Review by Leslie H. Nicoll
False Colors, by Alex Beecroft, is one of two books recently released by Running Press in their new line of m/m historicals (the other is Trangressions, by Erastes). Two more books are scheduled to be released in the third quarter of 2009. I have read both False Colors and Transgressions and if these are indicative of the types of books Running Press will be publishing, we fans of the genre are very lucky readers, indeed.
False Colors is Ms. Beecroft’s second historical novel and like her first, Captain’s Surrender, it takes place during the time when the British Royal Navy ruled the seas and half the world—-the golden “Age of Sail.” The story opens in 1762 with Lt. John Cavendish receiving his first captaincy and an assignment to stop the Barbary Corsairs off the coast of Algeria. Alfie Donwell signs on as his first lieutenant and it is clear from their very first meeting that Alfie has eyes
for John. But it will be a long time, ie, the whole book, with lots of adventures and misunderstanding in between, before they get to the point where they are able to negotiate their relationship and realize how they feel about each other.
Because John and Alfie spend so much time apart, the book is very much about their individual journeys to discover who they are—-until they have come to this realization, they can’t really be together. It’s an interesting dynamic and Ms. Beecroft handles the character development skillfully, having both men grow and mature from page to page. John’s growth is fueled by some particularly horrific situations in which he finds himself, as well as working to cast off beliefs ingrained into him from his youth and family life. Alfie, on the other hand, matures by falling in love with another man (although he never really falls out of love with John). As I enjoy character studies, I found Alfie’s portion of the story to be a bit more engaging but really, we’re talking “great” and “greater”—minute gradations of difference in excellence.
There’s a cast of secondary characters who are extremely well-drawn. In particular, I found myself going back and re-reading the parts of the story that featured Charles Farrant, Captain Lord Lisburn. He’s the Captain of the Britannia, the second ship in the story on which Alfie serves. He’s attracted to men and knows it but has done the things “required” of him to deny his homosexuality, including marrying, fathering children, and undergoing various “cures” from his physician in an effort to treat his “perversion.” All of this has created a man who is now, in his forties, angry, repressed, frustrated, and cruel. But he can also be kind, tender, and even loving, and flashes of this come through, when he lets down the wall he has so carefully built around his feelings. Of all the characters in the book, my heart ached the most for Charles and I wished his life could have been different. He deserved more than he got.
The story is carefully and thoroughly plotted. No loose ends, no characters swooping in from the wings to magically save the day. This is an improvement over Captain’s Surrender (which I enjoyed, but there were a few implausible moments in that book). Likewise, I think Ms. Beecroft’s writing has improved since her first book. She did tell me in an exchange of emails that she didn’t edit Captain’s Surrender as much as she wanted but I contend that it is not just editing differences between the two. In this book, Ms. Beecroft is more skillful in her writing and confident in her ability and it shows. Every word is precisely selected and there for a reason. It is a pleasure to read a book that is so beautifully constructed.
In sum, I highly recommend False Colors. My highest rating is what I call “the incredible sadness”—that feeling that I will never read a book again that is quite this good. Of course, I know I will but in interim I satisfy my longing by re-reading favorite parts and yes, re-reading the book. Which explains why it has taken me two weeks to write this review.