Review: The Last Concubine by Catt Ford

When Princes Lan’xiu’s brother delivers her under duress into General Hüi Wei’s harem as a political offering, her only question is how soon her secret will be discovered. She is under no illusions: when the general discovers she is actually a he, death is his only future—though he doesn’t plan to make it easy. Lan’xiu has dressed as a woman all his life, but he is no damsel in distress. He can swing a sword with the best of them. 

General Hüi Wei has everything a man could want: power, wealth, success on the battlefield, and a harem of concubines. At first, he regards Lan’xiu with suspicion, but he finds himself strangely drawn to her. When he discovers the beautiful young woman is actually a man, his first reaction is to draw his sword. Rather than waste such beauty, he decides to enjoy the spirited Lan’xiu’s submission—and ignites a passion and desire deeper than anything he’s felt with other wives. But court intrigue, political ambitions, and the general’s doubts may be too much for their love to overcome. 

Paperback and ebook – 220 pages

Review by Erastes

Ok, I’ll say it up front that this book is schmoopy. So if you like schmoop you are absolutely guaranteed to like this.

But it’s also a damned good story, with wonderful characters, a good plot and an adventure to boot. So if you don’t like the over-schmoopy, which I don’t, much, then you won’t be disappointed with the rest of it, so give it a go.

Oh dear, I seem to have done my summing up paragraphs at the beginning. You’ll want a review now. Ok. Here goes.

I hadn’t read the blurb at all when Dreamspinner sent me this book for review, and it was with a couple of other gay historicals so I was about three chapters in and I thought “Where is the gay in this gay historical?” I was getting sort of annoyed about having read something that I thought was het (nothing against het, it’s just that I have such limited reading time) when all became clear and boy, didn’t I feel stupid.

The description of a medieval Chinese society is well done. Ford is clever, having most of the action taking place within a palace and further in, within the locked and gated women’s quarters where only enuchs, women, guards and the General himself can visit.  With this device she can concentrate on the relationships within those walls, the paranoia and fear of the women and the way they interact without having to do much about the ever shifting allegiances within China itself.

I’m not sure when this is set–there’s a mention of Sun Emperor Ju, and the only Ju I could find was around the 600AD time, so that would seem to work. I know absolutely nothing about the country other than from Pearl S Buck’s books and the few gay historicals there are, but this reads every believably, but I assume it’s AU rather than historical as I couldn’t find any mention of the General either, sp if that is important to you, you might want to avoid.

The characters, as I said were pretty great all round. There’s a rather unfortunate Dragon Lady stereotype and perhaps I’d like to have seen more motivation for her general evilness than simple jealousy and obvious madness, but First Wife Mei Ju, Fifth Wife Bai and all the other concubines and wives we meet are individual and interesting in their own way. The deference and customs are shown gently and without tub thumping exposition and I really did fear for Lan’Xiu’s life, both before her denouement and afterwards. It also shows a good blurring of genders, as Lan has been brought up one way and prefers to act and dress like that, and Ning, her eunuch – who I would really like to have seen a lot more of, because I think he may have a fascinating back story, and we were teased with it, and then it was snatched away–is referred to as the third sex, but is really not that at all, but perhaps something else. It makes you think, which is a good thing in a book.

The uber-schmoopyness comes in after Lan and Hui Wei have consummated their relationship. There’s instant lust and instant love for both of them which I could easily believe from Lan, because she had been starved of physical contact and affection, but I wasn’t so convinced as to why Hui became quite so besotted quite so quickly. He had one night with Lan, and then stayed away for quite some time, so it didn’t seem very realistic. Plus of course he really should have questioned why he was in love with Lan when for so long he’d been heterosexual and (as far as we are told) has never fancied men, despite being surrounded by them 24 hours a day. He does question it a little, but it’s brushed aside. The sex scenes are rather over-blown because of this over-romantic, lovey-doveyness, and although I could understand the use of the “mine, mine” “yours yours” claiming trope because of the nature of literal ownership of women by men at the time, I can’t say I’m won over by it, however true to the time.

The parts I liked the best were the action scenes, one of which is towards the beginning and the major one towards the end. I could really see this as a Chinese action film, one of those legendary ones where everyone jumps impossible distances, hair flying in the wind and gorgeous costumes. Oh yes, and for costume buffs, the descriptions of the Chinese ladies’ outfits are to die for.

So yes, to sum up again, thoroughly enjoyable and I recommend that you give it a go. I could have done without the over-lovey-dovey, but it fitted the story.

Author’s Blog

Buy at Dreamspinner |  Amazon UK |  Amazon USA

Review: Violet Thunder by Kate Cotoner

Wu Jin has both brains and beauty. Though poor, his family are noble enough for Jin to sit the imperial examinations in the hope of obtaining a high-ranking government position at the court of Tang Dynasty China. When his parents are killed, Jin clings to his dreams, and travels to the provincial capital for the exams. Pursued by a sinister horseman into the forest, Jin seeks refuge at a tumbledown inn, little realizing that he’s entered the abode of a fox-spirit. Tian Zhen is a transcendental fox of immense power and considerable seductive charm. He’s startled when Jin sees through his illusions, and believes it’s Jin’s destiny not only to become his lover, but also to help him find a lost talisman, the symbol of Zhen’s heavenly role as the Guardian of Thunder. But convincing Jin won’t be easy, and the search for the talisman turns dangerous when Jin discovers it’s connected to the man who murdered his parents.

Review by Jess Faraday

This is a beautiful story on so many levels. The prose is smooth, lyrical, and lush, but never overdone. The characters, though recognizable to the m/m reader, leap off the page as delightful individuals. And the plot holds its own, side by side with the romance, rather than being dominated by it.

The best kind of complaint a reviewer can make about a story is that it’s too short. I would have loved to see this story expanded into a full novel. But that doesn’t mean that it was incomplete in some way. Far from it. In 65 short pages, the protagonist solves a mystery, finds his destiny, and gets an HEA. It’s short and sweet, and definitely left me wanting more.

The setting is well researched–geography, housing, dress, food–it even gives a thumbnail sketch of the intricate governmental system of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). With an expert hand, the author provides a three-dimensional social and geographical landscape, which gives all the information a reader needs without a single dry patch.

I enjoyed how the myth of the Huli jing, or Transcendental Fox wove itself through the plot. And speaking of the plot–a well-formed mystery with a splash of coming-of-age–it was solid enough to have been a good story even without the romance. But, I think most of us would agree, a good romance makes any plot that much sweeter.

I really can’t recommend this highly enough. And I can’t wait to read more from Ms. Cotoner. Five stars.

Buy at Torquere Books.

Review: Farewell my Concubine by Lilian Lee

A sweeping saga, Farewell my Concubine runs the gamut of China’s modern history, from 1924 to the 1980’s, and takes the revered Peking Opera as its centre stage. Xiao Douzi and Xiao Shitou become friends under the harsh training regime of the opera (a mix of martial arts, deprivation and singing) and continue friends through the good and the very bad times of over 50 years of the country’s turbulent history

Review by Erastes

I’m going to say right out that if you have seen the film and are thinking about reading the book, and you expect the same optimistic conclusions to the character’s stories and actions within the film, you are likely to be either disappointed or surprised by the changes made – or both. Although the book does not end tragically, the film has a softer ending and also within the book the plotline regarding the abandoned child is not how it shown on the film. So be warned.

Ok – that’s that out of the way and I can concentrate on the book. Like many books about China, this is a fascinating read, because the cultures and mores of that culture are so very alien to most of a western audience. Lee lets us see Peking from the ground up; the surface “glamour” of actors and protitutes,looking affluent but look closer to see the ragged cloth shoes and the unhealthy pallor. Lee doesn’t flinch from the poverty and the squalour, and later on, the violence and degradation that the characters are forced to endure.

A young woman is desperate for her son to live, and to have a trade, carries her son to the Opera and asks them to take him on. We learn that Xiao Douzi (literally: Little Bean) has six fingers on one hand and in order for him to join the Opera–despite his excellent voice–he has to sacrifice it.There’s a theme of sacrifice that runs through the book, but you have to squint to see it.

Douzi’s mother was–for me–one of the unresolved plot lines, as this mother is never seen again, and despite Douzi missing her terribly, he does nothing to try and seek her out. It’s perfectly reasonable that she would disappear, but for him to do nothing about it, for he surely would have remember where he had lived, seems a little off, considering his character as it is painted for us.

We are introduced to the training regimen of the Opera, and from what I have read it’s not unusual, however harsh. I remember an interview with Jackie Lee who tells of his martial arts school and the terrible rigours he went through, so this is not much different, although absolutely shocking to our eyes, that young boys could be starved, beaten and humiliated in such a way. The training master is rather a cliche, I found, redolent of a sargeant major in a British sit-com or film, although he shows he does care about his charges, and whether they care for him or not, the respect they show him in later life (China, of course having a tradition of high respect for the older generation) is also highlighted.

Douzi is a natural “dan” due to his high clear voice and delicate features. A dan is a singer who specialises in female characters on stage—and in a similar fashion to the way that man-playing-female actors were trained in Shakespearian Britain – (see Stage Beauty for reference) – a dan is encouraged to consider himself female much of the time, and Douzi has to remind himself that he’s not.

The two friends stay together when they “graduate” from the ten years of their apprenticeship and they go out into the city singing their repetoire and getting better known. They are best known for the opera “Farewell my Concubine” in which Douzi (now renamed Deiyi as an adult) and Shito (renamed Xiaolou) play the concubine Yu Ji and her lover General Xiang Yu. Like many operas in the east and west, it has a tragic ending.

In the film it appears that Douzi’s sexual identity is a much bigger deal than the book, for here I found it incredibly muted, and other than a fierce loyalty, one touching scene in make-up when Shito was injured, I never really got the sense that Douzi loved Shito in some enormous way. It was very brotherly, quite hands off, and even his intense hatred and jealousy of Juxian–the prostitute that Shito marries–comes over as more of a Yoko Ono deal, and not ‘he would have loved me if it wasn’t for you.’ Douzi, doesn’t ever act on that love, so we never get a chance to find out.

The scenes where the Red Guards, consisting mainly of teenagers,  terrorise everyone who don’t adhere to the new ideals, were the most moving for me; the inhumanity of man against man, and the demonstration of just how blood-thirsty and cold young people. Harnessed for a task of cleansing the populace this section really shook me–particularly aligned against how very polite Chinese society was. The way that–even after the revolution of 1911–the country clung to its traditions, nearly had them entirely swept away in an Orwellian frenzy-only to start regaining a sense of their past was terrifying and made for a wonderful section to read.

There is a scene towards the end which is could almost be a scene from Orwell’s 1984, which is not terribly surprising, given the regime the three characters find themselves in, and it’s every bit as heartbreaking, although the real heartbreak comes at the end of the book.

However, I don’t know whether it was the translation, or just the book itself, but it didn’t really move me in the same way that other gay love stories have. I note that the translator was an academic but she wasn’t an author–perhaps it needed an author’s hand, because there were many grammatical issues, and there was some very American slang at times at times that was a tad jarring for 1920 and onwards. It’s when I read things like this that wish that I could read it in the original, but fat chance of that!

In fact I think that also, the book fails where the film shines, because it never really gives us a taste of the gorgeousness that the film is able to portray, the life of Deiyi and Xiaolou after they left the training regime and became actors, and started climbing the greasy pole to success is rather rushed, and I for one would have liked a bit more of this section.

It’s a fascinating read, however, if only for the portrait of a culture lost, and subsequent descriptions of the Mao regime as it attempted to eradicate anything that smacked of the “old traditions” and anyone with any interest in China will enjoy it for that reason, but the promise of the book in the first chapter  that it’s a story of men in love smacked just a little of a ploy to pull in people who want a gay romance, and it never delivers on that score.

Not a masterpiece, but well worth a read.

Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: Fall of a State by Kate Cotoner

The desire of an emperor… Bored with his usual palace musicians, the emperor Liu Che is tempted by a new song from lowly qin-player Li Yan Nian. Yan Nian is also beautiful, and Liu Che is in the mood to take a new lover. His lovers usually come to him, but Yan Nian’s shy reticence intrigues the emperor.

The yearning of a man… Yan Nian has been in love with the emperor since he entered the palace. Regardless of his heart, he made a promise on his father’s deathbed to use his musical skills to bring his beloved younger sister to the emperor’s attention. However, Lady Li has no intention of becoming an imperial concubine.

The danger of love… An attack at a victory celebration heralds an attempt on the emperor’s life, and desire and yearning collide when it’s revealed there may be no way to protect all the hearts threatened by a plot to overthrow the state.

Review by Erastes

The author herself calls this book a “fluffy version” of the true-life affair between Lui Che, Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty of China and Li Yan Nian a court musician in the Emperor’s court. But I wouldn’t call it fluffy, as such. Perhaps it is a little rose-tinted, but there’s no way this could be labelled as “wallpaper” because of the solidity of the world painted around the characters and the obvious depth of knowledge that the author has. If you dig a little deeper into the “what happened to these characters in real life” then the happy ever after loses some of its gloss it has to be said.

It’s a shame, really, that this is almost a throwaway novella with a sharply erotic focus because Lui Che was a hugely fascinating man–and the way he shaped the Empire around him would be more than enough material for many, many books — and has been.

But what this book does–as an erotic novella–it does exquisitely well, and exquisite is a good word here, because the careful elegance of Chinese courtly life is described so beautifully that you can see every graceful movement of the courtiers, hear the swish of silk and brocaded satin as it sweeps along nightingale floors, and even smell the weight of history.

I don’t doubt the a man as powerful as Lui Che was could have had any man or woman in the kingdom, so his manner of “seduction” strikes true (that being said, it stretched my credulity a tad that he’d bother to go to Nian’s room in the musical quarter to have sex with him) and the interplay between them, particularly in the first sex scene is as taut as a guitar string and quite lovely. There’s some whipping, and even though it’s not my thing, I admit it’s gorgeously done, and you really get a sense that–as with the time period–Cotoner knows exactly what she’s doing and how to describe this play.

It’s a hard balance to do quite such an erotic novella of this length and still include enough plot and characterisation to keep you enthralled from beginning to end, but this manages it very well. Highly enjoyable. I hope that the author does a more detailed book in future of this era because I’d love to know more about it.

The cover deserves a special mention and is certainly one of my favourites this year. It really looks like it could have been done in the era concerned.

Interested in China and same sex relationships? Then read Kate’s article on The Macaronis.

Author’s Website

Buy at Dreamspinner Press

Review: Bitten Peach by Habu

Bitten Peach is an eleven-story anthology capturing the essence of the deliciously euphemistic Oriental world of men making love to other men, arranged in a chronological sequence covering a 2,200-year period. These are stories that go beyond the random act of sexual release between men. They offer more complex and context-richer studies of gathering age-old themes, exotic settings, and all-so-human characters up into the Floating World of the Orient in which men give themselves to other men–some more freely than others–for something in return, whether it is for money, position, power, survival, honor, service, devotion–or, not all that rarely, really, in unconditional love.

Review by Aleksander Voinov

This is a collection of 11 short stories set in China and Japan, usually featuring oriental men (apart from four stories when Westerners enter the picture). The stories are varied, and as far as erotica/porn goes, they aren’t bad. There several things I honestly like about this collection. This has many good ideas and generally solid writing, and, I think, a good grasp of the cultures and locations—but I have to admit I’m not a specialist on Chinese/Japanese culture or sexual mores. It sounded authentic, apart from, I think, when some Chinese terms showed up in a story set in Japan.

So, as far as gay erotica/porn goes, this is much better than the average that’s out there. Erotica/porn doesn’t need much character development, and the characters here remain flat – they are, invariably “well-formed” and “well-muscled”, and that’s it.

One caveat: many of these stories deal with “forced seduction” – most often from the perspective of the guy being “forcibly seduced” (aka: raped), and invariably, they struggle and whimper and plead a bit and then they warm to it and “love it”.

Now, this is not the place to discuss “rape culture” or whether they are “allowed”. Regardless of well-deserved criticism levelled against rape depicted in this way, the rape fantasy is one of the most common fantasies for both men and women. So, the need/appeal does exist, and this caters to it. If that is your cup of tea, you can’t go wrong here. The anthology is placed into a niche—most m/m publishers won’t accept stories featuring rape that is written to titillate, and this is meant to titillate. In addition, there is a clear theme of hierarchy and dominance, and of innocence and virginity corrupted (often in a rape/forced seduction context that leaves out lube).

What this does need, though, is a good editor—one that finds the typos, repetitions, kills the purple prose (“love channel” makes me laugh, but even more in a rape setting where, sorry, “love” is not what I’m thinking of) and edits out the style mishaps which are still in the manuscript.

To sum up: some stories were hot, others left me a little bewildered, and readers with a non-con (non consensual sex/rape/forced seduction) kink get served well here. Character development is, as usual in porn/erotica, sparse, and the writing is, overall, solid, with patches of purple and weak editing, but clear enjoyment of telling a story and a varied and rich sexual imagination.

Author’s Website

Buy at  Excessica

Review: Games With Me(vol.1) by Tina Anderson and Lynsley Brito(illus.)

Ex Civil-War surgeon George Callahan is a man haunted by his past. Unwilling to deal with the demons of his childhood he turns to opium, and finds back-alley employment with the heartless brothel keepers of San Francisco’s Chinatown. In Volume 1 of this gorgeously illustrated gay historical drama, Dr. George Callahan searches for a Chinese woman from his past, and soon finds himself unwittingly drawn to dim-witted male prostitute Jun, whose own life is complicated by the unwanted attentions of an aggressive bouncer named Roan Baxter.

Games with Me is an original German manga published in Germany by The Wild Side in (2009). The English language edition is currently available in digital format only, on the KINDLE reader from Amazon

Review by Erastes

Tina Anderson never conforms, and never shies away from pushing hard at the edges of her genre.  I’m no yaoi expert, as I’ve said before on this blog; the handful of books I’ve read have not gripped me because of the dewy eyed and seemingly mentally deficient ukes and enormous and suited semes–plus rape being a shortcut to love of course, which seems to be a must.

However, here we DO have a dewy eyed, long haired uke AND a angsty stern be-suited seme.  But there the comparison stops dead. And good job too.

Right from the first page we are thrust into Callahan’s bloody world. He’s a doctor all right, but he’s an abortionist at the same time, necessary work for the brothels of San Francisco in 1869.  It’s clear that Callaghan is talented, and has a conscience, but we are also shown –cleverly–that he’s got that certain disconnect that many doctors need to have.  The Chinese think he’s dead inside, a frozen man.

He is a troubled man, and one clearly with a “past.”  He loses himself in opium when he’s not working–what is he trying to forget?

Callaghan calls at a male brothel to collect payment for a job, and asks to spend some time with a young man there, called Jun.  “A retard” according to Roan, the brutish bouncer.  As Callaghan walks to Jun’s room, there are chilling details, a padlocked gate, windows that don’t look out onto the outside world, a man with two obviously underaged boys.  We know, if we hadn’t known from page one, that we aren’t in yaoi land any more.

Jun is heartbreakingly my favourite character in this. So sweet to George (and you can guess, probably to all of his customers) and with the mind of a child you almost feel uncomfortable reading about him, but he’s not a child–the book doesn’t cross that line.  It’s clear that George knows Jun from somewhere, and the first volume here doesn’t do more than tease us with this.

There’s a subplot involving Roan, the bouncer–who fancies the pretty Jun, too, and wants to play “love games” with him.  Jun, to my delight, was nicely pragmatic, telling Roan he had to buy a card to spend time with him. (Red for teatime, White for fulltime, Black for roughtime)  It broke me when George pushes Jun away at one point and Jun recoils in fear “if you want to hurt me, you got gotta buy a black card!” Just. Gah.

But, the writer being who she is, doesn’t make Roan a typical villain. He actually does seem to want Jun, he just doesn’t have a clue how to approach him, how to woo him. Jun is understandably wary of the man, as he’s obviously been abusive–or worse–to him before, so Roan tempts him with toys.

The drawings are beautiful. Brighto doesn’t stick to any fixed layout, but changes it from page to page, sometimes three panels, sometimes less, a full page here, a small insert picture there – I’m sure there are technical terms for this, but I’m afraid I don’t know them. Also it’s nice not to have to read front to back!  The historical detailing is beautifully done, the clothes are good, as is the architecture and the sex is rather warming without showing anything too graphic.

Take all that, and the promise of volume 2 to come, and you certainly have a keeper in my book.  I can’t wait to find out what happens next.  This ranks up there with the best gay historical graphic novels – the other being, of course, Only Words, by Tina Anderson and Caroline Monaco.

If reality based m/m historicals are selling, and are popular, then so do graphic novels deserve to be.  I highly recommend this, and hope that it comes out as a print book at some point–that she gets a publisher to take it on, as it’s only available in English as a Kindle version at the moment. But if you have a Kindle, then don’t miss out of this little gem of a book.

chauncey-gay-new-york3

Tina Anderson’s Website

Linsley Brito’s Deviant Art Page

Buy Kindle version

Review: Ghosts by Olivia Lorenz

Hua Mu Yun is a cynical ex-soldier, damaged by the chaotic battles of China’s warlords era. Unable to stand human contact, he’s become a criminal, denying his more honorable past. Leng Ruo Fei is the spoiled and beautiful darling of the Peking Opera. Trained as a dan (female impersonator), his voice brings people to their knees. Adored by many but loved by none, Ruo Fei desperately wants to believe that real heroes–not fake ones–exist. Thrown together during a Triad attack on an opium den, Mu Yun and Ruo Fei must face their own demons as they begin to fall for each other. Can opera offer Mu Yun an escape from war-torn reality, or is a relationship between a gangster and a dan doomed to fail in a tragedy worthy of the stage?

Review by Erastes

This is a little jewel, (just under 19,000 words) small but just lovely. I haven’t enjoyed an ebook this much since Peridot by Parhelion. It’s very hard to do a review of it, in fact, as the size of it makes it difficult not to spoil the reader.

I often speak of “a safe pair of hands” – because readers can’t know every era and facts about every era – and Lorenz is (for my money) certainly that safe pair of hands. I know nothing about the era, or the economy of Peking or Shanghai of the time, and frankly it matters not a jot, because the writing convinces the reader (from the description of the hutongs, to the beautifully described clothes) that the author knows what they are on about. Once or twice a Chinese word was used (for food, for example) when I thought it was unnecessary (we are in China after all, and I’d have liked to know what those words meant)

It’s a multi-toned, multi-layered story, one that you could read on the surface and enjoy, or really delve into the psychology and enjoy it even more. Both characters are so beautifully written, brittle, fragile, with more barriers around them than China itself, that it broke my heart to read about them. Ruo Fei is delicious – a little bit redolent of Billy Crudup’s portrayal of Ned Kynaston in “Stage Beauty” which isn’t surprising as both are expert at portraying women on stage – a lotus blossom with reality issues and the problem that many rich/famous people have – the inablity to know whether he’d be loved for himself if he wasn’t the celebrity he is. Mu Yun has his ghosts and for tiny fraction of time he manages to escape them. It says a lot for the power of the writing that in such a small piece I was convinced, won over and hooked by these characters and wanted the best for them.

I didn’t like the italics and the tense changes used at the beginning and end, I thought they were unnecessary, and also I would have not complained if this had been a novella at the very least. There’s so much potential, backstory, so much we don’t see that Lorenz could have made this a novel. It doesn’t stop this concentrated version from being wonderful, though, so you wouldn’t be wasting the very little money it costs if you were to try it.

Fictionwise

%d bloggers like this: