Reveiw by Lee Benoit
Years ago, when I used to search desperately for anything and everything in gay fantasy (that is, when I would read anything), I came across Mel Keegan. The early works, regardless of genre, had a “boy’s own” feel that bored me after a while. The emphatic exceptions were Keegan’s historical novels (Fortunes of War, The Deceivers, White Rose of Night, and Nocturne [if historical fiction can be allowed a vampyre or three]). Dangerous Moonlight is the newest, set around the accession of George II in 1727, and I recommend it highly.
Like Keegan’s better works, Dangerous Moonlight is densely plotted, with fully realized characters and enviably palpable settings. It’s the story of Nick Gray, bastard son of a wealthy jewelry merchant and horse breeder, and Harry Trevellion, erstwhile law student paupered by his father’s rash investment in one of Britain’s corporate colonization enterprises. They meet when Harry, turned highwayman to raise capital for a stud farm of his own, holds up the carriage in which Nick is transporting goods to a well-heeled client of his father’s. Sparks fly, but no one falls into bed with anyone – yet. We’re not given a drawing-room romp; indeed, anyone with a title appears fleetingly or off-page. This is an historical adventure: romance lies at its core, but as lifeblood rather than life itself. Eroticism, likewise, provides grace notes to plot and character, but never overtakes the story. Given the historical setting, the personalities of the characters, and the plot itself, the restrained (though nevertheless hot-blooded) treatment of romance and eroticism are exactly as they should be.
In another gratifying auctorial decision, Keegan gives us two fully adult and self-aware men as protagonists, then deftly deploys then in such a way that neither overshadows the other. Nick is the “good son,” scant months older than his father’s wastrel of a legitimate heir. He has learned his father’s businesses, undertakes the perilous duties of courier for the jeweler, and has studied sword and firearms to great effect. He’s humble and principled, and loves his father. Therefore, the father’s decision to disinherit the nasty Paul in favor of Nick seems logical. This is, naturally, the source of a great deal of trouble.
Harry is a bit of a Robin Hood figure: he chooses his quarry carefully, preying upon slavers and coal barons and abusers of animals. He is self-interested, arrogant, and unscrupulous, but Keegan saves him from caricature by giving him a romantic heart and fierce sense of loyalty. His moral compass turns upon honor among thieves, but pragmatically rather than romantically. Nick has a hard time seeing Harry as one of the good guys when Harry robs him a second time, nearly seducing him in the process. The confrontation that ensues is the germ of love, and the bedrock of respect, between the two men.
Here I must mention another of the most welcome aspects of the novel. Both Nick and Harry are experienced, self-accepting lovers of men. There is no moral hand-wringing, no tremulous surrender of virginity, no whiff of alpha-beta action at all. Nick and Harry meet as equals in bed and out; each admires and respects the other’s skills and personality (among other things!). They are canny about the risks of sodomy in their time, and carry on carefully (one wonderful detail has Nick refusing to kiss Harry before he’s shaved, in order to avoid tell-tale whisker-burns). Keegan gives us a story with homosexuality placed firmly in its historical context, but in which being outed is not the fulcrum of the plot. Furthermore, their sexuality doesn’t exist in a vacuum – former lovers of both protagonists figure in the plot in important capacities and the mature responses of each lover to his beloved’s past is gratifyingly real.
The conflict is carefully developed, perhaps a bit slowly, but with 349 closely printed pages to work with, many readers will welcome the fermenting process. There’s plenty of description here, but it’s all organic to the plot (if a sunset or horse race or Roman road is described, there’s a reason for it), and delicious (even at its ugliest). Likewise class relationships are carefully explored without being overdone: Harry and Nick are decent to servants and rent boys, disdainful of the idle (or predatory) rich, and judge everyone else on their merits and usefulness to their purposes. That pragmatism, while not the stuff of romantic heroes, perfectly suits two young men trying against steep odds to make their way in a world that has scant place for them, and represents a literary risk by Keegan that pays off in spades.
Nick’s father’s new will is at the center of the conflict, and without spoiling anything I can tell you there is no heroic, anachronistic triumph of the good bastard over the dissipated former heir. There are court scenes that unfold, not as a starry-eyed 21st century reader might wish, but exactly as one would expect in an age that valued birth status over character. Nick’s half-brother Paul is the bad guy, but the system is the real villain here. There are nice indictments of the aristocracy, but none that ring untrue given the state of the world in the first quarter of the 18th century. (Disclaimer: I’m not a particular student of this era in Europe, but rather of colonialism, so I can’t vouch for my interpretations except to say what rang true to me and what didn’t. Not much didn’t.) The characters we cheer for are the ones who work, neither the hapless victims nor the genteel parasites. That seems a pretty modern concept, but after all, the modern era was young and fresh in Harry and Nick’s time, old enough to know itself, young enough to rebel a little, rash enough to revel, wise enough to hedge its bets – just like Keegan’s protagonists.
The book is available only through Keegan’s web site, which is a shame as it makes the price high (the shipping from Australia accounts for a lot of that). It’s worth a read, regardless.