Review: Doctor Reynard’s Experiment by Robert Black

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Walter Starling – newly engaged as a footman in the house of Dr. Richard Reynard – is shy, naive, and religiously inclined. His sheltered upbringing hasn’t prepared him for the world he encounters hidden behind the facade of upper-class Victorian respectability.

Dr. Reynard, dashing bachelor and celebrated London surgeon, is bored of the empty rituals of high society. Under the influence of Lord Spearman, a degenerate and predatory socialite obsessed with pain and domination, Reynard is introduced to the dark underworld of homosexual London – a world of secret brothels and flagellation houses, of encounters in dark doorways, of bizarre sexual cabarets performed in the dead of night.

But as Spearman draws him into ever more extreme forms of sex, Reynard finds himself turning to his young servant for protection. And Walter Starling finds his firmest principles under siege from without and within as he battles with his growing feelings towards his master and tries to avoid being sucked into London’s sexual maelstrom.

Review by Hayden Thorne

Black’s book is an erotic fantasy – endless sex scenes linked together with flimsy plotting and a host of unlikable characters in the mid- to late-1880s London.

I began reading the book with one bias: I’m not a fan of BDSM or kink of any kind. Yes, I’m fascinated with the psychology behind BDSM, but I don’t actively look for it in my erotic fiction, and neither do I get turned on by it when I do read it. I can appreciate a well-written kink scene, however, and I tried to approach Doctor Reynard’s Experiment with an open mind. In the end, it wasn’t the BDSM elements in the novel that turned me off.

The sex scenes are plentiful, yes. Too plentiful, in fact, that any flimsy excuse for a quick fuck becomes par for the course. Some are more erotic than others. Some are more disturbing than others. There are a number of scenes involving non-consensual sex, several involving torture, a few with blood, quite a bit involving golden showers, and a few mildly scatalogical scenes – there’s about an average of about two sex scenes (two and a half, maybe?) per chapter. But who’s counting? Richard Reynard, the doctor, is seduced by his friend, Lord Spearman, into the world of Victorian sado-masochistic gay sex. Walter Starling, the young servant, gets dragged into the dark world of forbidden pleasures, but unlike his employer, he manages to keep his head (by and large, at least) and tries to fight his way out of his predicament – only to fall into the clutches, gothic heroine-like, of the bizarre and evil Lord Spearman.

The highlight of this novel is Black’s descriptions and his use of period detail in creating a dark, atmospheric, and dangerous underworld. We’re looking at the poorest of the poor, the streetwalkers, the pimps, the long, miserable line of paying customers who range from filthy foreign sailors to respectable clerks to a bishop. I love the fact that Black takes his time in developing every scene with so many details, and I didn’t feel as though any one scene was better described than another. With such uniform care, I found myself easily immersed in Victorian London, all my senses engaged. The city became more of a live, organic thing – much more so than the characters that are supposed to move the plot.

The downside? Everything else, I’m afraid. The characters are very unrealistic and hopelessly unlikable in varying degrees. Lord Spearman is evil incarnate – two-dimensional in that regard, which is a shame. He could have been a wonderfully seductive serpent-like character, but he’s written as this addicted, pock-marked, insane aristocrat with very little personality and, in the end, very fuzzy and comically absurd motivations for what he does to Reynard and Starling.

Walter Starling, the sweet, innocent boy who gets entangled and ends up selling his body to survive, is the strongest character on the whole, but his descent into sexual corruption while in Dr. Reynard’s employ has a distinct edge of fantasy around it. Considering his strong Christian beliefs, it’s surprising to see him so easily swayed. He’s raped by a fellow servant in the middle of a harrowing, nightmarish scene involving religion and damnation as his conscience struggles against itself, and yet Walter actually gets turned on by his violation. In fact, after a while, he looks forward to being repeatedly assaulted.

Reynard’s the weakest character of the lot because he goes about his days with only two actively-firing synapses. He has no will, no courage. He weakly argues against his friend when he catches Spearman doing something so obviously despicable and unlawful. Conversation between the two friends in such a scene can be summed up thusly:

Reynard: This is outrageous! I’m sick of your twisted schemes! Get out!
Spearman: There’s an orgy tonight.
Reynard: Okay.

The romance between Reynard and Starling isn’t even there though, technically, Starling’s supposed to save Reynard from himself. However, there are no sparks between them at the outset. Sure, Starling gets promoted to valet, leapfrogging over another servant who deserves the promotion more, but what does that exactly mean for the two supposed lovers? Reynard has a young, beautiful, innocent valet, and he spends his time mocking Walter’s religious beliefs in the boy’s face. He kicks Walter out of his house under false impressions, and while he soon learns his mistake, he doesn’t even bother to look for the boy or send inquiries out for him. Instead, once he realizes his mistake, he simply rolls over and falls asleep. What a charmer.

That leads to one of the weaknesses in the plotting. The romance was never there to begin with, so when the climax commences (no pun intended), the two coming together (absolutely NO pun intended) in the end feels forced, false, contrived. Suddenly realization dawns on both characters: “I’m meant to be with him! I love him!” And more sex ensues. The main weakness of the plot really lies in the way the story unfolds and how things actually happen in the last third of the book – a tad late, yes, with quite a bit of information and plot twists crammed in. There was so much time spent in exploring kinky sex scene after kinky sex scene in the first two-thirds of the novel that space seemed to have run out, and we’re force-fed all sorts of information that make the plot far more convoluted (and unsatisfactorily resolved) than it should be.

Doctor Reynard’s Experiment is meant to be something like a morality tale since it has all the trappings of one, but it isn’t. Everyone (Walter a little less so, maybe) seems to enjoy every second spent in sexual degradation that their redemption in the end rings false.

Buy the book: Amazon, Amazon UK

Review: Lieutenant Samuel Blackwood (deceased) by Emma Collingwood

Review by Erastes

HMS Privet has the reputation of being a cursed ship: every first lieutenant serving aboard her dies gruesomely. Lieutenant Daniel Leigh is determined to solve the mystery and volunteers for the place himself, putting his life in desperate danger. Little does he suspect that he will fall in love with the captain, John Meadows, and end up fighting not only for his own life, but for the soul of his lover, too.

Lieutenant Samuel Blackwood (deceased) – a Georgian ghost story featuring a cursed ship, a vengeful ghost, a haunted captain and a very daring lieutenant.

This is a really clever little book, and I wish I could have promoted this sooner as it would have made a great stocking filler for Christmas. It’s a tiny thing, no more than a short story at 76 pages, but it’s the sort of thing I’d, for one, like to see more of. It emulates the “Penny Dreadfuls” of a previous age, and the cover is amusingly designed. It even looks like it’s old, with the wrinkles built in.

The story is interesting and flows well, with an exciting finale that I particularly enjoyed. What I was left feeling, however, is that Ms Collingwood had the makings of a full-length novel in these pages and it would have been excellent to have had a much bigger read. I hope that she is intending to write more in this era because this whet my appetite for more please.

I wish, however, that this style had continued into the design of the book itself. I would have liked to have seen a more antiquated font, such as this type used on the author’s shop-site and a more standardised layout. This book is justified on both sides with a gap between each paragraph and that grated on me – it seemed too modern – not even in line with the ways that modern books are laid out. Perhaps it would have been too expensive to typeset in this manner.

That being said, it is well worth any afficianado of gay historical fiction – particularly those of you who love the Age of Sail – getting this as it’s a good story with an interesting, brave (some might say foolish!) protagonist. The illustrations (got to love men in naval uniforms!) are worth the price of the book, just on their own.

Buy from Amazon Germany     Direct from the Author

Merry Christmas Everyone

And a very happy New Year!

THANK YOU for supporting this new Blog and making it sucessful. Since its inception, it’s had nearly 13,000 visitors which is great.  People are referring to The List and reading the articles and reviews.  It’s also, in its small way, making a difference, and I’m proud of that.

I hope that 2008 continues the trend for an interest in Gay Historical Fiction, that more people write it, that more people read it, that publishers realise that people want it and that reviewers and magazines wake up that gay people can have romance too – and not just in the 20th century, either.

Roll on 2008!

Review: Master of Seacliff by Max Pierce

Review by Erastes

Andrew Wyndham takes a post as tutor to the son of the weathly Duncan Stewart at the mysterious and beautiful mansion “Seacliff” surrounded by rugged seas and mysterious fogs. Mysteries and scandal follow in traditional gothic fashion.

It’s not going to be a surprise to anyone that I enjoyed this book. First it’s an American gay gothic with a fab innovative cover. I was positively drooling when I got the book in my hands and excited when I opened it.

If you are looking for an erotic romance, then you’ll be dissapointed by TMOS, but if you want a solid, multi-layered mystery chock full of quirky characters, death and over-arching gothic D00M, red-herrings and a surprise denouement, then you’ll like this as much as I did. (Oh and a lovely romance too…)

From the outset, the plot is familiar to those who have already read books such as Jane Eyre and Gaywyck. Young and innocent (not-quite-yet-aware-of-his-sexuality) Andrew gets a job as tutor to Stewart and we can already see where the story is going. However Pierce isn’t going to let us off that lightly and he throws so many obstacles in our protagonists way that you begin to wonder if they are ever going to get together.

It’s a refreshing change to see so many secondary characters; Pierce doesn’t stint with them, and each one is fully rounded, different and has his or her own story to tell. Also, in the tradition of the Golden Age of Agatha Christie, nearly every single one has a motive in the dark secret that overhangs the house of Seacliff. There are flashes of Rebecca here, with an obsessed and creepy faithful retainer, touches of Jane Eyre but never so much so to annoy, it was always its own story.

I was impressed also, as to the many threads of the mystery that were woven together, one after another until I was thoroughly convinced of the guilt of the person that everyone else thought it was. Bravo, Mr Pierce. There’s nothing I like more it’s being led by the nose to the throroughly wrong conclusion!

Andrew might be young, but he’s not a shrinking and fainting heroine type. He’s a little sensitive; he tends to hug-a-lot, and he cries from time to time but he can stand his own ground too, which was something I appreciated. He has a lot to stand up against, too, as Duncan is a difficult, prickly (and very hairy!) man and he tries to push Andrew away more than once. I liked Duncan’s persistence and his wanting to do the right thing, even when he had the opportunity to get away from a frankly difficult and dangerous position.

There’s the inevitable OK Homo, I’m afraid, not only that, you begin to wonder if anyone in the world is straight at one point – but that didn’t spoil this book when the same thing had spoiled other books for me. In this twisted, remote and decadent world that Pierce paints it doesn’t seem unusual and the reasoning behind the homosexual relationships are believable.

The editing wasn’t 100 percent, as there were a few typo’s I spotted (lightening instead of lightning for example), which is a shame. It’s also a shame that this book is under the Howarth’s Harrington Press imprint – so its future is in the balance. If you want a copy, particularly with the delicious double cover than another printer might not go for – I’d advise you get one now, while it’s still available and still reasonably priced. You won’t regret it, as if you enjoy a really good gothic romance with all the trimmings – perfect for curling up with on a foggy night – then you’ll love this. I certainly did.

Buy from Amazon UK: Amazon USA

P.S Please watch out for MAX PIERCE’S author interview which will be posted in the New Year, believe me, you are not going to want to miss that.

Review: Lord John and the Hand of Devils by Diana Gabaldon

 

Review by Alex Beecroft

This is not a novel at all, but a collection of three long short stories.  (Or perhaps a short story and two novellas).  The three are ‘The Hellfire Club’, ‘The Succubus’, and ‘The Haunted Soldier’.  The Hellfire Club is set before ‘Lord John and the Private Matter’ and sees John investigating the murder of a young relative of Harry Quarry’s.  This leads him to the infamous Hellfire Club, a botched initiation ritual, a rescue by Harry and a final scene in which the villain explains all.

The Succubus is set after ‘Lord John and the Private Matter’, but before ‘Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade’.  Lord John is in Prussia, acting as liaison between the English and German forces, when two soldiers are murdered in circumstances which make it seem that there is a supernatural female demon abroad, sexually preying on men.  Naturally this makes the armed forces rather nervous.  Evading the marital clutches of a local princess, John investigates and eventually all is revealed in the final scene when the villainess explains all.

The Haunted Soldier is set after ‘Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade’.  John, haunted by the explosion of the cannon he was working in ‘Brotherhood’, finds himself in front of a court martial who seem to think the explosion was no accident.  Is John’s half-brother, dim Edgar, really a saboteur, producing unstable gunpowder for government use?  Is something dodgy going on at the cannon foundry?  Can John discover the whereabouts of the young woman who eloped with the lieutenant who was killed in the explosion before she is utterly ruined?  If not, can he at least restore her child to its grandparents?  Fortunately, despite the complexity of the plot, everything is revealed in the final scene where the villain explains it all.

As you can see from the short summaries, Lord John is still consistently solving his cases by conveniently having the villain reveal all at the end.  However, it’s to Gabaldon’s credit that this device doesn’t get so tedious that it undoes the enjoyment of the stories.  And there are many things to enjoy in each story.  For a start, I appreciated the way the stories fitted into the time-scheme of the books, filling out the characterization of each.  It was particularly nice in the last to have John restored to health, since ‘Brotherhood’ left him so battered.

Given the notoriety and fascination of the real-life Hellfire Club, I found the first story a little short.  By Lord John standards it was very skimpy on details and rather simplistic.  Which is not to say that it wasn’t good to read.  Gabaldon is very good at drawing beautiful young men (and then killing them off) and the victim of this story is no exception.

The Succubus, I found an amusing romp through some dark superstition, and the love triangle between John, Stefan and the princess provided some wonderful irony.  I felt a little cheated at the ending but I can’t say I wasn’t expecting it.

The Haunted Soldier was most like a short Lord John novel; complicated, beautifully detailed, full of interesting people and everything you wanted to know about gunpowder manufacture in the 18th Century.  It was also very satisfying to watch John recover from his shell-shocked depression at the end of ‘Brotherhood’ back to his normal self. 

The poor man is still fancying just about everything male that breathes, and having a complete lack of success at getting into anyone’s breeches.  And I admit that his complete celibacy throughout was a little tedious.  Surely it’s about time he had a love interest who didn’t despise or betray him?  His continual lack of romantic success is getting me down.

Apparently the next book in the series is called ‘Lord John and the Scottish Prisoner’, so I hope fervently that that will be the book in which John finally puts the whole Jamie Fraser thing behind him.  He has outgrown his status of being a minor offshoot character of the Outlander series, in my opinion.  Until that happens, Fraser continues to cast a certain blight over the stories.  His presence, and the obligingness of John’s villains, are the reason why I’ve marked this as a 4½ rather than a 5. 

But still, there’s no way I won’t be reading the next one.

Buy: Amazon UK  Amazon USA

Review: The Filly by Mark Probst

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Review by Hayden Thorne

FROM THE AUTHOR’S BOOK PAGE:
Escaping into the fantasy of his books when he’s not working in the general store, Ethan Keller has lived a sheltered life in his mother’s boarding house. One day, an enigmatic cowboy passing through the small Texas town takes an immediate liking to the shy seventeen-year-old. Ethan is intrigued by the attention, and the cowboy eventually charms him into signing on to a 900-mile cattle drive. Ethan soon finds that his feelings for this cowboy run deeper than just friendship. He never knew that this kind of love even existed; and now for the two of them to make a life together in the untamed west, they must face nearly insurmountable odds if they are to survive.

REVIEW:
Mark Probst’s debut novel was a much-welcome read for me and my perpetual search for gay historical fiction that I can recommend to adolescent readers – more specifically, gay historical fiction written by contemporary authors. The setting, the golden age of the Old West (the year is 1878), provides us with a fantastic backdrop for all sorts of adventures and a more sobering context where same-sex love is concerned.

There’s probably the inevitable comparisons to “Brokeback Mountain,” but Probst’s novel is a completely different animal. Yes, there are gay cowboys, magnificent mountain ranges and adventures in cattle driving, and pup tents. Wink, nudge. However, Probst chooses to tell his story along more romanticized lines, which works pretty well with the main character’s coming-of-age process. For the most part, we see things unfold through Ethan’s eyes – the eyes of a shy, seventeen-year-old bookworm whose world has never gone past his mother’s boarding house, the general store, and an occasional foray into town, whenever he’s asked to keep his older brother in line. Enter Travis Cain, and those boundaries are slowly, unavoidably challenged. When Ethan goes off to a 900-mile cattle drive, his world reshapes itself as both extreme beauty and extreme hardship force him to grow up, to begin questioning and reevaluating old beliefs. Through all these, however, he’s still a kid, and his age and sheltered upbringing edge his ongoing development with a bit of naivete.

It’s the combination of Ethan’s initiation into adulthood and the fascinating scenes – urban, rural, and wild Nature – that makes this novel a good book to recommend to gay teens. Love, adventure, history – with two charming, young gay men as the heroes? It’s a wonderful “distraction” from contemporary themes involving high school – and most certainly one I hope to see more of. Yes, there are a few sex scenes, but they’re all glossed over and are very tame compared to sex scenes in a couple of gay young adult novels I’ve recently read.

The strength of Probst’s writing, in addition to Ethan’s characterization, lies in the setting and how lovingly detailed it is. There’s a difference, yes, in the way the Colorado mountain ranges are described compared to any of the dusty towns Ethan and his companions travel to. For the former, there’s quite a bit of care in making the forests and the deserts as organic and real to us as possible. For the latter, things are described in more general terms, but we’re all so familiar with the Old West that it really doesn’t matter. We can still see, without being given so many details, what a saloon looks like because we’ve been there before. Besides, it’s the freedom offered by Nature, not the crazy bustle of those old towns, that’s the defining key to Ethan and Travis’s romance.

I do have a minor quibble regarding the novel’s POV. We begin with a very strong limited third person with Ethan, but it shifts, especially toward the end, when we’re suddenly in Travis’s or Willie’s (Ethan’s older brother) head. The shift was unexpected, given the mostly solid POV from Ethan up until the third section of the novel, but I suppose given the circumstances of those last few chapters, there’s only so much we can see from Ethan’s perspective. Some of the discussions between Ethan and Miss Peet regarding the novels Ethan reads feel a bit stiff – as though we’re being lectured by the characters – but those are few.

The minor characters are drawn well enough without taking over a scene (though I must admit that I absolutely adore Willie). There are enough of them to make Ethan’s world a realistically complex one, and only a few are allowed varying degrees of development, which helps keep the story’s pace going.

This is an enjoyable debut novel overall. Romanticized, perhaps, but it’s still a good escape and, for younger gay readers, a much-needed addition to a genre in which they’ve long been underrepresented.

Buy the book (author’s page)
Amazon.com
Amazon UK

Shakespeare’s most openly gay speech?

Gehayi pointed this speech out to me today, (she spotted it on Ariastar‘s Livejournal)  and I can’t believe I never spotted it before, or had it pointed out to me.  S’cuse me if you know it, but those who don’t it might be of interest.

 From Coriolanus Act IV scene v

Aufidius

O Marcius, Marcius!
Each word thou hast spoke hath weeded from my heart
A root of ancient envy. If Jupiter
Should from yond cloud speak divine things,
And say ’Tis true,’ I’ld not believe them more
Than thee, all noble Marcius. Let me twine
Mine arms about that body, where against
My grained ash an hundred times hath broke
And scarr’d the moon with splinters: here I clip
The anvil of my sword, and do contest
As hotly and as nobly with thy love
As ever in ambitious strength I did
Contend against thy valour. Know thou first,
I loved the maid I married; never man
Sigh’d truer breath; but that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing! more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold. Why, thou Mars! I tell thee,
We have a power on foot; and I had purpose
Once more to hew thy target from thy brawn,
Or lose mine arm fort: thou hast beat me out
Twelve several times, and I have nightly since
Dreamt of encounters ’twixt thyself and me;
We have been down together in my sleep,
Unbuckling helms, fisting each other’s throat,
And waked half dead with nothing.

————–

What makes it more delicious is that after the main players exit, the unnamed serving men  gossip amongst themselves as wont to do and this is part of their gossip…

Third Servingman
Why, here’s he that was wont to thwack our general, Caius Marcius.

First Servingman
Why do you say ’thwack our general ’?

Third Servingman
I do not say ’thwack our general;’ but he was always good enough for him.

Second Servingman
Come, we are fellows and friends: he was ever too hard for him; I have heard him say so himself.

First Servingman
He was too hard for him directly, to say the troth on’t: before Corioli he scotched him and notched him like a carbon ado.

Second Servingman
An he had been cannibally given, he might have broiled and eaten him too.

As Gehayi said today, not even subtext… and the serving men there to explain the joke to the Pit, in case they’d nodded off during the poetic bits.

Yes, yes, I’m 12.

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