men take the law into their own hands, a father and son are thrust into tumultuous events that will change their lives forever.

Bernardo de Rodrigo is proud of his son. Alonso is handsome and winning, and everyone he meets is instantly drawn to the tall, warm Spaniard. But how could either of them have known that a forbidden love is about to claim Alonso’s heart?

Arbol, the charismatic male slave who was saved from the clutches of Raul Ignacio Martín, feels an instant connection with Alonso, the moment he looks into Arbol’s eyes, the moment they touch.

Bernardo has other things to worry about, however. He’s trying to exorcise himself of an intensely gratifying yet shame-filled sexual affair with Raul, who secretly adores Bernardo but doesn’t know how to show it.

When Raul blackmails Bernardo, their dark and sordid relationship not only threatens the bond between father and son, it places Arbol’s life in danger. Now Bernardo must make a difficult choice that could further alienate his son while Alonso must find a way to keep the man he loves.

Review by Jess Faraday

What I liked best about this story was the complicated way that the protagonists’ lives intertwined, both with those of the other characters, and with the slave trade. The author took the time to explain how the main characters could simultaneously find slavery objectionable and yet have their fortunes tied so inextricably to it that to get out of the trade would be to ruin not only their lives, but those of their families, employees, and slaves. It was refreshing and more realistic than I had expected.

I also liked the complicated way in which the lives of don Bernardo, his son Alonso, the slave Arbol, and the despicable Raul came together. For Bernardo and Raul, there had once been affection. Then came sex, somehow business became tied into the deal, and by the time of the story, Bernardo and Raul can’t stand one another, but have mind-blowing sex, and can’t avoid one another due to business. Alonso and Arbol grew up together after Bernardo rescued the infant Arbol from the murderous Raul, and now Alonso is both master to Arbol and his lover. And now Raul has his eye on Arbol, and Bernardo is powerless to deny him. Fabulous and tense.

The one thing that continuously bothered me, however, was the characterization of the slave Arbol. Don Bernardo and his son Alonso are complex characters. They love, they hate, they have moral dilemmas. Arbol is portrayed as property–not merely a slave, but an object. In the beginning of the story, he is an object of pity: an orphaned infant who must be hidden. Later, he is an object of lust: submissive, gorgeous, dependent, and willing–but not much more than this.

One might argue that Arbol, being a slave, is an object, at least in the eyes of society. But even a slave can have thoughts, insights, intelligence and ability. Arbol’s main ability seems to be taking Alonso’s Gigantic Cock, which had, before Arbol, been too big for any other man. One might argue that in a work written mainly for entertainment and titillation, one shouldn’t expect character depth. But the slave owners are complex and conflicted. One might argue that “objectified, submissive, naive, dark-skinned African slave” is a turn-on for some people, and I should get off my Politically Correct High Horse. But this characterization offended me, so there you go.

It is a titillating read. The tortuous relationship between Bernardo and Raul, with all its attendant history and complications is absolute fireworks. The sex is emotionally complex, fraught, and worth a read. It’s well plotted as well, with twists, turns and tension. And research has definitely been done. It’s just the appearance of the Slave-as-Prop that bothers me. So caveat lector.

Author’s website

Buy from Loose ID

Review: Raised by Wolves 2 Matelots by WA Hoffman

Buccaneer adventure/romance. The second of a series chronicling the relationship between an emotionally wounded and disenchanted English lord and an insane and lonely French exile, set among the buccaneers of Port Royal, Jamaica, in 1667.

Part two of an epic four part “love story for men” set amongst the buccaneers of Port Royal during the infamous Henry Morgan raids. It is the story of the relationship between two lonely and scarred men as they attempt to find happiness and peace through love and friendship. With adventure and romance, this chronicle explores questions and themes of gender, sexual preference, societal acceptance of homosexuality, survival of childhood abuse, and how to build a lasting relationship in a world gone mad.

Review by Gerry Burnie

Although I have been watching the Raised by Wolves series for quite a while, Matelots: Raised By Wolves, Volume 2 [Alien Perspective, 2007] by W.A. Hoffman is the first that I have read. To begin, I like the swashbuckling genre of buccaneers and pirates, and the romantic setting of the 17th-century Caribbean. Moreover, the author has done a fine job of describing both of these in colourful detail so that the reader becomes immersed in the story—the way a good historical-fiction should do.

And for those who enjoy character-driven tales, Will and Gaston’s are both engaging. Will is a romantic who lives and loves to the fullest. He’s also a keen observer of humanity, and seeks to understand the complexities of human nature, particularly when it comes to Gaston, who is the victim of a damaging past. In Gaston’s case it is not an easy quest, for he also suffers from a kind of madness that has been with him from birth.

It is here, however that the story suffers a debilitating set back. Will’s deeply held convictions regarding the human condition seem strangely anachronistic for 17th-century European thinking. After all, Europe was an exporter of human misery in the 17th-century, especially to the Caribbean. Moreover, as a previous reviewer has already pointed out, Gaston’s medical expertise seems anachronistically modern as well.

That said, Will and Gaston are still delightful characters, and perhaps even more endearing because of their very human foibles. Wills’ first person narrative also contributes to this, and adds some charming elements—such as saving a supporting character from being pressed only to find out that he doesn’t like him very well.

The secondary cast are all well-developed and interesting, too. The difficulty with introducing a large number of supporting characters is the risk of cluttering the story line, but here Hoffman has managed them all quite well, and made them all distinct as well.

An intriguing era, colourful setting and endearing characters, and altogether an enjoyable read. Enthusiastically recommended.

Amazon UK Amazon US

Review: Icy Pavements by Lee Wyndham

Peter Scudamore, a former captain in the Royalist Army, has unwittingly become a tool in a game much larger than it seems. When Peter assists the English Queen in her escape to Paris, he finds himself caught up in the machinations of the infamous Corvay, a man determined to be the final word in espionage – and becomes friends with the enigmatic Guyon de Chesnay, a scholar and tutor of debate at the Sorbonne. Guyon’s service, too, is eventually bought by Corvay, but at a price he is unwilling to disclose, and which is directly linked to the Archbishop de Retz of Paris. As the two men fight to survive the intrigues of Court and Church, and those of a man who wants to gain power in his own right, they grow closer to each other in ways that neither one would ever have expected.

Review by Jess Faraday

The length is daunting–684 pages with around 400 words per page. And yet the prose is crisp and clean: never purple, never overwritten. In addition, I was bowled over by the immense research that the author obviously put into the story–not just historical events, but setting, character, clothing, and so on. By the end of the first chapter, which flew by, I had high hopes–and though it took a while to eventually learn how the first chapter fit in with the rest of the story, ultimately, I was not disappointed.

The second chapter introduced the snappy dialogue and witty repartee that would characterize the rest of the novel. Unfortunately, the chapter was long, and not much else seemed to happen. A more patient reader might revel in long passages that illustrate character through word-play. But by the middle of the second chapter, I found my eyes passing quickly over vast swathes of well-crafted, low-tension writing, searching for something to happen.

Fortunately, by the third chapter, the story picked up again, laying down several exciting plotlines: espionage, political intrigue, and romance–oh my! And by this point, I was hooked.

This is not a book for someone who wants a quick, uncomplicated read. But neither is it inaccessible. Though the author sometimes makes the mistake of assuming too much knowledge on the part of the reader–an easy mistake to make when one has absolutely immersed oneself in research, as Wyndham clearly has–the story is interesting and well crafted. The characters are subtle, rich, and complex.

This also isn’t a book for someone who just wants a bit of titillation and a clear path to HEA.

Rather, this is a book for someone who enjoys reading. For someone who likes to settle into a well-crafted, complex story and enjoy the unfolding. It’s a book for someone who likes to think about what they’re reading, and to savor it afterward, turning over the characters and plot twists in their mind. It’s for someone who enjoys romance as a slow burn, gradually and realistically developing, rather than love-at-first-sight-sex-at-second.

It’s a book for grown-ups.

I’m giving Icy Pavements four and a half stars. Though it was slow to begin, once it did, it grabbed me and didn’t let go. Ultimately, it’s a fantastic read with sympathetic, three-dimensional characters and an intriguing, complex, and well-structured plot. In addition, the amount of work and research that has gone into it is clear from the very first page. And though one of the perks of reviewing is getting to read books for free, this is one that I intend to purchase for my collection.

Buy at  Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: The Sheriff and Pirate Booty by John Simpson

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The Sheriff

Life was quiet in Dry Oaks, Montana, and that was the way Sheriff Jeremiah Bates liked it. When a cattle drive hit town, he expected the usual lot of drinkin’, gamblin’, whorin’ cow hands – but the feelings cowboy Duke Milo aroused in him were anything but usual.

Review by Erastes

It piques the interest, I have to say, because I’m interested in the Sherrif and how he got to be there in a dead-end town where nothing ever happens and why he stays. I admit that I would like to know more about him, because he’s a good character. A taciturn man of few words works well in a short story.

The thing I find about it though, is that a short story should be something complete in itself–probably because I was raised on Maugham and Saki–this all seems a little pat. Man walks into a bar, picks up a cowboy and they have sex. If it was an uber hot erotic short story it would serve a purpose, but it’s not really written to titillate either. But what’s there isn’t bad and for $1.49 it will fill ten minutes or so–it just doesn’t say anything.

Editing leaves a lot to be desired which is a shame for something so small.

Three stars

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Pirate Booty

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Armed with a royal commission, former Royal Naval officer Captain Blain Stillwater undertakes a new adventure as a privateer in the Caribbean, charged with combating pirates and the Spanish. But while the commission includes a ship—it doesn’t include a crew. A search of London’s Newgate prison provides Stillwater his crew, but not his officers or a cook. Luckily he discovers Todd Myers, an experienced cook who spends his days in the galley… and his nights in the Captain’s cabin. But danger stalks the ship in the form of the Spanish, and life at sea is never smooth sailing.

Review by Erastes

First off, this is a romp. It is not going for historical accuracy. This is clear from the first couple of pages–more anachronisms than the whole of Braveheart. If you can get past that and are eager to get to the piratey goodness then that’s fine.

Blain sets off with a crew all set to plunder and as in the best of piratey fantasies, all the men (except one) is OK about men loving men. This will lead to a contented crew, apparently–and one handed contended readers, I’m sure!

The sex scenes are paramount here, and the story is wrapped around them, so much of the 70 pages consist of sex, but it’s hot and steamy and enjoyable. I think I would liked a bit more character development, but difficult in a story this short, specially a historical.

Regarding ships–I probably wouldn’t recommend this if you know anything about ships of the day, the small complement of crew and the small number of guns for for a galleon will probably chafe you, but if you are looking for a pirates of the Caribbean type of story with hot sexy sailors plundering the seas and each other then you’ll enjoy this a lot.

Three stars

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Review: Prove a Villain by K C Warwick

Having returned to Elizabethan London after an absence of two years, Hugh Seaton is happy to resume his old job as tailor to the company of actors known as Strange’s Men.

He is less content when he finds himself looking for a murderer, and hiding his former lover, playwright Christopher Marlowe, who is suspected of stabbing one of the players to death. Marlowe wants to resume their relationship, but Hugh has doubts about the wisdom of this, especially as he has already decided to find himself a wife and family rather than risk his soul with the dangerous and disreputable Marlowe.

To complicate matters, the young actor, Barnaby Winter, also has his sights set on Hugh and seems determined to win him. Hugh’s enquiries, together with his efforts to keep Marlowe out of the hands of the law, cause him difficulties that threaten not only the lives of both men, but also the fragile relationship between them. Hugh also finds unexpected help from Marlowe’s newest rival, a young playwright named Will, who is trying to make a name for himself in the theater world.

Seeking the truth about the murder becomes the least of Hugh’s worries, as he tries to decide where his affections lie, and in the process learns more about Marlowe than he wants to know.

Review by Erastes

This is the first published novel by the author, who I hadn’t heard of before, and I admit I picked it up with a bit of a “ho-hum” point of view. As I’ve said before on this blog, every single book I seem to read about Tudor London involves either Kit Marlowe and/or William Shakespeare – the two of them must postively hang around at the city’s gates pouncing on any newcomers. I wish sometimes someone would find something else to talk about in this era.

However, if this author had taken my wishes seriously, I would have been deprived of “Prove a Villain”, and that would be a loss indeed.

Like many others of the books–although it’s concentrated around the theatures of the day, Burbage’s Theatre and Alleyn’s Rose–the story doesn’t really focus on the acting in particular. Much of the action and character interaction takes place in the “tiring room”–where the men dressed and undressed and the costumes were kept. As you can imagine in such an unstructured and chaotic world, the tiring room is much the same–and the author really creates the bustle and panic of a busy dressing room. Much of the remainder of the action takes place in various apartments around the city (which basically consist of one room each)–and it’s this claustrophobic device which works well, giving the characters tons of time and conversation to expound their personalities and their relations to each other, and of course to advance the threories and the plot.  I could really see this working so well as a play, or a film.

The relationships (and I don’t mean romantic, I simply mean the way the character interact and form friendships–or otherwise) are fascinating and endlessly moving. I couldn’t help but fall heavily for Hugh, as he’s a man with good intentions and he has a damned good heart. I love the way that he’d broken every single one of his good intentions before he’d been more than two days back in London.

Marlowe is–of course–endlessly fascinating and charismatic and fluctuates from personable and impish to being so impossible you want to throw a brick at him.  Add to that a beautiful young man who plays the women’s parts, two theatre owners who have a healthy rivalry, an up and coming playwright with everything to prove, name of Shakeshaft (as Hugh mistakenly calls him), and figures much more on the fringe with intentions who may or may not be benign and you have a GREAT murder mystery.

What this book is is READABLE. I know that sounds daft, because you’d think that all books are, aren’t they? But no, they don’t always go that way, some have confusing character introductions, muddy settings, blah blah – we all know when we are thrown out of a book and find ourselves confused.  But this is like a clear pool–the characterisations are knife-sharp, each character’s voice is unique and unmistakable, the descritpions of London are marvellously well done without having to bludgeon us over the head with “IT’S THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY YOU KNOW.”  Every page is readable, entertaining and I for one couldn’t put the damn thing down.

Consider this a standing ovation. More please, Ms Warwick.

Author’s Website

Cheyenne Publishing Amazon UK Amazon USA

Ahoy!

Greetings, ye sons and daughters of the bilge.

Today, for those less enlightened souls, is the world-famous Talk Like a Pirate Day and so we are celebrating here – on The Macaronis AND on the Speak Its Name Chat Group with a myriad of piratey based fun.

That doesn’t necessarily mean we will be keel-hauling sailors, painting everyone blue as we cross the equator and laughing uproariously as we push people off planks into sharks or crocodiles mouths, but we will be doing pirate based activities.

After all, there’s nothing more manly than striding about barechested with a cat-o’ nine-tails and skin tight breeches, right? ARRRR!!!! Continue reading

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: All for One by Nicki Bennett & Ariel Tachna

Aristide, Léandre, and Perrin pledge only three loyalties in life: their King, their captain, and their passion for each other. So when the musketeers discover a plan to accuse M. de Tréville of treason, the initial impulse to kill the messenger, Benoît, is tempered by their need to unmask the plotter. But their first two suspects, the English ambassador and Cardinal Richelieu, prove to be innocent, forcing the musketeers to delve deeper into the inner machinations of the French court.

Meanwhile, Aristide finds himself falling in love with the ill-fated messenger, a blacksmith without a home who rouses all of his protective, possessive instincts. Benoît, however, has no interest in any man. Torn between desire and duty, Aristide must find a way to protect the King and clear his captain’s name—all while heeding the demands of his heart.

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

The musketeer Aristide enjoys the good life with his two comrades, Leandre and Perrin. The three of them take the famous motto ‘all for one, one for all’ literal, as they aren’t just comrades but members of a ménage-a-trois. This arrangement serves them well until they save Benoit, who has been shot on the road while delivering a letter to Cardinal Richelieu. The contents of the letter accuse the commanding officer of the musketeers of treason, and the four set out to uncover the plot which may hint at an attempt to murder the king.

Aristide, who looks after Benoit while he’s healing, falls in love with the peasant who lost his wife and child to the plague. Unobligingly, though, Benoit abhors the idea of having sex with another man. Eventually he comes round to it, though, after much angsting and many misunderstandings, and helped along by a cast of characters mostly made up of happy exclusive gay couples and their understanding allies, who all adore Aristide.

I have to admit I was bored for most of the book. The sex is the best about it – the frequent sex scenes are realistic for the most part (coming back to this later), even if they are, more often than not, completely unnecessary. Though there were a few where I wasn’t quite sure how the positions work and the bodies fit together, as pure erotica, they were well handled, if not particularly revealing about the characters.

Once it moves away from the sex, the story falls apart on several counts. Despite some attempts at making this a historical novel by detailing clothes and mentioning bits and pieces of the times peppered throughout, the attitudes of the characters are decidedly modern. Under no circumstances do I believe a musketeer is calling the
Queen-Mother “that bitch” without raising at least an eyebrow. But never mind that they speak in a modern way (many instances of“’twas” and “’tis”nothwithstanding) – the dialogue just never rang true to me, regardless of any historical timeframe.

While the author does mention they have to be discreet, the characters never really are, instead talk openly and brazenly about their mindblowing sex and what they intend to do to each other once opportunity arises. One gaffe like that is funny, two gets repetitive, but ten or more is just grating.

Lucky, then, that almost all of Paris is gay and happily exclusive, if we judge it by the supporting cast, which is made up of couples that read like they had their own novels or will get their own novels in due course. True to form, our happy menage is about to break up into two couples, with even the slutty Perrin yearning for one man to claim wholly and exclusively. This happens of course, so Perrin mends his slutty ways and, having sworn exclusivity with Leandre, wishes for nothing more than not having slutted around. I’m not sure what this hang-up about exclusivity is, but I guess it’s one of those things that m/m romances have inherited from m/f romances, however psychologically dubious this yearning for a restoration to purity and virginity is. Applied to a gay male, a fighter, and a man of his century, that is a pretty bizarre thought.

The main drama in the first two thirds of the book is about the fracturing menage on one hand and misunderstandings and fears that keep Aristide and Benoit apart. The last third is about Benoit and Aristide having sex and swearing eternal love to each other.

Personally, I wouldn’t have minded if they had stayed apart.

Beyond being really pretty, I see nothing loveable about Benoit. (I’d call him a “girly weepy girl” if that wasn’t pretty damn sexist and insulting to my kick-ass female and female-identified friends).

This is not remedied by the authors telling me he is a peasant blacksmith. His manners and fears and blushing innocence make him appear more like an underaged runaway from a monastery. His combination of stupidity (which I guess is supposed to be innocence), insolence, sullenness, unreasonable demands and taking any excuse for self-pity is a deeply unattractive combination. I couldn’t help but laugh at the scenes where Benoit is staying in the house of the three musketeers and keeps bitching about how loud they are during sex until they vow to be silent – and Aristide flips over backwards to accede to Benoit’s petulant and childish demands.

Aristide, built up to be the tough alpha male to sweep sweet little blushing Benoit into his arms, loses my respect with all his pining, self-pity (again) and passive-aggressive behaviour. Supposedly a gifted officer, he doesn’t have an ounce of empathy for other people – constantly misreading their intentions and then sulking that things don’t go his way.

But then, the misunderstandings are the only things that keep the story moving. Well, kind of. There’s a bit of an intrigue going on, which is sprinkled in, but never develops into a real plot. After two hundred pages of pretty much nothing happening but relationship drama and sex sex sex, when the politics finally do happen they are as subtle as a plan cooked up by fire-year-olds. I’d have expected better from accomplished players like the Cardinal Richelieu and the De Medici Queen-Mother. This ‘plot’, when it happens, takes around twenty-five pages of the 352 pages, with the rest taken up by relationship drama that leaves me cold, because of the, for the most part, unrealistic and overwrought emotions.

There was also a sore lack of all the cool stuff in that time and setting. The fighting/fencing was done with some empty phrases and sometimes was plain wrong, such as the one character bitching about how Benoit failed to ‘parry a feint’. Well, you’re not supposed to *parry* the feint, since doing so opens your guard for the real attack. So the wrong way to respond to a feint is to be deceived by it. Many other details are wrong, or sound wrong.

It’s great all our gay characters love and accept each other, but an ambassador who’s drinking in a musketeer tavern, chats up a bunch of musketeers and tells them to call him with his Christian name, until all of the minor and major characters are on a first-name basis lacks all the decorum that such lofty station warrants, never mind him being a nobleman (or English).

The POV constantly jumps around into all the characters heads, which I’d find a lot less grating if that hadn’t been slowing things down to near-paralysis, and if all the characters had had something interesting to contribute. This way, it seems like it was some kind of roleplaying game between the authors, where lots of unnecessary repetitions were never edited out.

There was simply not enough plot or believable conflict in that book to warrant the pagecount or the lengthy explanations and the many, many, many repetitions where everything was repeated and still people constantly contradicted their original intentions just two paragraphs later. There is no sense of danger or urgency in the story, until the reader wonders why he should bother even finishing the book.

There was enough purple in the prose to paint a mid-sized village. ‘Passages’ and ‘channels’ were invariably ‘anointed’ (the religious connotation nothing short of disturbing even for this atheist), and this has a sex scene where a tongue reaches a prostate – which made me laugh. All that overwrought emotion rang false, especially when the authors spend so much time with taking Benoit’s virginity…The threesome sex scenes, which are unabashedly porny, are way better and more honest than all the heart-rending and soul-searching emotion of the entirely predictable Aristide/Benoit sex, which was shown to me to be so much better for Aristide than the empty threesomes he had with his friends. Well, I’d have chosen the empty sex over that overwrought nonsense from that weepy blushing blacksmith any time.

The saving grace is that I did like Perrin and Leandre and some scenes were well-handled and interesting (such as the beginning and whenever the actual plot made an appearance). I can easily see the book that this could have been, and I’d have rated that one pretty highly, but that’s not the book I read. I think it might be a fun read for everybody who likes yaoi, doesn’t care about the history or real emotions, and doesn’t need a plot to be a happy reader.

Buy at Dreamspinner Press (paperbook and ebook available)

Review: Galleons and Gangplanks by Sean Michael, Julia Talbot, Mychael Black and Willa Okati

Pirates! Rapiers! Cannons and flintlocks! These are all the idea behind Galleons and Gangplanks. Bringing back the days when pirates ruled the high seas, this collection of stories has no shortage of adventure, danger, and excitement. From Sean Michael comes Searching the Seas, a story about an honest man kidnapped by pirates, used as collateral for a trade between the pirates and the seaside village at their mercy. Things are not always as they seem, though, and soon the constable and the pirate Captain are learning to love, and live, with the past and the future. Julia Talbot’s The White City takes on the Barbary Coast, with a legendary privateer meeting his match in an Algerian sheik. But who is the captor and who is the slave in this game of cat and mouse that runs from the sun baked streets of Algiers to the waves beyond the shore? Mychael Black’s Fool’s Gold is a romp in the best pirate tradition. Searching for his father’s lost gold, a young man teams up with a salty veteran to follow a treasure map. Can the two of them find something in common besides a lust for coin? In Willa Okati’s Of Boats and Bluebeards two young men are pressed into service on a pirate ship, one of them slated to be the Captain’s new toy, the other set to backbreaking work. Can Kit and Paul find a way to escape, and to share the budding love they find with each other? Get your arrr! on!

Review by Alex Beecroft

Like most anthologies, this is a mixed bag of stories, some of which are in my opinion better than others. I think I’ll consider them separately before I think about the book over all.

Unfortunately, the first story in the anthology, “Searching the Seas” by Sean Michael is, I think, the weakest of the four. Abraham Sawyer is “a lawman” (whatever that means in the 17th/18th century, before the invention of the police), who lives on a small, peaceful island, and is taken aboard a pirate ship as a hostage following some negotiations that didn’t quite make sense to me. There he discovers that the despicable pirate is in fact his old lover who has been searching for him for years. And then they have lots of sex, and some hurt/comfort, and some more sex.

This ‘story’ is little more than a set up for endless amounts of smut. It’s fairly good smut, and if you’re looking for some explicit pirate/non-pirate porn, then it does the job. For me, I’m still shaking my head over the fact that this is the second time in as many Age of Sail books that an author has given the captain of a wooden ship a hearth in his cabin. An open fire, on a ship made entirely of inflammable wood, coated with inflammable pitch and containing a room full of gunpowder.

I realise this is probably not a deal-breaker for other people, but it is for me. For me it says “I didn’t care enough about my setting to even make the effort of looking at the internal layout of a tall ship (easily available by Googling), or sparing a moment’s thought about the realities of life at sea.” Why bother to set your story on a 17th Century ship if you’re going to write it as if it was a house on waves? Why should I, who was looking for some real tall ship action, care about a story that is just pirate-dress-up + porn? I don’t. However, if pirate-dress-up + porn is what you’re looking for, you will like this story better than I did.

I wish that the volume had opened with one of the other stories instead, because first impressions count, and all of the other stories have more to recommend them than the first.

Julia Talbot’s The White City is set in Algiers. Told alternately in the PoV of Jem Nettles, captured pirate, and his captor Hakim Reis, this is a story which is much more historically believable in terms of setting. I’m even delighted by the fact that Hakim Reis and his nemesis and overseer turn out to be British pirates employed by the Dey, like the infamous trio of Dutch pirates who ‘turned Turk’ in the early 17th Century.

Hakim finds himself falling in love with his captive and refuses to turn him over to his boss, Sharim Reis. Sharim is annoyed, as Jem has been a pain in his neck and he wants to see the annoying man punished. So Sharim captures Hakim, and is about to teach him a painful lesson when Jem (who has seized the opportunity to escape from them both,) rallies his scattered ship’s crew and rescues him. There is some sex with dubious consent in the story, and it is quite hard to see what it is that draws Jem and Hakim together and makes them willing to risk so much for each other. But it was so nice to see a setting that I could believe in, and a story that had some plot, that I put this down to the mysteries of love and just enjoyed the suspense of wondering what was going to happen next.

I liked this one and would like to read something longer by her.

Fool’s Gold by Mychael Black features mature pirate Ian Bowers being employed by naïve young gentleman Silas Christian to find the treasure to which Christian’s father has left him a map. Over the course of the story we discover that Christian is not really naïve, nor a gentleman at all, he’s actually the son of Bowers’ previous captain and lover. During the hunt for this and then a second treasure, the two of them fall in love, and Bowers has to prove to Christian that (a) he loves the son as much as he ever did the father, and (b) he’s willing to give up the sea in order to be with Christian.

I have mixed feelings about this one. I thought the characters were interesting, and the tangled story would have benefitted from being expanded to novel length and fully explored. I never did quite understand why anyone had to give up the sea – they could have become legitimate merchants rather than pirates and carried on sailing. There was a lot in here in terms of story and backstory and aims and themes and characterisation, and I felt it didn’t get a chance to be what it could have been because of the short length and the need to stuff it full of sex scenes. There are a lot of sex scenes, and I’m afraid my eyes did glaze over at points.

I can’t stop myself from saying that no 17th Century gentleman would be wearing trousers and boots, though. Trousers are not worn by respectable people until the early 19th Century. And this must be a 17th Century setting because a lot of it is set in Port Royal before the earthquake.

This one was interesting, I thought. Lots of potential, which I’d have loved to see expanded, but (IMO) sidetracked by too much sex. Again, your mileage may vary if the sex is what you’re looking for in the first place.

Of Boats and Bluebeards by Willa Okati:

Kit’s lover David runs away to sea and is drowned. Kit’s uncle, on finding out that Kit has a male lover, treats him so badly that Kit runs away to the docks too, hoping to be taken on as a sailor. This duly happens, but not before Kit acquires a hanger on in the shape of Paul, who is an old friend of David’s. However, the handsome and obliging captain who has press-ganged them both turns out to be a pirate of the old school – a rapist and murderer with a grizzly surprise locked away in one of the store rooms on his ship.

Despite the fact that this is another ship which leaves only a skeleton crew on watch at night (better than none at all, but still, what happens when the wind changes and there aren’t enough men to man the sails?) and continues to use the cannon even when boarding (thus mowing down their own men) I enjoyed this story. It’s refreshing to find a pirate who is genuinely piratical and not very nice. The threat of rape hanging over Kit, and the later threat of murder gave the story a real tension and suspense, and there’s a wonderfully grotesque and gruesome moment half way through that really had an impact on me. Paul and Kit’s hate/love relationship was also a nice twist, and I liked the open-ended ending which took them out of immediate danger but allowed them to go on to further adventures together.

Given the title and the historical Bluebeard, I should have been expecting the surprise, but I wasn’t, and I give the story due kudos for that. It woke me up, and I like that.

So… on the whole this anthology presents more good than bad. Few of the stories are exactly historically correct, but (except for the hearth) the anachronisms are not so egregious that I couldn’t enjoy the stories despite them. There was too much sex for me, but there was at least enough story to keep me reading despite that. One of the best examples of its sort, I think, and if you’re actually looking for erotica rather than romance it would be even better.

Amazon UK Amazon USA Kindle Buy from Torquere

Review: The Highwayman by Emily Veinglory

Reynard is the impoverished son of a cavalier, driven to highway robbery to support his sister, Emilia.  But a puritan he robs proves to be his new neighbor–and Emilia returns to the house with her intended fiancé, who demands her promised dowry or the deeds to the family lands.

Finally a new sheriff turns up in town to put an end to the latest spate of robberies.   Just when Reynard needs quick money all he can steal is the heart of an insolent roundhead who has a few secrets of his own!

Review by Erastes

The story is narrated by Reynard, and we are immediately drawn into his world, and the action that he takes part in, as he dresses and arms up for the task in hand–that of robbing on the public highway.  The 17th and 18th century were the golden age of the highwayman, flintlock pistols having been invented made life easier for a man with a pistol on a horse.

So yes, Reynard is a highwayman.  But I like a conflicted hero – one who does bad things for good reasons – and Reynard fits the bill nicely here.  He needs money for his estate and his sister–who he is determined to find a wealthy husband for (thereby helping his own impoverished state) and slippers and petticoats don’t grow on trees.  Reynard is described as wearing his old-fashioned and over-elaborate clothes, which are the only ones not too patched and ruined, but they are still a bit too tatty for society.

The Puritan, Geoffrey, is an interesting character–hardly puritanical at all in fact, he’s very wealthy, has a ton of servants and indulges himself in whatever he likes.  What I found odd, though was the fact that he just pounced on Reynard within a few minutes of their being acquainted. If Reynard had been a servant, and in a more vulnerable situation, unable to say no, I could understand this precipitate action,  but Reynard is an equal, a neighbour, an earl,  and Geoffrey (as far as I could tell) had been given no indication that such sudden sexual advances would even be welcome.  He puts himself much at risk.  And as the story is told from Reynard’s point of view, there’s very little indication that he even finds Geoffrey sexually attractive before Geoffrey starts disrobing him.

However, that aside, the sexual encounter once started is everything one expects from Veinglory, beautifully erotic and sensual and thoroughly enjoyable.

Reynard is just about keeping the wolf from the door when his sister appears and suddenly Reynard is worried about how he’ll ever afford to produce a dowry for the girl, without losing his house–and discovering how much he dislikes the young men to whom she’s become betrothed. So he makes a rash decision and the plot charges ahead from here.

I have to say that I was surprised just how good Reynard’s eyesight was, the first time we see him the moon was nearly waned and a few days later it should have been pitch dark but the descriptions of people and carriages in the dark are very exact!

I noticed a couple of typos – sheering/shearing – reign for rein, but this book was published a good while ago (2006)  and some epubs were less nice in their editing than they are today.

Overall, it’s a little patchy. Some of the language is nicely formal, some has modern phrases. The companion Emilia brings with her is just escorted from the coach with no introductions, and like the first sex scene the whole thing seems rather rushed.  At around 90 pages it’s a decent read, but I think there was much potential here to provide a full-sized novel.  However, niggles aside, it’s a very enjoyable read–good plot, good characters and the story rackets along at a cracking pace.

Still, I do recommend you try it as books set in this era are pretty rare, and Veinglory is a good, solid writer.

Buy at Cobblestone

Review: Checkmate by Nicki Bennett and Ariel Tachna

When sword for hire Teodoro Ciéza de Vivar accepts a commission to “rescue” Lord Christian Blackwood from unsuitable influences, he has no idea he’s landed himself in the middle of a plot to assassinate King Philip IV of Spain and blame the English ambassador for the deed. Nor does he expect the spoiled child he’s sent to retrieve to be a handsome, engaging young man. As Teodoro and Christian face down enemies at every turn, they fall more and more in love, an emotion they can’t safely indulge with the threat of the Inquisition looming over them. It will take all their combined guile and influence to outmaneuver the powerful men who would see them separated… or even killed.

Review by Erastes

Wow.  Just look at that cover.  I’m not generally a fan of Ann Cain’s hand drawn covers, but I’ve probably only seen the more yaoi ones.  This is utterly brilliant and has everything that a gay historical needs.  Yes, there’s flesh but it’s not representative of “men shagging” it’s more relevant to the story. It has depth. Bloody brilliant and standing ovation from me.  My top cover of the year.

Although I did enjoy the story as a whole, the main thing that stopped this book getting a much higher mark–which with a hard edit it would have deserved–was the head hopping.  I can usually bear it (although I know most readers dislike it intensely) with two people, but this hopped between however many where on the page, which was often 3 people and caused my head to hurt at times, and made for some really difficult reading.

Christian realized he had not brought his valise into the room with him. Sighing against the inevitable, he wrapped the cloth more tightly around his waist and opened the door. He hesitated when he saw Teodoro and Esteban standing there, but there was no help for it. He needed his clothes. Without speaking, he crossed to his bag and rummaged through it for a clean shirt and breeches.

His already hard cock throbbed against Teodoro’s  breeches when Blackwood entered the room clad only in a bath sheet, his bare chest and limbs even more alluring than the Spaniard had imagined them.

As you can see, the head-hopping here causes definite confusion!

It also made it very difficult to get to know the characters–it’s hard to get inside the head of someone when they only have one paragraph, one reaction and then you are whizzing over to everyone else in the scene.  To be honest it made the book almost unreadable, as the POV even broke away from Teodoro in the middle of an exciting sword fight,  completely spoiling the scene,  to leap into Christian’s head who was elsewhere at the time.

The mercenary’s conscience surprised me – I wouldn’t have thought he’d have cared whether his client’s story was true or not – he was being handsomely paid.  I would have thought that a hired sword would have one loyalty – the the highest bidder.  Granted he was attracted to Christian from the first but not enough to immediately feel guilt that he was kidnapping Christian, not saving him from unnatural practices.

There were a couple of things that jarred, such as a horse travelling 400 miles in 5 days, and the mention of a Grand Tour which didn’t exist until after the Restoration, but other than that the history seemed pretty solid to me, so no complaints there.

Overall, it’s a good story with a tender romance, exciting moments, enough hurt/comfort to assuage the hardest heart – and if you can get past the confusion of the dizzying head hopping you’ll probably enjoy the book, but it makes it a not-read-again for me, I’m afraid.

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Review: Awakening by Terry O’Reilly

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

Jonathon Carver, a young Puritan school teacher, meets the handsome Nathaniel Morgan, master cooper. He comes to recognize the longings he has had all his life as desire for the love of another man. Nathaniel provides that love.

Their love must be carefully guarded as they live in Colonial America at the time of the call to Awakening of the Puritan spirit. Knowing that the penalty for their love is dire, they strive to keep their affair secret.

Desperate for a way to resolve their situation they devise a bold plan that could free them to be together as they desire. But, can even their great love for one another overcome the structure of the society in which they live?

History tells us that the Puritans lived simple, strict lives; people did not engage in activities for fun, nor did they marry for love. Imagine, then, what happens when two men look at each other and Cupid’s arrow pierces their hearts. That, in a nutshell, is the story of Jonathon and Nathaniel in Awakening by Terry O’Reilly. The book caught my eye because I enjoy colonial American history and the location is a town I know well—Newburyport, Massachusetts. All of these elements have great potential, but unfortunately, the author fell short enough times that overall, the book was a disappointment.

The story itself was fairly simple and straightforward without a lot of twists. I don’t want to say too much lest I give too much of the plot away. Suffice it to say, Jonathon and Nathaniel were very sympathetic characters and I came to believe in their love. I wanted them to be together, but I, like they, realized the reality of the time and place in which they were living. This was the biggest strength of the book—painting the picture of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles they faced to be friends and lovers.

While Jonathon and Nathaniel were well-drawn, the rest of the characters came off as very two-dimensional: mean brother, stern preacher, sympathetic Indian, and so on. I think this is a reflection of the author’s skill as a writer—he has potential but he needs to work on his craft. The sex scenes were colorful and had some passion but most of the other writing was wooden and flat. I kept reading because I wanted to find out what happened to Jonathon and Nathaniel—without that hook, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to finish the book.

I also think there was a missed opportunity with the setting of Newburyport. All the reader really knows is that there is a wharf, tavern, cooperage, school and of course, the ever-present meeting house, but that’s about it. I was disappointed that there wasn’t more description of the town which would have added texture and complexity and made for a more interesting reading experience.

The story ends on a perfect bittersweet note and then…is totally destroyed by the Afterword. For this, I am going to blame the editor, not the author. Editor, where were you with your big blue pencil to X this out completely? Why did you let this stand? Readers, take my advice and stop when you see “Afterword.” Don’t read on, don’t turn the page. The only valuable bit of information (besides some details about the author’s life, which more appropriately should have been included in an author bio) is the revelation that the story is based on real people and drawn from letters and diaries that the author found in the trunk. If this is, in fact, true, it makes it even more of a shame that Jonathon’s and Nathaniel’s story wasn’t more expertly told because, truly, they deserved better—in that life and this.

Click here to the visit author’s website, which includes an excerpt from the book and links to purchase it at various ebook retailers.

Review: Transgressions by Erastes

transgressions1642, England: David Caverlys strict father has brought home the quiet, puritanical Jonathan Graie to help his dreamer of a son work the family forge. With war brewing in Parliament, the demand for metal work increases as armies are raised.

The fair David is drawn to his fathers new apprentice. And though his father treats them both as if they were brothers, Davids feelings toward the shy Jonathan develop as they hide their growing physical relationship. Until the fateful moment when local gossips force Davids father to banish him, to protect the family name.

Freed, directionless, and whimsical, David is eager to experience the drama and excitement of war, and follows two soldiers headed for battle, but the reality is a harsh awakening for his free-spirited nature. Seizing the opportunity to desert, David heads to London to lead a secret life, unaware that Jonathan too has left the forge in search of him. Lost and lonely, the vulnerable Jonathan quickly falls in with the Witchfinders, a group of extremists who travel the country conducting public trials of women suspected of witchcraft. Jonathan is drawn to the charismatic Michael, finally embracing a cause for truth so wholeheartedly, he doesnt recognize the dangerphysical and emotionalthat Michael represents. For the fanatic puritan is desperate to purge Jonathan of his memories of David in any manner possible….

Review by Hayden Thorne

The greatest pleasure in reading an author’s published fiction is seeing his progress as an artist from the good ol’ days to the present. Being able to say, “Hey, I knew him when…” To be followed by “Oh, how he’s grown up.” The last bit was saucy, but you know what I mean.

Erastes’ Transgressions might be the most recent book of hers to be released, but it’s one of the earliest works of fiction she’s tackled. And, yes, I knew her when…she was struggling with this puppy, once upon a time. It’s an enlightening experience, seeing her development since Standish and how this book bridges her debut and her most recent novella, Frost Fair. One can see the growth and the not-quite-there bits.

The most significant thing about Transgressions is its complexity as a historical novel. Compared to Standish (and I apologize for making occasional references to her other works, but it’s necessary in this review), Transgressions is a great deal more sweeping in its scope, given its chosen period. Even with the more important events such as the English Civil War and the fall of Charles I, we’re still treated to the smaller, more mundane day-to-day routines in the farm, in London, and in towns and cities beyond. The historical details are meticulously researched and well-used, without a single item thrown in just for the sake of showing off what the author knows. Now as I’m more of a 19th century enthusiast and know precious little of the English Civil War, I can’t argue for or against the accuracy of her period details, but knowing Erastes, I’m confident of the book’s faithfulness to the 17th century. That said, one wouldn’t really notice those period details, as they’re skilfully worked into the scenes so that they’re practically invisible, while still creating a very authentic feeling in the background.

Readers need to be warned that, given the civil war, they will be treated to very descriptive scenes of bloodshed, maiming, and death. There’s also a pretty fascinating look at the near-haphazard battle training of a ragtag group of men whose alliances are torn and who are completely at the mercy of bullies who press civilians into fighting. Those scenes are some of the most effective and most impressive to me, and what follows after Cromwell’s victory – the hanging pall of paranoia that grips England – is palpable. It’s not an exaggeration to say that one can almost smell the fear, the constant nervousness, the growing mistrust among ordinary folks. In these instances, Erastes engages all our senses in experiencing the horrors of war and the greater psychological horrors of what follows after.

As heroes, David and Jonathan are not as sharply defined along black-and-white lines as Rafe and Ambrose, but you still get the “golden beauty” and the “dark, brooding youth” (who isn’t handsome but is still attractive and is more than capable of catching one off-guard with his charms in surprising ways). Their physical attributes also, like Rafe and Ambrose, dictate their behavior to an extent, with Jonathan being the dour puritan who’s all fierce passion unleashed, while David’s the beautiful, carefree, selfish hedonist. Even their suffering while apart is somehow affected by their physical qualities as well as their temperaments. Whether intentional or no, each man seems meant to follow a distinct path that becomes almost a complement to his nature and his looks. Jonathan gets himself embroiled in a fanatical group of witchfinders, while David gets stuck in a lifestyle that’s more earthly, more sensual, yet unsatisfying.

Of the two, I find Jonathan to be much better developed as a character, with his constant internal back-and-forthing and his ability to talk himself out of things though he does need a bit of outside help toward the end of his involvement with the witchfinders. David grows, yes, but his development is much slower than Jonathan’s. He comes across to me as being too immature, selfish, and dependent, and even at the last minute, before he flees England, he rejoices at his triumph over a woman who’s been obviously wronged and yet is generous enough to let her husband go. Though her role is tiny in the book, Catherine proves, in far less scenes, that she’s the “bigger man” of the two.

On the whole, the rest of the characters are somewhat unevenly developed, with Elizabeth Woodbine being the most problematic. Compared to the other side characters or even Michael, she’s so one-dimensional and so wicked that it’s clear she’s simply nothing more than a plot device that’s meant to drive the lovers apart, like Count Alvisi in Standish. What surprised me the most is that, after David leaves Kineton, there’s absolutely no reference about her from Jonathan’s POV, given the significance of her accusations that causes the breach between the young men. No repercussions from her family, no further confrontations between her father and Jacob over David.

Haldane fares a little better, but because he’s there one moment and then gone the next, one can’t really give him much credit than as a kind of a temporary bedmate for David till the next man comes around.

As evil incarnate, Michael is very impressive. One might argue that he’s also written as one-dimensional, but he’s a sadist, and sadists really don’t give you much room for deep discussions on character development. His psychology is simply too warped, too bizarre, to allow anything else. That said, his presence in Jonathan’s half of the story is frightening and forceful yet effective. And I’m not at all surprised to see him still leaving a psychological mark on poor Jonathan well after the fact. Of all the side characters in the novel, Michael, because of his psychosis, fascinates me the most.

Tobias, given the significance of his role, leaves me a little unsatisfied. He spends most of his time off-scene, and when his story finally unfolds, it’s near the end of the book as well as the end of his place in everything. We’re given a few glimpses into his mind, and those tend to happen after he and David suffer from a momentary falling-out. Yes, there are hints of a secret because he refuses to talk about his past while David’s always been open about his (for the most part, anyway), but we’re never given the full view till his last scenes, and his background’s packed in one chapter, almost like an afterthought. In fact, the resolution to his relationship with David feels a bit rushed or forced, so much so that while I understand that Tobias’ story is pathetic and realistic, not admirable – that he deserves readers’ sympathy – I find myself feeling a little cold toward him in the end. There just seems to be too little done, too late, in his situation, which is a shame, because I really wanted to feel for him, knowing that too many gay men in that period suffered the way he does.

There are a few problems involving lie/lay and loath/loathe in the text, but the presentation is very clean, and these issues didn’t detract me from enjoying the book. On the whole, I’m very impressed with Erastes’ efforts. There’s a definite growth in her skill as a writer with regard to world-building (or rebuilding in the case of historical fiction), but it’s far more evident in her atttempts at creating memorable, effective characters. One can see, despite some of the problems I noted (which seem worse than they really are when laid out in detail like this), an earnest effort at writing complex people with their individual stories shaded in gray. Emotions run high, but they’re more muted compared to Standish, less operatic and certainly more reflective of the mature restraint that one can see in Frost Fair. Seeing Erastes’ progress as a serious artist from book to book makes me wonder about – and look forward to – her next offering.

Buy the book: Amazon.com

Review: “Napoleon’s Privates” by Tony Perrottet

NAPOLEON’S PRIVATES
2,500 Years of History Unzipped

by Tony Perrottet
Harper Entertainment, ISBN 978-0-06-125728-5

From the blurb on the author’s website:

What were Casanova’s best pick-up lines?
(They got better as he got older).
Which Italian Renaissance genius “discovered” the clitoris?
(He could have just asked the Venetian nuns).
What was the party etiquette at Caligula’s orgies?
(Holding one’s own could be a stressful business in ancient Rome).
How were impotence sufferers put on trial in medieval France?
(And why this should be a new reality TV show).
What were the kinkiest private clubs of Hogarthian London?
(Austin Powers would have blanched).

And what was the truth about Napoleon’s privates?
(Was it a big baguette or petit éclair? And did size matter to Josephine?)

There are some books you just have to order, even if you fear the worst when it comes to content. I hang my head in shame – when I stumbled over “Napoleon’s Privates” (now please don’t take that literally!) I couldn’t resist. Yes, yes, I know, my mind’s in the gutter at times. But if everything else fails, there’s still eBay, right?

I’m happy to report that I won’t have to deal with eBay. “Napoleon’s Privates” is an amusing collection of the high and mighty’s “raunchy little secrets” all through history. Reading it transported me back to the days when I was a really young teenage girl and read with a friend “Dr. Sommer’s Sex And Relationship Tips” in a teenage magazine. Means: lots of giggling and the occasional “d’oh?”-experience!

Author Tony Perrottet knows how to keep his readers captivated. In the slick tone of a gossip journalist (an almost extinct species capable of forming complete sentences), he shares the tale of the whereabouts of Napoleon’s little emperor with as much wit and glee as the rather mind-boggling “Holy Guide to Coital Positions”. Perrottet completely won me over with his “Impressionist Misery Index”, listing the social backgrounds, personal dramas, career lows and wretched dotages of artists like Monet, Cézanne, Renoir et al just like Marvel Comics would have described the special powers of their super heroes.

Some chapters are almost exclusively of a speculative nature, though – was Abe Lincoln gay or not? – but to his credit, the author points this fact out and notes that it really wasn’t uncommon for men to share a bed back in those days. So “Napoleon’s Privates” is also a journey through the urban legends of the past.

However, all gossip and giggles aside, the misogynistic roots of some anecdotes are pointed out several times. The “Boys Club” could not deal with strong women, the church tried its best to keep them down, and many of the rumours still clinging to great women’s names – Katharina the Great and her “horse lover”, for example (complete rubbish, of course) – have been born out of this attitude. It’s also interesting to see how disparaging rumours about sexual prowess, sexual orientation or even shape of genitals have been used – and are still used! – to impair an enemy’s reputation.

For those interested in the history of sexuality in general, beauty ideals, gay history, gossip and saucy details, this book offers a lot of material to shake your head over. Kinky clubs in 18th century Scotland, proof of (im)potence in front of witnesses and the court, brothels, ancient sex toys, horny popes and knitted condoms, syphilis and why castrati made better lovers – “Napoleon’s Privates” offers all this, and more.

The book consists of stand-alone chapters, so you can easily put it away for a while. I read the whole thing in one go, though, so I can now impress my friends at the next party with my amazing knowledge about Napoleon’s dick and dickery between the sheets. I might even throw in the amazing tale of “The Invention of Smut”, should anybody ask.

Especially you navy folk will be pleased to hear that the Duke of Wellington, if actress “Mademoiselle Georges” (a former mistress of Napoleon) can be believed, “was by far the more vigorous.”

In conclusion:
a) “Napoleon’s Privates” is a book wellworth buying, and
b) people are funnier than anybody.

In case you’re interested: the author’s website.

“Napoleon’s Privates” is available from Amazon UK, Amazon US and as e-book from Harper Collins.

* * *

(c) Emma Collingwood

Review: Earthly Joys by Philippa Gregory

Seventeenth-century England is the setting for this engaging historical novel based on the life of John Tradescant, a gardener of common birth who transforms plain plots of land into slices of heaven on earth. As vassal to the secretary of state, Sir Robert Cecil, Tradescant—who, as fate would have it, had no sense of smell—places his master’s garden above all else, much to the chagrin of his wife, Elizabeth, and young son, J. Tradescant’s affinity for botanicals is matched by his thirst for adventure; in the service of his lord, he travels to distant lands to defend his country’s honor (and collect cuttings of rare and exotic plants). When Tradescant is summoned by King James I’s closest confidante, the dark-haired and devious Duke of Buckingham, he is immediately taken by the nobleman’s beauty. Devotion soon turns to erotic obsession, and Tradescant must face the consequences of loving a fickle, heartless man.

Review by Erastes

I wouldn’t say “if you aren’t into gardening, don’t get this,” but you WILL appreciate it a lot more if you have an inkling of gardening and plants. It’s the story of a very famous – and one of the first “celebrity” gardeners, John Tradescant who was a gardener to many famous people during the reign of three monarchs, Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I.

She paints a very believable picture of John, his family and his life. John is a man who must belong to a master, that’s how his life has always been and that’s how he thinks his life must always be. He starts the book in the employ of Robert Cecil, building the gardens of Hatfield House and he is very close – a confidante and friend – to the great man. After he dies, John moves around from master to master until he is ordered to the new and fabulous estate of George Villiers – first Duke of Buckingham, the most powerful man in the land and favourite of the then King, James I. It is in Villiers’ service that he discovers a lot about the meaning of loyalty and a lot more about himself.

This is a “Romance” in both senses of the word, the author does a wonderful job telling a fair portion of Tradescant the Older’s story, although missing out some portions of it, to my disappointment and amusingly missing out that he actually looked like a pregnant goat, if the portraits of the day were to believed. It was easier NOT to look at what he looked like, because then it was easier to believe that the beautiful George Villiers would want to bed him.

I enjoyed it a lot, however, more – it has to be said – for the fascinating insight into the introduction of plants into England (he brought the first six horse chestnut “conkers” back to England for example, and lost money in Tulipmania) – rather than for the homosexual story. However, the litery license that Gregory takes by assuming an affair with Villiers works perfectly within the character that she has drawn and it’s a vital thread in the book.

Gregory writes convincingly and in a very approachable style although strangely I didn’t get addicted to this book in ways that I have with others. I had no desperation to find out what happened, even when I was in the early parts of the book. In fact it took me well over a month to read, while I read many other books in the interim.

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Review: Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade by Diana Gabaldon


Reviewed by Alex Beecroft

Lord John’s mother is getting re-married, and the change threatens to stir up more than one thing which should remain hidden. For a start John is in danger of falling very much in love with his new step-brother to be, Percy, a love which is distinctly reciprocated. But in a more sinister turn of events, the fact that John’s mother now has a protector to whom she can speak of the past alarms the murderer of John’s father. Attempts are made on John’s life, his brother and mother are warned off with pages of a missing diary, and a conspiracy and scandal which has hung over the Grey family name for years threatens to burst back into life.

In the middle of all this, John and Hal’s regiment are posted to the Rhineland, to take part in several battles of the Seven Years War which seem like something of a relief after the tension at home. But tragedy follows John onto the battlefield, and when everything falls apart for him he must turn to Jamie Fraser, the Jacobite prisoner with whom he has a poisonous love/hate relationship, not only to provide him with the final clue as to the murderer of his father, but also to tell him how… whether to save Percy’s life.

I think I said in my review of ‘Lord John and the Private Matter’ that I liked that book because it was not as overwrought as the Outlander series, and because it didn’t have Jamie Fraser in it. This book, alas, was as overwrought as the Outlander series, and did have Jamie Fraser in it, with all his (to me) graceless, unattractive, overbearing, arrogant macho bullshit. Consequently I didn’t enjoy it half as much as ‘Lord John and the Private Matter.’ I like a happy ending, and this book did not have it – in fact, when I put the book down at the end I felt severely depressed. My respect for Lord John himself decreases with every instance of his inability to get over the fact that Jamie Fraser is a homophobic git who will never love him, and if I never read another book in which the tedium of troop maneuvers on the Prussian front is so excruciatingly well drawn (yes ‘Temeraire: Black Powder War’ I’m looking at you too) I will be very happy.

However, having said all of that, all the reasons why I loved the first Lord John book still apply – the gorgeous, fully immersive experience of living in the 18th Century in London, from the effervescent Irish squalor of St. Giles to the high class literary salons and coffee shops. I’d have paid the price of the book entirely to make the acquaintance of the O’Higgins brothers and not felt short changed. The love affair between John and Percy is so tender and delightful and frustrating and just gorgeously sexy that it too is worth the admission on its own. The mystery is intriguing and kept me turning pages. I’m more in love with John’s family than ever. And as much as I don’t like Jamie Fraser, I’m well aware that there are many more people who do like him than don’t. I can’t deny that there is an intensity in the parts of the book where he appears which grips you by the throat. I personally don’t like that experience, but I know that a lot of fans of the Outlander series will find this book much more to their taste than the last. It is more… full blooded, in a way. (To a point that at times felt likely to give me a nosebleed.) If you like to be put through the emotional wringer by a book, this one is definitely for you!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann

Narrator Jacob Cullen, educated but now a servant, flees his royalist household, taking his bride of just an hour and his brother after a cold blooded murder. In a second act of terrible brutality, he beats and rapes his wife. Becoming a pikeman in Cromwell’s New Model Army, he befriends Christopher Ferris, an idealist disaffected by the Army and in search of a less tainted freedom. And so the two desert and head for London and the pleasures of Cheapside–and each other. Jacob becomes “a fornicator of unnatural appetite, in thrall to an Atheist… I was in love”. But Ferris is intent on establishing a commune, a prospect Jacob reviles, yet to keep his lover he has no choice but to join the motley band.

Review by Erastes

Jacob Cullen, a man of hasty temper and with an unstable temperment is forced, for reasons I won’t divulge, to flee the manor where he serves with his wife and his brother. Very soon he falls out with them and they desert him, leaving him to attempt to walk to Bristol. He falls in with The New Model Army (Cromwell’s Army) and joins them for a month or two in which time he becomes obsessed with Christopher Ferris, a troubled but basically good man.

This is a very clever book, in a lot of ways. It’s incredibly well researched, and makes my version of the English Civil War seem rather shallow in comparison. Tthe immersion into the period is deep, convincing and realistic. It does what I always appreciate in a book, it tells of the world without over describing it. After all, when you walk into a room you don’t think “I walked into the room where there were two Persian rugs four Hepplethwhite chairs, some red velvet curtains and a desk with…. ” You simply describe what is immediate. This book does that; it’s not to say that there isn’t superb period detail in there, there is, but it’s only brought out when it’s necessary. Clothes for example. Jacob’s clothes are described in exquisite detail at one point, right down to lace and buttons but they are amazing clothes, nothing the like of which he’s seen or worn before – so it makes perfect sense for him to describe them. And so it goes, that’s how the book is, never info dumping, but making you feel you are there.

What really impressed me more than anything else is the sure bravery that the author shows in writing this 1. from the point of view of a man, a soldier in that time – knowing that she was going to have to show his view of the war etc but 2. That Jacob is just about as unpleasant a character as I’ve ever read about. I can’t believe that Ms McCann meant him to be anything else, and as far as I am concerned she suceeded admirably. As an author, I can’t imagine how any writer can embark on a story like this and yet – why not? Most of us are pretty unpleasant types! However, my hat is off to her. Not only did she write about a man with (as far as I was concerned, your mileage may vary) no redeeming qualities save that he loves another man but she kept me hooked into the book so deeply that I was willing him to have some kind of redemption, to bring about some miraculous ending which I could tell, even quite early on was never going to happen.

Jacob is truly unpleasant, but so brilliantly written that he’s hardly even aware of it himself for most of the book. Of course, this is perfectly sensible – how many of us actually think we are awful people? Jacob’s sense of self-loathing however, is ingrained in every page, less so at the beginning and ebbs and flows throughout, but gradually working into a crescendo ending with the last two heartbreaking lines. It again shows such skill that I wanted to smack/kick/kill Jacob for most of the book and yet he had me sobbing when I reached the last page.

I suppose in this day and age he would be known as a Sociopath – and in fact if you read the list of Sociopath social traits on this page you would think that Ms McCann made a note of all those character traits and started with Jacob using this as a base. What I don’t understand , even though I’ve re-read the first chapters several times to get a gleaning of it, is WHY he did what he did at Beaurepair. I can’t see any reason for it, other than he just “wanted to”.

I pitied him, immensely, because I could tell that he wasn’t going to change, but I pitied Ferris even more because he’d fallen in love with the wrong man, and that’s something I can relate to, big time. But Ferris was a grown man, and he had plenty of choices to cast Jacob aside – and could have done – and didn’t. He even dumped poor Nathan without a word, and as far as I know nothing more than a shirt looted from Basing to run off with a man who he knew he couldn’t change. He was taking a risk too, as at that point he didn’t even know if Jacob was going to be acquiescent to a homosexual relationship and he was leaving behind an established one for an uncertain future. But I guess I understand that. Better to leave a lesser love for the promise of The Big One. And Jacob could have been The Big One if he hadn’t’ve stuffed it up, like he stuffed everything up.

As a nice change this book wasn’t OKhomo (everyone’s gay and everyone’s OK about it) and I didn’t expect it to be as it isn’t a Romance and I was expecting it to be an accurate historical novel. In fact the men are’nt “GAY” at all, in the way that we would know it today, they’ve both been married and allegedly in love with their wives. They both consider marrying again. Ferris I think knows his sexuality better than Jacob (who is more opportunist – I think he would have had Nathan had he offered himself up) but Jacob is (I think) drawn to Ferris first as a friend and then finds he love him. But the risks they run are very real, are reflected in every single sexual encounter they have, even when they are “safe” in Ferris’s Aunt’s house in London. I did wonder about the wooden floorboards and the wooden beds though as I found it difficult to imagine it would have been easy to muffle the sounds of male sex which can be quite acrobatic. But the danger is there, hanging, lynching, burning – all of them a very real dange, even though even then, they knew that proof would have been needed.

There was one point when I had a WTF moment and that’s when Jacob met up again with Zeb; I didn’t see the point of this – I didn’t understand how Zeb had the knowledge he had, why he didn’t use it and what the meeting was set up to do – it seemed rather pointless. But then, I guess that’s realistic – not all meetings we have in this world are filled with meaning.

All the minor characters were great. I don’t think one of them was pallid or forgettable. I think possibly because Jacob hates them all in varying degrees, partly in jealousy that he can’t bear anyone to get close to Ferris. In fact the only character that I think that Jacob truly loved was Aunt, and possibly because she was more of a mother to him than his own mother was. It was so touching when she said “don’t worry, your hair will soon grow back” and Jacob looked around “eagerly” – like a child so desperate for affection and he found she was speaking to someone else. It was a briliant moment because Jacob had actually been empathising with the woman who had been shorn, and after that, I think he lost the empathy.

The “venture” was doomed to fail from the begiining, I don’t know if any of these ventures DID suceed and there were a few of them, you can’t blame the people, they’d had Cromwell and his cronies banging on about how everyone would be granted land, and all men were created equal so it wasn’t surprising that a few people formed communes in this way.

As to the ending – the Voice – and Jacob’s gradual descent? I don’t know. It’s the kind of book that has had me thinking all day. I cried at the end, bitter frustrated tears at the stupid stupid man – but then, if he had behaved differently he’d have been with the commune at the end. Then I went and bored my dad with it for about an hour and I’m still running it through in my head. I need to read it again. Did Jacob know the date was different at the end? Did the letter get it wrong? Was it Caro? Or had Jacob’s mind broken at the loss of Ferris? Was it “Caro” with Ferris in the wood? There’s so many questions I can’t answer. On the surface it all seems plain sailing, but we are inside the head of a man on the brink of madness, and frankly – how much of it all can we trust?

And the ending – stellar. It was the only thing he could do really – he wasn’t going to kill himself, after all – not with those character traits, he’ll blame everyone else in the world before he’d blame himself – although perhaps if the colony had ALL gone on a flipping ship it would have been a different book!

So yes – I loved it. Impressed impressed impressed. By the way, there is quite a lot of sex, but it’s quite subtle, but there is a lot of it.

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