Ethan Jones came to France long before the war started. He loved Paris—the lively cafés, the easy friendships with the artists and writers and whores. When the Germans invade France, everything changes.
Two years after he joins the Resistance, Ethan takes an assignment in occupied northern France. The objective: Team up with another partisan, Adrienne Follett, and recover a satchel that went down in a single engine plane just north of Reims. Along the way, they meet up with Jhan, a German defector that ultimately wins their trust. Convinced Jhan is a Nazi hater, they allow him to join the team.
They were told the objective was important. They were not told what the satchel contained. They had no reason to believe their involvement would help shorten the war, or save countless lives or cause them to have to leave France. They didn’t know that their own lives would soon hang by a thread; or that, in the end, a lifetime of loneliness would forever be left behind.
First of all, I have to say I really like the cover. I presume that’s Ethan, and I love the look of imminent peril. It looks exciting.
The blurb does a fine job of summarizing the plot. Ethan is a black man from New Orleans who settled in France to escape the apartheid of life in America. When the book opens he is an active member of the French Resistance, fleeing from a Gestapo raid. As the book goes on we learn that he and fellow resistance member Adrienne have been dispatched to recover important documents shot down over France en route from Britain to Russia. As Ethan is wounded at the beginning of the book, the two hole up in a barn where Adrienne hopes sexual tension will lead to something between them. But this idea is scuppered when they discover a German defector hiding in the same. Ethan and the defector, Jhan fall in fairly instant love, struggle against their fears of rejection and eventually confess all to each other, ending up blissfully together.
This is where most m/m books would finish, but for The Partisans this was only a brief diversion from the main plot. Now the three of them must make their way across France and recover those documents, hampered by the fact that the Germans everywhere are looking for a black man and Ethan is pretty conspicuous.
I won’t spoiler the plot any more than that, because it’s a delightfully meaty one. An awful lot happens in this book, and the twists and turns certainly kept me entertained. I enjoyed the large and varied cast of French peasants, German officers and soldiers and British Intelligence Agents. I loved the fact that there was a lot more in the book than just the m/m relationship. Adrienne doesn’t get left out or sidelined, and after a great deal of moping about how unhappy and lonely she is, she too gets her happy ending.
I liked the fact that we had a female hero who was in there not as a love interest but as an independent protagonist. The novel ticks just about every box it can in having a m/m, a m/f and a brief f/f relationship, and I appreciated the inclusivity. I must say too that I enjoyed having a black hero. It’s a rarity in my experience of m/m fiction and probably shouldn’t be. I did begin to feel – after every character Ethan encountered commented on how beautiful the colour of his skin was – that his depiction skirted the borderlines of exoticization, but it may be that that was just a symptom of a larger problem with the book.
My feeling is that this novel would have greatly benefitted by a firm editing. I spotted a number of typos and a couple of grammatical errors (lay/laid/lied). But more serious than that was the way that the author had a distinct tendency to tell not to show:
Ethan sighed, beset with questions and doubt.
How long will it take to get reoriented and find a way out of this forest? The girl, Adrienne Follet, did she survive? Will she make it to the backup rendezvous? If so, will they be able to find the plane using the small map Francois had given them? Do the Germans know where the plane went down? Are they, too, searching for it?
So many “what ifs”. It could be too late by the time they got there. Ethan felt anxious.
These are Ethan’s thoughts while wounded and alone in a dark forest, unable to know whether he is running in a straight line or not, with no assurance that the Germans won’t go and get some tracker dogs any moment. I should hope he would feel a lot more than anxious!
Much of the back-story is filled in during Ethan’s time fleeing, wounded in the dark, and this not only struck me as unlikely thoughts for a fugitive, but watered down any tension there might have been in such a perilous situation. Unfortunately this seems to be the author’s habit throughout. The characters tend to muse upon the meaning of life a lot, cutting down the impact of whatever is happening to them at the time.
There’s also a great deal of repetition. As mentioned above, the colour of Ethan’s skin is commented on so often that I found myself rolling my eyes when it happened again. But Adrienne’s loneliness is treated the same way. She angsts about it constantly. Elliot, the Intelligence guy, only seems to be in the book at all to angst about his ex wife and his current loneliness. He does nothing to influence the plot until the very last chapters, and his ineffectual worrying and whining grows tedious long before that.
The author’s sex scenes also are too full of the characters thinking about gender issues, theories of compatibility and what makes a great relationship for me even to be able to work out what was actually going on in them.
An editor once told me ‘cut down on character thought because it provides a buffer between the reader and the direct lived experience of the story.’ At the time, I didn’t understand what she meant. But after reading this book I can see her point.
Plus points for remembering that characters sometimes need to go to the toilet, and that a woman’s period can occur even when she’s on an important mission. Minus points for Adrienne’s sudden decent into ‘bitch from hell, who irrationally puts the whole mission in jeopardy to adopt a cute puppy.’ Grouchiness I can believe, suicidal insanity I can’t.
As I say, there is a great story here. Lots of things happen, and there should be no shortage of excitement and tension. I love the story, but I’m less sold on the way that it’s told. If it was given a thorough editing – redundancies pruned out, action scenes made more immediate, and character musing cut down a little, it could be a tight, gripping read. As it is, it’s still an entertaining read, but it’s frustratingly not as good as it easily could be.