An erotic adventure story for men who love men, set at the time of the Jacobite Rebellion in war-torn Scotland. Charles Gordon is sold into near-slavery as the plaything of corrupt military officials, but his talents-both in and out of bed-win him powerful friends as well as dangerous foes.
Review by Jean Roberta.
“You’ll take the high road, and I’ll take the low road,
And I’ll be in Scotland before ye.
But me and my true love will never meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.”
- from “Loch Lomond,” Scottish folk song (see explanation below)*
James Lear is a sly dog who subverts the kind of novels that are widely thought of as ‘classics’ by larding their plots with man-on-man sex. The results are surprisingly faithful to the original books, if not strictly faithful to the era in which they are set.
The most obvious model for James Lear’s novel about Scotland after the defeat of the Jacobites (Catholic supporters of Prince Charles Stuart’s claim to the throne of Scotland) at Culloden in 1746 is Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, a novel published in the 1880s but set in the mid-1700s and largely read (when it first appeared) as an adventure story for boys. The central character in Kidnapped is a young man whose parents are dead, and whose wicked uncle arranges for him to be taken to sea against his will. In the course of his adventures, the young man grows up and eventually gains his rightful inheritance.
The Low Road picks up the picaresque (adventure-story) and coming-of-age themes and intertwines them with the romance of ‘coming out’ into a society in which ‘sodomy’ is a hanging offense but in which most men enjoy sex with other men. Nineteen-year-old Charles Edward Gordon, the central character, lives with his grieving mother in the family mansion after his father, a brave Jacobite leader, has been murdered. Young Charlie, a physically active but isolated lad, develops a ‘friendship’ with Alexander, the servant who works in the stable.
Charles and Alexander engage in horseplay (literally), which leads to more intimate contact.
For awhile, the lovers live together in bliss, but the country is still in turmoil, spies and English soldiers are everywhere, and danger lurks.
One day, Alexander disappears and a mysterious French ‘priest’ named Benoit arrives to tutor the lad in Greek and Latin. Charles resents him, but grudgingly admires him.
By spying on the strange man in the house (after being spied on himself), Charles sees the “priest” masturbating. Charles confronts Benoit about his hypocrisy. Before Benoit can explain his real mission and his real identity, English soldiers arrive to search the house for ‘traitors’ to the English crown. The soldiers take Benoit away, leaving Charles and his mother. Charles realizes that he must take action.
Charles sets forth to outwit the ‘redcoats’ of the garrison and rescue Benoit. Along the way, he stops at an inn where he encounters a group of men:
‘a rough and ready group, but, I thought, honest-looking Scotsmen each and every one of them. When I entered the inn, they had been joining in a chorus of Loch Lomond — a crypto-Jacobite hymn, as every young Scot knew well.’
Charles is naively trusting. After excessive drinking and sex with the men, Charles loses consciousness and wakes up on board a ship, where he is destined to be the plaything of the crew.
The captain is an English gentleman who rescues Charles from the attention of uncouth sailors (not that Charles really objects), and decides that he wants to keep Charles for himself. Although he has been commissioned to bring Charles, the Jacobite ‘traitor,’ to a feared English general for ‘questioning’ (torture), Captain Moore sends word that Charles has been killed. Charles does not want to be the captain’s concubine forever, so he escapes.
Charles eventually meets up with the feared General Wade while impersonating a messenger so that he can discover the whereabouts of Benoit. In one adventure after another, Charles uses his healthy young body in the service of Scotland.
Meanwhile, Benoit uses any means at his disposal to write letters to Charles, addressed to him at Gordon Hall and smuggled out by corrupt guards. Benoit has little hope that Charles will ever receive the letters, but writing them helps keep Benoit sane in desperate circumstances.
The letters are interspersed with Charles’ adventures, so the reader can follow the parallel narratives as the suspense builds. The plot proceeds at a gallop despite the frequent sex scenes involving orgies, voyeurism/exhibitionism, spankings, cross-dressing and a memorable banquet in which Charles is the piece de resistance. Charles survives numerous close calls long enough to mature from a sheltered boy to a more sensible man, and all complications are resolved — at least for the major characters, if not for the doomed Prince for whom Charles was named.
For those who love historical fiction and m/m erotic romance, this novel is a treat. The epistolary form seems true to the period, and the episodic plot lends itself to being read in installments. James Lear has such a shamelessly homoerotic take on history and literature that a reader wonders which “classic” he will take on next.
* From the Wikipedia entry on “Loch Lomond:”
“There are many theories about the meaning of the song. One interpretation is that it is attributed to a Jacobite Highlander who was captured after the 1745 rising. The English played games with the Jacobites, and said that one of them could live and one would die. This is sung by the one who was sentenced to die, the low road referred to being the passage to the underworld.
Another interpretation is that the song is sung by the lover of a captured rebel set to be executed in London following a show trial. The heads of the executed rebels were then set upon pikes and exhibited in all of the towns between London and Glasgow in a procession along the “high road” (the most important road), while the relatives of the rebels walked back along the “low road” (the ordinary road traveled by peasants and commoners).”