1642, England: David Caverlys strict father has brought home the quiet, puritanical Jonathan Graie to help his dreamer of a son work the family forge. With war brewing in Parliament, the demand for metal work increases as armies are raised.
The fair David is drawn to his fathers new apprentice. And though his father treats them both as if they were brothers, Davids feelings toward the shy Jonathan develop as they hide their growing physical relationship. Until the fateful moment when local gossips force Davids father to banish him, to protect the family name.
Freed, directionless, and whimsical, David is eager to experience the drama and excitement of war, and follows two soldiers headed for battle, but the reality is a harsh awakening for his free-spirited nature. Seizing the opportunity to desert, David heads to London to lead a secret life, unaware that Jonathan too has left the forge in search of him. Lost and lonely, the vulnerable Jonathan quickly falls in with the Witchfinders, a group of extremists who travel the country conducting public trials of women suspected of witchcraft. Jonathan is drawn to the charismatic Michael, finally embracing a cause for truth so wholeheartedly, he doesnt recognize the dangerphysical and emotionalthat Michael represents. For the fanatic puritan is desperate to purge Jonathan of his memories of David in any manner possible….
Review by Hayden Thorne
The greatest pleasure in reading an author’s published fiction is seeing his progress as an artist from the good ol’ days to the present. Being able to say, “Hey, I knew him when…” To be followed by “Oh, how he’s grown up.” The last bit was saucy, but you know what I mean.
Erastes’ Transgressions might be the most recent book of hers to be released, but it’s one of the earliest works of fiction she’s tackled. And, yes, I knew her when…she was struggling with this puppy, once upon a time. It’s an enlightening experience, seeing her development since Standish and how this book bridges her debut and her most recent novella, Frost Fair. One can see the growth and the not-quite-there bits.
The most significant thing about Transgressions is its complexity as a historical novel. Compared to Standish (and I apologize for making occasional references to her other works, but it’s necessary in this review), Transgressions is a great deal more sweeping in its scope, given its chosen period. Even with the more important events such as the English Civil War and the fall of Charles I, we’re still treated to the smaller, more mundane day-to-day routines in the farm, in London, and in towns and cities beyond. The historical details are meticulously researched and well-used, without a single item thrown in just for the sake of showing off what the author knows. Now as I’m more of a 19th century enthusiast and know precious little of the English Civil War, I can’t argue for or against the accuracy of her period details, but knowing Erastes, I’m confident of the book’s faithfulness to the 17th century. That said, one wouldn’t really notice those period details, as they’re skilfully worked into the scenes so that they’re practically invisible, while still creating a very authentic feeling in the background.
Readers need to be warned that, given the civil war, they will be treated to very descriptive scenes of bloodshed, maiming, and death. There’s also a pretty fascinating look at the near-haphazard battle training of a ragtag group of men whose alliances are torn and who are completely at the mercy of bullies who press civilians into fighting. Those scenes are some of the most effective and most impressive to me, and what follows after Cromwell’s victory – the hanging pall of paranoia that grips England – is palpable. It’s not an exaggeration to say that one can almost smell the fear, the constant nervousness, the growing mistrust among ordinary folks. In these instances, Erastes engages all our senses in experiencing the horrors of war and the greater psychological horrors of what follows after.
As heroes, David and Jonathan are not as sharply defined along black-and-white lines as Rafe and Ambrose, but you still get the “golden beauty” and the “dark, brooding youth” (who isn’t handsome but is still attractive and is more than capable of catching one off-guard with his charms in surprising ways). Their physical attributes also, like Rafe and Ambrose, dictate their behavior to an extent, with Jonathan being the dour puritan who’s all fierce passion unleashed, while David’s the beautiful, carefree, selfish hedonist. Even their suffering while apart is somehow affected by their physical qualities as well as their temperaments. Whether intentional or no, each man seems meant to follow a distinct path that becomes almost a complement to his nature and his looks. Jonathan gets himself embroiled in a fanatical group of witchfinders, while David gets stuck in a lifestyle that’s more earthly, more sensual, yet unsatisfying.
Of the two, I find Jonathan to be much better developed as a character, with his constant internal back-and-forthing and his ability to talk himself out of things though he does need a bit of outside help toward the end of his involvement with the witchfinders. David grows, yes, but his development is much slower than Jonathan’s. He comes across to me as being too immature, selfish, and dependent, and even at the last minute, before he flees England, he rejoices at his triumph over a woman who’s been obviously wronged and yet is generous enough to let her husband go. Though her role is tiny in the book, Catherine proves, in far less scenes, that she’s the “bigger man” of the two.
On the whole, the rest of the characters are somewhat unevenly developed, with Elizabeth Woodbine being the most problematic. Compared to the other side characters or even Michael, she’s so one-dimensional and so wicked that it’s clear she’s simply nothing more than a plot device that’s meant to drive the lovers apart, like Count Alvisi in Standish. What surprised me the most is that, after David leaves Kineton, there’s absolutely no reference about her from Jonathan’s POV, given the significance of her accusations that causes the breach between the young men. No repercussions from her family, no further confrontations between her father and Jacob over David.
Haldane fares a little better, but because he’s there one moment and then gone the next, one can’t really give him much credit than as a kind of a temporary bedmate for David till the next man comes around.
As evil incarnate, Michael is very impressive. One might argue that he’s also written as one-dimensional, but he’s a sadist, and sadists really don’t give you much room for deep discussions on character development. His psychology is simply too warped, too bizarre, to allow anything else. That said, his presence in Jonathan’s half of the story is frightening and forceful yet effective. And I’m not at all surprised to see him still leaving a psychological mark on poor Jonathan well after the fact. Of all the side characters in the novel, Michael, because of his psychosis, fascinates me the most.
Tobias, given the significance of his role, leaves me a little unsatisfied. He spends most of his time off-scene, and when his story finally unfolds, it’s near the end of the book as well as the end of his place in everything. We’re given a few glimpses into his mind, and those tend to happen after he and David suffer from a momentary falling-out. Yes, there are hints of a secret because he refuses to talk about his past while David’s always been open about his (for the most part, anyway), but we’re never given the full view till his last scenes, and his background’s packed in one chapter, almost like an afterthought. In fact, the resolution to his relationship with David feels a bit rushed or forced, so much so that while I understand that Tobias’ story is pathetic and realistic, not admirable – that he deserves readers’ sympathy – I find myself feeling a little cold toward him in the end. There just seems to be too little done, too late, in his situation, which is a shame, because I really wanted to feel for him, knowing that too many gay men in that period suffered the way he does.
There are a few problems involving lie/lay and loath/loathe in the text, but the presentation is very clean, and these issues didn’t detract me from enjoying the book. On the whole, I’m very impressed with Erastes’ efforts. There’s a definite growth in her skill as a writer with regard to world-building (or rebuilding in the case of historical fiction), but it’s far more evident in her atttempts at creating memorable, effective characters. One can see, despite some of the problems I noted (which seem worse than they really are when laid out in detail like this), an earnest effort at writing complex people with their individual stories shaded in gray. Emotions run high, but they’re more muted compared to Standish, less operatic and certainly more reflective of the mature restraint that one can see in Frost Fair. Seeing Erastes’ progress as a serious artist from book to book makes me wonder about – and look forward to – her next offering.
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