Review: Whistle Pass by KevaD

On the battlefields of WWII Europe, Charlie Harris fell in love with Roger Black, and after the war, Roger marched home without a glance back. Ten years later, Charlie receives a cryptic summons and quickly departs for his former lover’s hometown of Whistle Pass. 

But Roger Black isn’t the lover of Charlie’s dreams anymore. He’s a married, hard-bitten political schemer who wants to secure his future by destroying evidence of his indiscreet past. Open homosexuality is practically a death sentence, and that photo would ruin Roger and all his wife’s nefarious plans.

Caught up in foggy, tangled events, Charlie turns to hotel manager Gabe Kasper for help, and Gabe is intrigued by the haunted soldier who so desperately desires peace. When helping his new lover places Gabe in danger, the old warrior in Charlie will have to take drastic action to protect him… or condemn them both

Review by Elliott Mackle

The set-up and first chapter of this caper historical are so convincing and cleverly done I thought I’d stumbled onto something wonderful. Unfortunately, eight fast-moving introductory pages do not a successful, or even a comprehensible, novel make.

The hook: Charlie Harris, a lonely bachelor lumberjack, spurned by his army lover at war’s end, receives a two word message: “Need you.” In the past, these words were the signal for sex between Charlie and his battlefield body-buddy, Roger Black. Now, ten years later, assuming the note is genuine, Charlie drops everything and takes off for Roger’s home town, Whistle Pass, Illinois.

The setting is small-town Midwestern America, 1955. The narrative tone, descriptions of landscape and criminal and political shenanigans, however, are more reminiscent of shoot-’em-up western frontier fiction and cowboy movies set a century earlier. Like most such genre confections, much of the action and dialog are overdone and forgettable.

The gist of the novel is a cascade of bloody fights and violent confrontations, faked battles, misidentifications, truck shootings (they shot horses, didn’t they?), empty threats (Roger’s wife Dora proposes to kill someone who’s already dead), a daring escape from a homophobic mob and assorted, mostly unconvincing homo- and heterosexual love scenes. Finally, the fade-out that unites the new lovers, macho lumberjack Charlie and prissy, closeted, beaten-to-a-pulp hotel manager Gabe, comes off as almost a parody of every HEA ending ever written.

Better editing might have helped. Abrupt changes in point of view are distracting. “LT” for Lieutenant (not once but several times); an incorrectly composed newspaper headline, and occasional metaphorical howlers (“Gabe’s heart thumped like the leg of a rabbit in heat.”) suggest that more care might have been taken in the preparation of the finished product. On the other hand, misspellings are few and some of the characters’ voices are lively and distinctive. The cover art, which suggests little about the novel itself, is attractively dreamy and masculine.

Author’s website

Buy at Dreamspinner Press   Amazon UK  Amazon USA (available as print and ebook)

Review: Abominations by Paul R Brenner

The year is 68 CE. Led by the fanatical Sicarii, the ideological dagger men, Jews seize Jerusalem, execute the Roman garrison, and begin to cleanse Judaea of all impurities and foreign influences, including Greek love. Nero sends Vespasianus with three legions to quell the revolt. Caught in this conflict is the Sacred Community of Men, whose leader is the man who was Jesus’ lover, and Joanna, in whose home was held the Last Supper with Jesus. To escape assassination, Jesus’ beloved flees Judaea for cosmopolitan Alexandria, where he has been accepted as a Visiting Scholar in the famous Temple of the Muses, the Mouseion. Within days of arriving in the city, fierce ethnic fighting breaks out between Greeks and Jews, disrupting his life and plans. Further complicating his life is Markos, the sexy, wealthy young Greek, who wants a relationship with him, Hakor, the young orphaned Egyptian boy whom he befriends, and Diokles, Director of Visiting Scholars, who takes more than an intellectual interest in him. He senses he is being followed without being able to identify by whom. When he and his friends are viciously attacked, they discover the Sicarii have him marked for assassination. Finally, to end the chaos, Tiberius Alexander, Governor of Egypt, recalls the legion from fighting bandits in the south of Egypt. As they attack the quarter, our hero is trapped and comes face to face with a Roman centurion with drawn bloody sword eager to kill. Will he survive?

Review by Erastes

It’s taken me a while to review this book because I wanted to be as fair as I possibly could be. At first I was mildly excited because although there are a couple of Jesus gay books they are more erotica than historical fiction. Abominations is very “closed bedroom door” which was an approach I liked and would have left room for the plot.

That is, if there had been a plot. I kept reading and reading in the hopes that some kind of plot would manifest itself, but sadly it simply didn’t. It’s simply a book about a bloke who travels about, meets people and does stuff. Content doesn’t equal plot.

It’s set about 30 years after Jesus (called Joshua in this) was killed and it covers some of his friends and disciples as they come to terms with his death and how the world is getting to know about him and how everyone has a different take on “who he was.” This, I found interesting. Even if Jesus was just a normal person, albiet wise and charismatic, there was going to be some confusion afterwards as gradually more and more people claimed to know who he was and what he stood for. This is illustrated well, as the groups of people grow and split apart as their opinions differ.

There’s an awful lot of theology in this, and I’m afraid I know nuffin’ about theology and religious history so whether the facts–or even the myths discussed–are accurate, I simply couldn’t tell you. I admit that I was taking it all on faith (scuse the pun) that Bremmer knew what he was talking about when a couple of large mistakes hoved into view and then I started to doubt it all. Someone with more knowledge than I would know whether there was a Sacred Community of Men (and one of women) and what they stood for etc. I admit I was a bit lost in this respect.

What jarred me more than anything was the entirely modern feel to the book. Now, I’m not expecting people to be speaking Greek, or Aramaeic or anything like that, but these characters were speaking “2011 San Francisco” as far as I could see, and you could pick any of them up by their “fabulous, darlings!” and transplant them to Castro and they would simply fit right in. No, I didn’t want everyone to be thee-ing and thou-ing, but I find it unlikely that everyone would be quite as flaming as they are depicted here.

Everyone is gay, too. Simply everyone. Everyone the narrator meets fancies him, or makes a pass, or leers over him, or offers himself up. He’s simply irresistible, it seems. The librarian is gay, all the soldiers they meet, chance encounters on ships and in cafes (in fact there are gay bars, for goodness sake) There’s a thriving gay community where everyone seems to know everyone else.  It was this very gay community (in Alexandria) that gave me misgivings, because I had read a lot about the Greek attitude to homosexuality and it didn’t strike me that it was particularly OKHOMO to this degree. Yes, men were considered to be the best teachers of the young (heaven forbid the women would be allowed to do it, after all as they weren’t really allowed out of the house that much) but an erastes/eromenos relationship was pretty unequal when it came down to it, the erastes being older and allegedly wiser. Here the men pair off according to whim and attraction–and love–and live together as easily as… men living in San Francisco. As far as I was aware men did not carry on homosexual relationships with men of equal age, in fact it was quite frowned upon.

The prose is fairly regular througout, despite the modern feel to it which jarred me on a basic level on just about every page. But the first major love-making scene (which, as I said above, are non-explicit) was so bloody hilariously written I ended up snorting tea out of my nose.

Here’s a snippet of the first part of it (and it goes on for several pages of my Kindle after this):

…our mouths open to each other, and all that has been

detoured, denied, disrupted,

unspoken, unapproached, untouched, unfilfilled, undone

erupts

in an

enmeshing, entwining, enwrapping, engulfing, enflaming

frenzy

of

touching, tasting, tonguing, teghtening, twisting,

savoring, sucking, swallowing, sliding, squeezing, squishing…

Hmm.

Add to all of this that the author got the erastes and the eromenos muddled up and presents the erastes as the younger partner, rather than the younger plus the fact the sailing ships (in first century AD) had portholes when they weren’t invented until the 16th century, –  and you’ll begin to see why I was doubting the research into the rest of it.

Continuing with the language, the author has attempted to flavour his book by chucking in Greek (and probably other, but it’s not explained what language they are) words at a fairly regular rate and at times it was intrusive and annoying, particularly with the over-modern language used throughout, and the “As you know, Bob” translations to phrases spoken. There’s quite a lot of “As you know, Bob” throughout as the backstory is explained which made me grind my teeth.

What I did like, though, despite my entire non-belief in the entire affair–was the way it made me think about the way word would have spread about Jesus after his death and how that people would shape the stories around him, even from the word go (let alone how they have been twisted 2000 years later.)  It’s clear from much of the book — and from the postscript — that the author has done a great deal of research, but whether he has actually portrayed first century Alexandria with any conviction, I really don’t know. Personally if you have any expertise in the era, I would be very interested to know your view on it, should you read it. It’s worth a look, I would say, for its rarity value. But it left me puzzled to be honest.

Buy at Amazon

Review: The Broken by Stella Notecor

James guards his secrets.

Uncertain as to whom he can trust with his family’s secrets, James Bradford has lived a lonely life since becoming Baron of Riverside. When he meets an equally enigmatic violinist named Sheamus, he begins to wonder if he’s found someone with whom he can share everything.

Sheamus guards his body.

No one has ever shown Sheamus Flynn affection except his mother. That changes when he meets James, but Sheamus cannot trust him. Sheamus has been used by his master, Cade Edward, and he knows better than to believe James could ever love a mere servant.

They both guard their hearts.

Over the course of the 1876 Social Season they cautiously fall in love, only to be violently ripped apart by Edward. Defeating Edward’s deceptions will require both of them to share long guarded secrets.

Can they trust each other?

Review by Erastes

I’m not sure if you can entirely trust that blurb, to be honest. It might be what the author thought she was writing, but it’s not how it came out for me.

I didn’t see the blurb  until preparing this review, so it took me a long while to work out exactly when this story was set. Whilst I’m not a big fan of “London, XXXX” date at the top of the chapter, I do like a few grounding facts to help me. The date would sufficed in this case as I was about half way through before the era was clear.

It starts off at a party and there’s a waltz being played, so I’m thinking it couldn’t be pure Regency, because the waltz didn’t really take off until a bit later–but then they have a quadrille which confused me. It wasn’t until a good way into the book when I could hang a date on it, 1876, 20 years after the Indian Rebellion.

The thing is I wasn’t particularly enamoured of James. His idea of “cautiously falling in love” is to march up to Sheamus’s master (a man to whom Sheamus owes money and oddly cannot leave, like it’s some kind of slavery) and demand that he hand him over for the season, with nefarious purposes entirely in mind. It just so happens that Sheamus is being raped and abused (and these scenes are shown graphically in the book, so if that’s not your bag watch out) by his “master” and doesn’t really want to roll over for another man. However–of course he does, with hardly more than a “I’d rather not” and in no time at all they are weeping and wailing and declaring love to each other like the best of girlie men.

The whole scenario seemed weird. Why didn’t Sheamus just bugger off somewhere else and get a job and send Edward the money if he was so honourable? Or just bugger off. One could argue that he was “broken” but he doesn’t really come over that way to me.

I was disappointed, because for a moment it did seem like it might be a break from what is becoming the norm.

Being self-published it runs true to the expectation that I am now having with self-pubbed books that the editing is shoddy. Not the worst I’ve seen (that comes in my next review) but pretty dire. When will anyone bother to look up the difference between rain/reign/rein? It sometimes strikes me that perhaps these people have decided to self-publish because the book has been rejected. Perhaps they should stop and think why it’s been rejected. There’s nothing wrong with self publication, but I wish people would have more pride and put out the best product they possibly can.

OK, rant over.

There’s a lot of sex in this book, and as I mentioned above the rapes are pretty graphic. The author’s website tagline is “Love Knows No Boundaries and Neither Do I so that’s probably what she means. ” I would actually say there’s a bit too much sex, and there’s also some annoying secondary characters who seem to have no place in the story other than to SUFFER ALSO under the evil Snidely Whiplash.

James annoyed me to the last, as despite him declaring undying love for Sheamus promptly forgets all about him for weeks and Sheamus is in dire trouble when he does take the trouble to remember – oh yes- where’s that guy I love??

Not recommended–although some of the writing isn’t bad. It’s not a bad price, so you might want to try it.

Author’s website

Buy at Smashwords

Review: The Demon’s Parchment by Jeri Westerson

In fourteenth century London, Crispin Guest is a disgraced knight convicted of treason and stripped of his land, title and his honor. He has become known as the “Tracker”—a man who can find anything, can solve any puzzle and, with the help of his apprentice, Jack Tucker, an orphaned street urchin with a thief’s touch—will do so for a price. But this time, even Crispin is wary of taking on his most recent client. Jacob of Provencal is a Jewish physician at the King’s court, even though all Jews were expelled from England nearly a century before. Jacob wants Crispin to find stolen parchments that might be behind the recent, ongoing, gruesome murders of young boys, parchments that someone might have used to bring forth a demon which now stalks the streets and alleys of London.

Review by Yakalskovich

This is not a gay-themed book as such, it’s a straight medieval whodunnit with some gay elements, and I must say I am not really happy how some of them have been handled. Why does the one sympathetic gay character have to be a cross-dressing prostitute? And why should the protagonist fall for a proud young man, wrestling with his emotions for about two hours before he realises he’s a girl in disguise, so everything is all right again as he’s not secretly tarnished by Teh Gay?

The problems start with the protagonist himself. I understand this is an established series printed on paper, but angst does not necessarily make everything better and deeper. Crispin Guest is a drunkard former nobleman who angsts about his former life, drinks a lot at every turn, snarks at people who want to help him, then staggers and stumbles through his investigation with an unexplained instinctual gift and a lot of serendipity that lets him happen on evidence (and, finally and inevitably, the solution) before he keels over drunk again.

Then there is the thing about inserting contemporary sensibilities into a historical story. Jeri Westerson at first evades the trap ostentatiously by having Crispin matter-of-factly share the contemporary prejudice against Jews, believing wholesale the nonsense fabricated about them in England prior to their expulsion in 1290 — which is almost a hundred years in the past for the late medieval post-pestilence setting of 1384. After demonstrating that she will have the N-word said, so to speak, for the sake of historical correctness, she then gives it all away by pulling a full Dostoevsky when the first murdered boy is discovered:

“The men about Crispin kept their vigil, murmuring prayers quietly beside the stricken  boy. Crispin uttered no prayers. He could not. He found it hard to ascribe to a God who would allow mere men to debase such innocence. Who would murder a child? And in such a way? Not out of sudden anger with a blow to the head to teach him better, an accident perhaps. But in a deliberate act of cruelty and barbarism, for surely such steady strangulation, looking into the eyes of the child as he struggled to breathe, was not the act of a man. Not a man who walked the earth among other men. No one who breathed the same air, ate the same food, watched the same stars ebb and flow across the sky.” (p. 17)

I am sorry, dear Ms Westerson, but that is not how a medieval man would have thought about children. The concept of childhood as a state of being that is quite separate from the adult human state is something that wasn’t developed until the 19th century, and the special horror reserved for sexual child abuse as the utmost of crimes is quite modern. Medieval men thought nothing of marrying twelve-year-old girls to men triple their age if it suited their fathers’ business or political connections. Pauper children got under the wheels of fate, survived or not, and nobody cared much about them. There being brothels offering boys would have been abominable for the sake of the ‘sodomy’, not because they were still children, more or less. Of course there were brothels offering boys — what else should the sodomites sodomise?

From then on, the story splashes from one pothole-full of gooey trope into the next. Of course the Jews study the traditions of the kabbalah (which was then in fact relatively new, having been developed around the same time as Christian scholasticism), and of course, once you say kabbalah, you have to say Golem. Oh, and of course the One Sympathetic Gay character is as horrified by the idea of children being prostituted and abused as the main protagonist is. Of course Crispin sees the light about Jews in general and starts to protect them, abjuring his prejudices. Of course the fascinating young man is secretly a girl and only then can be snogged back (as mentioned before — but that is the point where she really lost me). And of course everything is hushed up at the end, and nobody is interested in the truth, so Crispin resumes his drunken staggering about, insults some kind people some more, and angsts a lot, to everybody annoyance, including this reader’s.

This book may work as a medieval whodunnit of the sort that people read by the stack on long plane rides. As such, it is quite entertaining, if in an annoying way where you forge towards the end just because you want to know just how serious the author expects us to take her clichéd Golem. That’s why this is worth two stars, not just one. But a milestone in GLBT historicals? This definitely is not. Sorry.

Author’s website: http://www.jeriwesterson.com

Buy from:  Amazon UK    Amazon USA

Review: Long, Hard Ride by Keta Diablo

Grayson Drake has been sent by a covert spy agency from the South to break Marx Wellbourne out of Elmira Prison at all costs.

Ordered to return Wellbourne to Richmond so the Confederate Army can pick his brain about the maps he’s memorized, Gray soon discovers Marx is courting death from malaria and pneumonia. To complicate matters further, the decadent, gorgeous Wellbourne is none other than the same man he coveted from afar four years ago in a Charleston brothel.

Pursued by the villainous warden of the prison, Major Britton Darkmore, nothing is as it seems when intrigue, suspense and raw passion collide on the long, hard ride back to Richmond.

Review by Bruin Fisher

From the blurb above: “Marx is courting death from malaria and pneumonia”. Courting death in my version of the English language is daringly taking risks that could cost one’s life. Malaria and pneumonia don’t count. In the hands of a master, inventing new uses for words can work, Shakespeare did it and his usage stuck. But here it makes for difficult and laboured reading. Several times the sound of a cough is described as a chortle – which I always thought was a kind of laugh, but what do I know? I quite like this: one of the characters wakes up

“Sore and dogmatically stiff, but nothing a dip in the river and a hot meal wouldn’t rectify.”

And

“He’d checked the bottle of quinine before their trek to the river only to find it empty. Another conundrum.”

If you’re going to read this book you will have to cope with a lot of flowery prose, some of which doesn’t make much sense, such as this:

“Gray lingered between darkness and light it seemed for eons. He likened his re-emergence to that of a drowning man who’d thrashed and clobbered his way through the claws of a cloven-hoofed demon.”

and a thin plot, and characters who act without much apparent motivation. If you can get past that, there is some mildly enjoyable reading in the middle part of the book when the two main characters are fleeing their pursuers and failing to decide whether they like, love, distrust or just hate each other.

Grayson Drake is a physician from the town near the prison, and also an agent of the Confederates (Gray, see?) sent to spring the man the blurb describes as ‘the decadent, gorgeous Marx Wellbourne’ from prison. He has to get him back to Confederate territory for de-briefing, since he has information about battle maps which will, apparently, change the course of the war. We don’t ever discover quite why it will change the course of the war, and when he finally hands it over he points out that it’s months old.

Wellbourne is, apparently, gorgeous although he’s skin and bone after a starvation diet in prison and “two days in the sweat box had greatly compromised his maladies”. He’s also well-born (Wellbourne, see?), having inherited a big southern estate and slaves although slavery is, of course, abhorrent to him – after all his name’s Marx. We are not, however, given any evidence that he’s decadent. He’s a corporal which seems to be an elevated rank although in the Confederate army it was only one grade up from the lowest enlisted man, the private. His vocabulary includes shit, and bugger, and fuck, and Jesus and Christ used as expletives, which doesn’t quite ring true considering he’s a Southern Gentleman and not a mill worker from the North of England. He has heroically helped ten other prisoners to escape and for his trouble ended up in the ‘sweat box’, presumably a punishment cell of some sort, and contracted pneumonia, and malaria, apparently from drinking the water from a frog-infested pool – no mention of the usual mosquito bite transmission method. Why the poor frogs are implicated, I can’t say.

Gray gives Marx a forged pass hidden in a Bible to get him through the front gate of the prison, and a Union soldier’s uniform with a knife in the pocket, but no help with getting past the locked door of his cell. We’ve been told that the door is heavy, and metal, and incorporates metal bars, and that it is unlocked by inserting a key (but apparently there’s no need to turn it) and it can then be opened despite its weight by pushing with a toe. Gray has hinted to the guard that Marx may be very infectious, and dying, and warned him to keep well away from the prisoner, despite which Marx convinces the guard to hold his hand and read to him from the psalms, and then he threatens him with the knife until he hands over the keys.

We have to assume that the rest of the escape goes smoothly, because the next chapter begins when Gray and Marx rendezvous in woods and begin their ‘long, hard ride’ to Richmond, Virginia, pursued by the prison warden, Major Britton Darkmore (he’s the baddie, Darkmore, get it?) who considers their capture so crucial that he’s abandoned his prison and searches the towns on their route house by house with a posse of soldiers to help him. It’s difficult to see why Wellbourne’s memorised battle maps, months old, can be quite so important to Darkmore or to the Confederate ‘covert spy agency’ either. Are there any other kinds of spy agency?

Wellbourne and Drake have seen each other before, in a brothel they both frequented. Now they are attracted to each other despite their continuing distrust of each other – although Drake has sprung Wellbourne from prison and is doing his best to get him back to his own lines, which would be enough reason to trust each other, you’d think.

They pause on their journey and Wellbourne’s exhausted condition doesn’t prevent them having energetic sex. A day later Drake has been shot in the chest and they get the wound treated by an Iroquois healer, a friend of Gray’s whose camp fire “flared in the middle of a small clearing. Behind it stood a lean-to, the slanted mud and straw roof sagging like his Aunt Rosie’s tits.” Aunt Rosie, I should point out, plays no further part in the story – very wise of her, I’d say.

They’ve smelled the smoke of the fire from a distance but apparently their pursuers missed it so they can spend some time and recuperate. The next day they have more energetic sex despite the chest wound. The sex scenes are among the better passages of the book, although there’s a hint of BDSM which never really takes hold. These are two men physically attracted to each other but there’s no affection developing between them.

The day they strike camp and continue their journey, Gray has pain in his arm, but he “rotated his arm in a circle and realized most of the pain stemmed from stiffness”. Nevertheless he apparently loses the use of it for the next few pages and there is no further mention of the bullet wound in his chest. Marx’s pneumonia and malaria seem to be better, too.

So: can I recommend this book to you, dear reader? Umm… well, No. Sorry. It’s rubbish, poorly written hokum. None of the characters are particularly likeable, there’s no satisfactory resolution of tension, very little plot (I’ve told you nearly all of it) and although civil war dates and events are mentioned there’s nothing about the characters or their dialogue that anchors them to the early 1860’s. I give it two stars because the cover art is attractive, although the man in the picture looks about a hundred and fifty years too modern. Oh, and the punctuation is immaculate.

Author’s Website

Buy from Decadent Publishing 

Review: Colonel’s Treasure by Dirk Hessian

Young Rob Winston is deemed too small of stature and unsoldierly to take his place in the military ranks of the American Revolution. All he is seen fit to do is to become the sexual comfort and treasure of Colonel Seth Hampton of the army of General Nicholas Herkiner in the Mohawk Valley campaign. With the help of the Indian subchieftain and scout Otetiani, however, Winston endeavors, by taking on the role of spy, to show that his talents in enticing the desires of men are more than enough to turn the tide of war. At war’s end, however, he must choose between his colonel, the Indian chief who has mastered him, or the runaway slave, Jeremiah, to whom Rob himself has become a slave.

Review by Erastes

A short review for a a short novella. At around 17,000 words this story follows Rob Winston has he tries to help America win the war of independence–on his back.

It’s an erotic novel, rather than a historical piece, even though it’s set in 1775 and onwards, there’s plenty of sex on the pages but it’s more geared towards porn than erotica. The story starts with a rape (although some, as Rob’s reactions soon turn from “no no!” to “more more!” might call it “dub-con”) and progresses to him becoming a male prostitute, then becoming a Colonel’s sex toy (with all his platoon knowing about it) to participating in a bogus Native American sex ritual of group sex of rape and bondage.

I can’t say I enjoyed the story much, because it was a real case of OK Homo, one of those cases where everyone–be it black slave, Native Americans, loyal Americans, dastardly British–instantly wants this odd little milksop of a short-arse weakling of Rob Winston. A young man who is so runty that he’s not even considered for a soldiery which I know included much younger boys than him. He’s desicribed as being skinny and pale-white in skin colour–despite the fact he often works shirtless in the anachronistically democratic slave fields of a neighbouring farm–so he didn’t come over as being appealing to me.

His motivations were rather clouded. He starts off saying how much he wants to help the cause, because as I say, he’s been turned down for proper solider work, but as he goes on, he’s thinking more about the sex he can have rather than any good he can do.  When he becomes the “Treasure” of the Colonel named in the title, he professes to be really in love with him, but later actions show that he doesn’t care a bit. He wants to be some (and I’m quoting directly) a sex slave to someone, but he walks away from someone who offers him just that. Also, when he’s having some of this sex (and some of it is quite distasteful, with BDSM that isn’t BDSM but simply someone damaging another person who’s only willing for spying purposes) the camera pulls out of his head and we have no indication of what he’s feeling other than the times he’s enjoying it.

Overall, mildly uncomfortable to read, not at all erotic, despite it being more a sex-manual than a book showing the American War of Independence.

Dirk Hessian is a pseudonym for the author “Habu” which is also a pen-name. I’m not sure why–when Habu already writes gay historicals, s/he needs a further penname for the same genre.

Author’s website

Amazon UK    Amazon USA

Review: The White Rajah by Tom Williams

Invalided out of the East India Company’s army, James Brooke looks for adventure in the South China Seas. When the Sultan of Borneo asks him to help suppress a rebellion, Brooke joins the war to support the Sultan and improve his chances of trading successfully in the area. Instead, he finds himself rewarded with his own country, Sarawak.

Determined to be an enlightened ruler who brings peace and prosperity to his people, James settles with his lover, John Williamson, in their new Eden. But piracy, racial conflict, and court plotting conspire to destroy all he has achieved. Driven from his home and a fugitive in the land he ruled, James is forced to take extreme measures to drive out his enemies.

The White Rajah is the story of a man, fighting for his life, who must choose between his beliefs and the chance of victory. Based on a true story, Brooke’s battle is a tale of adventure set against the background of a jungle world of extraordinary beauty and terrible savagery. Told through the eyes of the man who loves him and shares his dream, this is a tale of love and loss from a 19th century world that still speaks to us today.

Review by Erastes

It’s unfortunate that this book has the same title as that of one on the same subject by a very well known author, Nicholas Monsarrat–Brooke was indeed known as the first “white rajah” though, but perhaps a different title might have been prudent.

The book is fictionally written by John Williamson, who was in fact a real person but who has been fictionalised for this book. The writing is done deliberately in a way to convince us that it’s a memoire written at and of the time, which manages to do that quite well, and that’s partly to blame for failing to win me over, too.

My first impression of the first twenty or so pages though were more that it was recounting what happened, rather than allowing us to know the characters. I would have like to have known about the narrator a little more, because in order to care what happens to a character you have to care about them. He’s rather surprisingly erudite for a sailor before the mast, and he has such knowledge of places and people as to come across as an omniecent narrator. I don’t mind passages such as this:

“I tell you again, sir,” he was saying, “we can make no decent profit from such limited commissions as these. We must seek the sort of work we might find from Jardine Matheson who—”

Mr Brooke had been lounging back in his chair affecting a casual air that failed entirely to mask his irritation. At the name of Jardine Matheson, one of the largest and most respected firms amongst the Singapore merchants

But I’d prefer some connection with his knowledge, show us why he knows this about Matheson, rather than simply telling us.This telling rather than showing continues much of the way through the book, for example where we are told that Brooke is charismatic–but we’ve not actually had any personal insight into him through John’s eyes. No conversations, no action–so the fact he’s charismatic rather leaves me thinking. “Oh yeah? Says you.” He also says that seeing Brooke again after a gap of five years rekindled feelings that he thought he had forgotten. However, the author seems to have forgotten that he never mentioned any feelings in the first place, and these “feelings” aren’t mentioned again for a hundred pages.

The whole beginning section was rather pointless, I felt, particularly as it didn’t give us any depth into either character other than “Mr Brooke told me years later that…” and it could have been excised entirely without losing much of the narrative. The only thing is served was to have John meet Brooke, and that could easily have been achieved by a sentence later on when they meet again. On page 23 there is this frankly kick-ass sentence:

In June of 1839, almost five years after I first arrived at Singapore in the Findlay, James Brooke came back into my life.

This would have been a great first line – and it would have been a marvellous place to start the story, because this is where the story actually begins.

Sadly the book continues with swathes of telling not showing. Scenes that could have been interesting were cut short with a modicum of conversation and finished off by telling us what happened after the brief exchange. It’s almost like the author is scared of conversations. I know that sometimes an author will think that they want to cut forward to more plot but the readers can get more from the characters with a conversation than they can from pages of exposition.

Part of the omniescent feel is probably based on the fact that it’s told in a memoire style. I do like memoires, but I think I’d have preferred this just to be a narration of events rather than an endless jumping back and forth. The narrator actually says:

I write now with an understanding I did not have then.

And that’s rather the problem, because we aren’t quite sure what we are reading, a historical record with all the facts in place, or the observations of a rather gauche ignorant sailor who seems to know everything. He tells us things that he couldn’t possibly have known at the time, such as Brooke’s motivations, things he’s gleaned from a more intimate knowledge of Brooke in the future of this narration, and this for me was quite off-putting.

I know next to nothing about ships and nautical matters, but I have to say that the seafaring experience of John seems rather overly idyllic. Other than one storm in the unnecessary first section he doesn’t have any problems with weather or with unruly bosses, and indeed seems to spend much of his time loafing around, hanging around the deck, or drinking and having shore leave – despite the ship being magically ship-shape, bristol fashion and gleaming. In fact, and it pains me to say it, because I haven’t encountered one of these for a long time, John is a bit of a Mary Sue, or more correctly a Gary Stu, because everything he does, he does effortlessly: learns Malay, negotiates treaties and the Rajah-ship (despite being unable to read or write) has an uncanny insight into the country and its customs, despite not having been there before, is a better sailor than anyone else, meets up with people who can give him exactly the information he needs, etc etc.

Here is a good example of many of the problems I found here:

I met with fewer Malays in the course of my business in the markets, for they generally felt themselves superior to such commercial activity. Those I did have dealings with were generally more forthcoming about the realities of the political situation. They soon became used to my presence, and the various small gifts I would take whenever I visited them helped form friendships with them.

Firstly, how does he know that they felt superior? Who was he meeting, how did they get used to his presence? Why did he go and meet them, if all he was doing was shopping in the market, how did he get invited to meet them? Who were they? All these questions and more formed in my head, because the author is simply using John as an all-too-convenient narration tool; someone who needs to be everywhere and to know everything which is unbelievable and doesn’t make us care about him as a person. In fact he was more like the kind of camera you get in a video game which is constantly standing behind your main character, than a character in his own right. Eventually he just becomes an extension of Brooke’s orbit and isn’t bothering to do any common sailoring, but just standing beside Brooke the whole time so he can tell us in excruitiang detail what’s going on. I can’t help but think this would have been a better book from Brooke’s POV, as John even goes so far as to interject Brooke’s feelings from time to time which he could not possibly have known.

Even the fighting scenes are done in this dry narration style, instead of spicing up the narrative.

When we finally do get the homosexual relationship, we are told that Brooke kisses John – and it’s described as the “most natural thing in the world” which made me laugh out loud because there had been absolutely no relationship building or even any sign of physical attraction for the 100 pages that came before it. John does realise that he loves Brooke a few pages earlier, but you get no sense that he feels it in a homosexual manner, as there was no shock of how unnatural that would be to him. He does add a bit about sin after the kiss, but it truly feels pasted on.

However, one does get used to this dry narration and as a fictional account of historical matters it’s not that bad, it’s just not terribly interesting, and I have to say that I had to force myself to read it, because it certainly didn’t grab me by the throat, which is a shame, because the experiences related had the opportunity to be exciting, rather than “we did this, then we did this” and the over descriptive passages where we are shown all the research the author did smack very much of Dan Brownism.

There were a few anachronisms here and there–hansom cabs making too earlyan  appearance being one of the in your face ones, but nothing too egregious.

If you like a dry historical account, then you’ll enjoy this, and Brooke was certainly a fascinating man, so I was pleased to know so much about a man I had not heard of before, but it was too dry and factual for me, and I would have preferred a lot more action and a little more conversation.

Author’s website

JMS Books

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