Review: The Layered Mask by Sue Brown

Lord Edwin Nash has been sent to London by his father, threatened with disinheritance unless he finds a wife. Lord Thomas Downe sees through the mask Edwin presents to the world and leaves Edwin powerless to deny his love.

Threatened by his father with disinheritance, Lord Edwin Nash arrives in London for one season to find a wife. While there, Nash discovers he is the lamb, the sacrifice of the society matrons, to be shackled to one of the girls by the end of the season.

During a masquerade ball, Nash hides from the ladies vying for his attention. He is discovered by Lord Thomas Downe, the Duke of Lynwood. Nash is horrified when Thomas calmly tells him that he knows the secret that Nash had hidden for years and that he sees through the mask that Edwin presents to the rest of the world.

What will happen when the time comes for Edwin to return home with a suitable bride?

Review by Erastes

Just look at that cover! It’s absolutely beautiful. Sumptuous and completely in line with the book it’s mouthwateringly beautiful. It just proves that you don’t need headless torsos to illustrate gay romance. Well done, Silver Publishing. This book, incidentally, is part of 3 book anthology (all of which are available as standalones) and are linked. Two of which–this one, and The Slave’s Mask by Patricia Logan–are historicals. They seem to be using the same cover for all.

I haven’t read any of Ms Brown’s works before, simply because I spend so much time reading gay historicals and reading other stuff that I never get time to read any contemporaries at all, but what I’d heard had been good. And it’s pretty well deserved, I think. This is–forgive me if I’m wrong–her first foray into a gay historical and although it’s a simple plot and not a very long read it’s a very good effort. There’s a fair amount of careful research shown, which was appreciated. The patronesses are mentioned at Almack’s which is a rare enough occurence, and the waltz is shown as a seditiousness, whereas so many Regencies have this dance included as a matter of course.

As to the characters, though, I didn’t get swept away by either of them. Both of them seemed to be privileged and rather whiny young men–knowing their duty to their dynasties and being dragged towards it kicking and screaming. This leans more in the direction of Pride and Prejudice’s “I’d rather marry for love, thank you” which at the time was itself a rarer concept than marrying for the family’s benefit.

Thomas finds Edwin “perfect” and that “he had never met anyone like Edwin Nash” after two short conversations and a kiss–so there’s a good smattering of insta-love here. They didn’t set me on fire, but they were nice enough, I just found them rather dull together even though they seemed to turn each other on sufficiently. There’s a riding scene which seems to have absolutely no point at all, and in a short book, that’s not needed.

There’s also the ubiquitous upper-class male knocking-shop which is a trope I’m getting heartily sick of.  This is not the author’s fault of course, and it’s nicely described but it has become a trope. However I suppose men have to bonk somewhere, but I wish someone would do it elsewhere. Anywhere. There are several clubs of this type in London, according the owner of the one that Edwin and Thomas visit–a certain Lord Leicester, who was once Thomas’s lover (giving as a soupcon of conflict in the form of jealousy from Edwin before it dissipates). I found it amusing that one of the Leicester’s men was called Lester. Perhaps the author didn’t know how Leicester was pronounced!

This is quite a nice book, don’t get me wrong. It’s well researched and the love story is sweet and I’m sure people will like it, it’s just that there are a lot of gay Regencies around now and they are all coming out a bit samey these days. It just didn’t say anything to me that was new or refreshing, and I was a little bored. I’d read another by Ms Brown though, were she to write one.

Author’s website

Silver Publishing 

 

Review: A Private Gentleman by Heidi Cullinan

Painfully introverted and rendered nearly mute by a heavy stammer, Lord George Albert Westin rarely ventures any farther than the club or his beloved gardens. When he hears rumors of an exotic new orchid sighted at a local hobbyist’s house, though, he girds himself with opiates and determination to attend a house party, hoping to sneak a peek.

He finds the orchid, yes…but he finds something else even more rare and exquisite: Michael Vallant. Professional sodomite.

Michael climbed out of an adolescent hell as a courtesan’s bastard to become successful and independent-minded, seeing men on his own terms, protected by a powerful friend. He is master of his own world—until Wes. Not only because, for once, the sex is for pleasure and not for profit. They are joined by tendrils of a shameful, unspoken history. The closer his shy, poppy-addicted lover lures him to the light of love, the harder his past works to drag him back into the dark.

There’s only one way out of this tangle. Help Wes face the fears that cripple him—right after Michael finds the courage to reveal the devastating truth that binds them.

Review by Erastes

It’s not very often that I am charmed by a book almost from the first page–but this book blew a fresh wind into the rather overworked 19th century area of the m/m historical romance genre and I found myself won over and wooed.

I have to say that I took to Cullinan’s protagonist immediately. In fact I took to both of them because they were so refreshing in these days of perfect hunks of men. Granted they are both gorgeous as hell, but Lord George Albert Westin has a stammer that would make King George VI look fluent, and Michael Vallant wears glasses–without them, he’s as blind as Marilyn Monroe’s character in How to Marry a Millionaire.

These two disabilities are used with comic effect (without making light of the disabilities at all, I hasten to add) to get our two main characters into an amusing and tight situation where they get to know each other in a manner that I don’t think I’ve ever read before. In fact it’s the way that these two characters get together that was a refreshing change to read.

Both men–aside from their handicaps–are also damaged psychologically. I won’t reveal the nature of this damage as it would spoil a good deal of the plot but it creates the main part of the conflict in the book and due to both men’s inability to deal with real life in general nearly leads to their downfall.

There’s a good deal of research that’s gone into this book and it shows–but in a way that draws you in, intrigues you and makes you think “oo – I must look that up!” It’s not the kind of book that info dumps you with detail, rather, it makes the detail part of the story so you are mopping up facts about early Victorian London without realising it. I’m not sure of the exact date, but Euston Station is in existence, so it’s sometime after 1837.

There is a fair bit of weeping, and that would normally irritate me, but actually it works well here, and Ms Cullinan has worked to portray men who are at the edge of precipices they didn’t even know they were on, and it takes one small push to send them into the abyss. There’s a hugely touching scene in the Bodliean Library where Michael catches sight of himself in a glass case and metaphysically he almost disappears, because he doesn’t know who he is, and realises that he needs to “find himself” and I fully believed that he would break down at this point. It’s very realistically played. The psychology that is explored, in a time before everyone had a shrink, is well done and convincing.

I think I would have liked a little more interaction with Wes’s brother, and his nephew and even his father, because much of what we learn about the father doesn’t gel with what we actually see on the screen. But, the secondary characters are all well done, my favourite was Rodger, Michael’s procurer. Be warned, for those of you who will not read such themes that child abuse is a theme and although its never on the page and quite rightly horrific and not for titilation it is there and Samhain should drop their jokey “warnings” and put up some real ones.

I have one minor quibble, and that’s some of the language was a little modern, and there was a lot of talk of “blocks” e.g. He drove six blocks, and that kind of thing, which was a tad jarring but that’s not enough to dent the mark, because this was a pleasure to read and I hope Ms Cullinan continues to write historicals because she’s made a great debut into the genre with this one.

A lovely long read, with two protagonists thatwill have you rooting for them from the first, I highly recommend A Private Gentleman. It’s ludicrously cheap–and ebook only, and I hope that Samhain get this into print asap, because I want a forever copy.

Amazon UK   Amazon USA

Review: Solace by Scarlet Blackwell (short story)

Solace by Scarlet Blackwell

Down on his luck Victorian gentleman Dorian is looking for solace on Christmas Eve and finds it in the form of rent boy Benedict.

Review by Michael Joseph

It’s Christmas Eve in late-Victorian London. Dorian was once a gentleman of means, but now he’s alone and will soon have to sell his house in Chelsea. An unrequited crush on his houseboy landed him in jail. He managed to bribe his way out of prison, but he’s been disowned by his family and abandoned by all his friends. Dorian is strolling the streets of Whitechapel, looking for company despite the risk of the Ripper, when Benedict steps forward to offer his services.

Benedict is a young male prostitute, a “Mary Ann” in the language of the time used by the author, and Dorian is quite taken with him. Despite the risk, Dorian decides to take Benedict home, rather than just getting off in some darkened doorway. Back in Chelsea, Dorian takes Benedict twice in the drawing room, and it’s obvious Benedict is not “gay for pay” to use the modern expression. He genuinely prefers the company of men, and likes nothing more than having another man deep inside him. Dorian is so enthralled he asks Benedict to stay the night, and the following Christmas Day. Benedict readily agrees and they retire to the bedroom.

In the bedroom, things get mildly kinky, with a little bondage and spanking. Dorian becomes even more enamored with the young man, finding in him the potential for the kind of love he had hoped to find with his houseboy. He also begins to see that, despite his profession, Benedict has rarely known real pleasure.

The dreaded insta-love rears its ugly head in this story, but then this is a really short novella that sets a good pace. In print it’s just around 40 pages. I’m generally not a big fan of these shorts, which are all the rage now that ebooks rule. All too often it seems like the characters are one-dimensional and the plot full of holes. But Solace is complete, with a proper beginning, middle and end, with characters that are endearing enough. It’s short, but it is what it is, which is why I’ve given it a solid 3 out of 5.

Scarlet Blackwell

Buy from Silver Publishing

Review: My True Love Gave to Me by Ava March

Alexander Norton loathes the festive season. The revelry of the ton is a reminder of Christmas four years ago, when his first love, Thomas Bennett, broke his heart and fled to New York without a word. So when he encounters Thomas at a holiday ball, Alexander is determined not to let on how much he still hurts.

Thomas has returned for one reason only: Alexander. Having finally come to terms with his forbidden desires, he will do whatever he must to convince Alexander to give their love another chance. But instead of the happy, carefree man Thomas once knew, Alexander is now hard and cynical. Saddened to know he’s to blame for the man’s bitterness, Thomas resolves to reignite the passion he knows lies hidden behind the wall of disdain…

Review by Erastes

Part of the “Men Under the Mistletoe” seasonal anthology from Carina Press.

I’ve yet to be disappointed with an Ava March novella and if you like her previous work you’ll like this every bit as much. She’s rapidly gaining a reputation–at least with this site–for writing good solid trustworthy Regencies.

The twist here is that the couple have just begun a tentative relationship whilst at university–Alexander is sure of his feelings and desires but Thomas is repressed, used to always trying to please everyone, always sure of doing the right thing in public and the sudden realisation of what he’s about to do–when the pair of them slip off for a dirty weekend breaks  his nerve and he runs away, unable to go through with it, breaking Alexander’s heart.

I have to say that I did enjoy the book, but I felt a little disappointed. Not because there’s no BDSM in this book–which is a departure from the books I’ve read by Ms March before–but the story just didn’t grab me. Perhaps it was because it was a holiday story and is written to be heart-warming. So really I found it was a bit too predictable, and not really much going on. Thomas comes back from America, determined to apologise and win Alexander back, and it doesn’t take a razor-sharp mind to realise that that is what is going to happen. I would have preferred a bit more resistence, a bit more conflict. Perhaps another plot twist to prevent the inevitable happy ending until the bitter end.

March writes sizzling sex, and this book is no exception so people coming to the book for the coming won’t be let down.  But there was quite a good deal of repetition–telling us over and over how much pain Alexander had felt until I said outloud – “Yes! We get it!”

I also wasn’t really convinced by the “True Love” aspect. The men had been together–at age 19–for a mere two terms at university and had grabbed a few occasions for kissing and cuddling so it wasn’t as if they’d had much time to fall into true love. Then later, when the acrimonious discussion begins, Alexander says:

“I had to push, to cajole, to get every kiss, every touch from you.” I believe that there was lust, but it doesn’t come over as true love.

However, despite all my minor quibbles, they are pretty minor and although this wasn’t the best of Ms March’s books for me so far, it was solid and dependable and it won’t stop me reading her for great pleasure in the future.

Ava March’s website

Buy as a separate novella (ebook only) See above for the anthology link

Review: Rag and Bone by J.S. Cook (Inspector Raft Mysteries #2)

Rag & Bone is #2 in the Inspector Raft Mystery Series.

Scotland Yard Inspector Philemon Raft arrives on the scene of a deadly fire in Whitechapel, only to find a much more sinister force at work, destroying lives with swift abandon – and a lunatic may help Raft capture the master criminal known only as “The Master.”

Review by Erastes

This is the follow up to “Willing Flesh” which we reviewed a while back. It’s taken me a disgustingly long time to get around to reading and reviewing the sequel and for that I apologise.

What I like about these two books (and I hope that there will be many more of them) is that they started out as rewrites of her two Inspector Devlin novels but instead of being faithful copies, they have been re-written to make them only vaguely reminiscent of their ancestry. If you’ve read book two of Devlin I think I can safely say that you will be happy about the denouement of Rag and Bone…

What I admire about J.S. Cook’s work is the sense of the grotesque–in a very good way. She takes a blending of Dickens, a touch of King, a taste of Peake and blends it all in in her own inimitable style. I absolutely adore her character description.  It’s not overdone in a Noir style, but she manages to give us an absolute certain description with a few deft sentences.

Raft was sitting is Sir Newton Babcock’s office, gazing at the floor and constructing patterns out of the carpet’s tortuous motif while the police commissioner wallowed up and down, looking very like a rhinoceros forcing its way through thick river mud.

What stops the book getting a five star from me is that fact that I wish JS Cook would trust her own talent and would create truly original characters as I know she is capable of doing. There’s too much Renfield in Rennie the lunatic, too much Holmes and Hare in Hoare, too much Dracula in “The Master” and so on and so on. Raft–who I believe JSC was modelling on David Tennant–develops a 3rd heartbeat and while I know all of these details could simply be labelled as an admiring nod to characters that JSC admires, for me it was irritating and kept dragging it back towards fanfic, and the book deserves much better than that. Perhaps thought it’s just I have too much inside knowledge and other readers wouldn’t even notice.

The editing leaves something to be desired, too – misused homonyms were picked up here and there manner born/manor born, reign/rein and the like and it needed a harsh eye looking over the plot, as things happened which hadn’t had any set-up, and some elements seemed rush,  pasted on and in the end weren’t really explained to my satisfaction. However it’s hoped there will be more of the series, so explanations may come later.

However, some authors with less talent would have a whole point taken off for these problems, J.S. Cook only loses half a point because of her consummate skill in her writing as a whole.

What shows clearly is Cook’s research. I know that she does much of her forensic research at home, making fake skulls, filling them with fake blood and then shattering them to study blood spatter–and other such home pursuits! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it’s almost impossible to imagine that she’s not only not as English as Miss Marple, but lives in a remote location on another continent. The way she covers police procedure and the forensic knowledge of the time rings very true. If I had one quibble it’s about her dialogue for some of the characters. At the beginning of the book two children are talking, children from the Whitechapel area, completely poor and uneducated. Their speech patterns are off, sadly–one of the children actually says “There aren’t any more” rather than “There ain’t none.” The dialogue of the children is very wobbly, careering from east end dialect and back again. A good English beta-ing would have been sensible, but then perhaps only English people would spot it.

The ending is not your typical romance ending, but then these books aren’t romances – they are crime drama, and while the horror that happens in the earlier incarnation of this book doesn’t happen, JS Cook doesn’t let her protagonists off lightly and the ending left me heartbroken in a good way and on tenterhooks for book three of the series.

You can read this as a stand-alone, despite it being part of a series, it works fine as it is, but I urge you to try out Willing Flesh first–if you are a fan of Victorian crime drama you can’t help but be impressed by Rag and Bone.

Author’s Website

Amazon UK Amazon USA (Print and ebook)

Review: One More Soldier by Marie Sexton

It is 1963. Being gay is a sin against God. And twenty-eight year old mechanic Will meets Bran for the first time.

Over the years a close bond forms between them despite the seventeen year age difference. Will teaches Bran to swim and helps him with homework. The years pass, Bran drops out of school and moves away.

Then Bran comes home. Can Will move past their age difference? And if he does, how can he keep Bran in 1970 America?

A beautifully told tale of love and loss told from the viewpoint of a deeply closeted gay man at the very beginning of the American Gay and Lesbian Rights movement

Review by Erastes

This little novella surprised me. For some reason I had the preconception that it was by an English author, one that writes Age of Sail and so in that, I’ve obviously got my Marie’s muddled (sorry to both of you) so when I encountered a bitter-sweet (be warned) love story with a rather worrying start:

I first met Bran eight years ago. He was eleven years old.

I was twenty-eight.

But this is all right, actually, because you are supposed to feel that prickle of unease, because that’s exactly what the narrator is attempting to explain. Will, the narrator, is–if not entirely closeted, damned careful about what he does and where he does it It’s 1963 and Houston there wasn’t a lot of gay liberation going on. Hookups in discreet bars, blow jobs in cars–that’s the level of his companionship and he thinks himself lucky if he gets it once a week.

When he meets Bran–the eleven year old–it’s not at ALL in a sexual manner. The young boy attaches himself to Will for a week or  two as he’s new to the area and makes a nuisance of himself, but by the time school starts, Bran finds his own friends and their paths meet as rarely as you would expect people living in the same complex might meet. Bran does odd jobs for Will from time to time, taking in the mail when he’s out of town, that kind of thing. Then, when Bran leaves school before his senior year and takes up ranching, Will doesn’t see him at all for a few years.

It’s when Bran does return, changed out of all recognition, that the trouble starts, and the slightly unsettling beginning comes into its own. Bran is handsome, bronzed, muscled and entirely unrecognisable as that skinny and irritating kid that Will taught to swim and sometimes helped with homework. Will finds himself attracted to Bran, and it’s soon clear that Bran feels the same way and won’t take “no” for an answer.

Will is uncomfortable getting close to Bran, and he does fight it (not for terribly long, it has to be said, but it’s a short book!) and he has to try and see two Brans–a kid, and a grown up. Bran emphasises that he’s eighteen now but we hit the old bump in the road with that. It’s a sop to the publishing industry of 2012, and has no relevance to what was going on in the late 196os. Bran could have been 22 and it would have been every bit as illegal, after all.

The book could–were it not for Bran himself–be swept aside with a shrug that this is like many other coming of age/first time/friends becoming lovers books. There are many tropes that you could hang onto it. But don’t write it off and don’t be put off by the age difference. What the author does is something very clever–she shows the generation gap–not just between the ages of the protagonists, but the mental attitide of the protagonists. It’s difficult to say more without spoiling the crux of the story, but Bran became (impressive for such a short novella) one of those characters that get under the skin and stay with you long after you’ve started to read something new.

By using Bran in this way, the author has shown the tide of gay liberation–although only the sussurating damp edges of the waves down in Houston–but he points with enthusiasm to the world beyond, sure that “things will change” in his youthful enthusiasm. It’s what happens at the end which gives the title its double-edged poignancy.

As I say–it’s bittersweet–and were this a longer novel and written in the 70’s it probably would be a gay classic today. It would be easy for this book to be entirely overlooked and I beg that you don’t allow that to happen.  If you steel yourself for a non-romance ending I am quite sure you’ll be as impressed with this as I was. I shall snap up any further gay historicals Ms Sexton may come up with!

Author’s website

Ebook only Silver Publishing    Kindle UK     Kindle USA

Review: Bone Idol by Paige Turner

Book one in the Past Perfect Series

Love stripped down to the bare bones.

1875. The Bone Wars. Dinosaur hunters will go to any lengths to make bigger, better discoveries—and to see their rivals broken.

Henry is a man of science—precise, proper and achingly correct. When Albert arrives in his life in a storm of boyish enthusiasm, he’s torn between his loyalty to science and a new and troubling desire.

Albert wants to protect his father, and fears Henry means to ruin his reputation in the bone-hunter world. Will he be ruled by his fear, or by his feelings?

As they hunt for dinosaurs and explore their desire together, Henry and Albert find themselves digging up some secrets that could threaten their love—and their lives.

Review by Sal Davis

This is a very niely produced book with a beautiful and atmospheric cover. Posh Gosh, the cover artist, really does the story justice.

Henry Elkington is one of those well off, well educated and brilliant young men who, in the Victorian age, helped to make such strides in natural sciences. His particular interest is in palaeontology – a new science and the scene of vicious academic conflict amongst those who studied it. The story opens with Henry arriving on the rainswept Dorset coast to try and see the Reverend Arthur Boundry, a fellow enthusiast. Henry find Boundry on the beach trying to rescue a promising fossil with the aid of some local men and his son Albert. From the moment Henry sees Albert he is unusually aware of him and disturbed by the new feelings this new acquaintance arouses. Albert comes over as being an youthful, bright eyed innocent and his vast enthusiasm for his hobby, and that of Henry and his father, is very appealing. It’s also very nice that, as their relationship develops, Albert is the one who seems more at ease with his feelings and, in fact, makes quite a lot of the running.

But the story isn’t just about love amongst the fossils. It covers a lot of ground – from Dorset to London, to the fossil beds of Wyoming via ship then back to London again. Descriptions are sharp and economical but give a fine sense of place and there is a good ‘supporting cast’ of characters. There are villains and scapegoats, victims and aggressors. However, Henry and Albert manage several tender, and raunchy, moments despite a complex plot that sets them up for a sequel.

I enjoyed the story very much and will definitely look out for any sequel.

Author’s website

Published by Total-eBound (ebook)

Review: Gaius and Achilles by Clodia Metelli

Gaius and Achilles is a gay historical romance, set in Late Republican Rome, concerning the choices facing Achilles, a young aristocrat from Paphos whose life is thrown into confusion when he is captured by pirates and separated from his lover Hippothous.

He finds himself the slave of decadent Roman poet Gaius Manlius Torquatus, a sensitive soul, who must struggle with the conflicting demands and desires of his nature.

Achilles’ radical change in status from respected citizen to personal property forces him to struggle to redefine his threatened sense of self and ultimately to question what it is to be free.

Meanwhile, his lover Hippothous is facing his own perilous adventures and is determined to find and save Achilles at any cost.

Review by Michael Joseph

It’s not often anymore that a book catches me completely by surprise, taking turns that you just don’t expect an historical romance to take. “Gaius and Achilles” surprised me, and I don’t mind saying right up front it was quite a pleasant surprise.

We’re first briefly introduced to Achilles and Hippothous, two aristocratic Greek youths of Paphos, on the island of Crete. The two young friends consider themselves lovers, although Hippothous would prefer the relationship conform to Platonic ideals, while Achilles yearns for greater physical expression. The men are both selected to compete in the Pythian games, and set sail along with the cream of the island’s youth for Delphi. Unfortunately, they’re set on by pirates, taken captive and sold into slavery in Italy.

When we first meet Gaius, he’s whipping a slave boy, only it’s not really a slave, it’s his boyfriend Antyllus, and he likes it. Or, maybe he doesn’t. Antyllus was once a slave, but now he’s a free man with a successful acting career. Unfortunately, he’s a sadly damaged and self-destructive young man who can’t seem to stop playing mind games with his boyfriend Gaius (sigh, been there). Gaius is almost driven mad by his young lover’s mercurial temperament, but finally wises up and resolves to part company with Antyllus.

Gaius escapes to his country estate, which he hasn’t visited since he was a boy. His uncle, who raised Gaius when his parents died, used to look after the vineyard for Gaius but he has now passed away, leaving Gaius with the responsibility to look after the business which provides his income. Soon after his arrival, the estate is embroiled in turmoil. It seems the steward, Rufus, has purchased a new slave who is quite unruly, and has even tried to escape. Rufus wants to whip the slave into submission, but the more Gaius hears, the more concerned he becomes and so he asks to see the slave for himself.

The slave is, of course, Achilles and under questioning it becomes clear that Rufus has purchased the young man, at considerable expense using Gaius’ money, to act as his own personal sex slave. Achilles quite naturally balked at this. Rufus had, quite wrongly, assumed his new master would be some addle-brained upper class twit. Once he figures out what is really going on, Gaius has Rufus quite literally peeing his toga.

Gaius takes pity on Achilles, and tries to more gently ease him into his new life as a slave. He makes the young man is personal servant and treats him with respect. He is also strongly attracted sexually to Achilles, but Gaius has a surprisingly strong moral code, especially for a Roman. He won’t take any man, even a slave, without their willing consent. So, he sets about wooing Achilles, which doesn’t prove difficult. The young man, in spite of himself, is also attracted to his new master. Gaius gives the beautiful youth the physical expression of love that’s long been denied him, and allows Achilles to explore the darker desires he’s long suppressed. This is where things get really interesting, but Achilles can’t give himself totally to Gaius. He pines for his lost lover Hippothous, whose fate remains unknown to him, and he still rebels at the idea of his enslavement.

“Gaius and Achilles” is set at the very end of the republic (that’s the Roman republic, dears, this isn’t Star Wars fanfic). Julius Caesar is as yet an up-and-coming young politician, mentioned a few times in the story. The author, apparently writing under a pen name taken from the time of the setting, seems to be a serious student of the Greco-Roman period and has woven a rich background for the story. There are vivid details about the daily life of a country villa. Everything, right down to the foods eaten at every meal, rings true to me. It’s all delivered in a very readable style that never becomes pedantic.

The historic detail alone makes this a very capable story, but it’s the relationship between Gaius and Achilles that really sets this book apart as something entirely unique in my experience. Many ‘serious’ historical romances – those not intended simply as one-handed reads – often tread quite lightly when it comes to sex. Even when they do get descriptive, the sex is often rather vanilla. The depictions of sex between Gaius and Achilles is quite unabashedly detailed and erotic. But what really pushed it over the edge into something completely different, what made me stop and think “wow” when I realized where it was going, is that the sex between the two men moves quite firmly into the realm of BDSM (Bondage, Discipline and Sado-Masochism). That was really just totally unexpected in a historical romance set in ancient Rome. Non-consensual sex in a master/slave relationship is one thing, but consensual BDSM is quite another.

It took me a little while to see what the author was doing. This isn’t all about shock and titillation. What the writer manages to do is set up a rather exquisite tension between the two sides of Achilles’ personality. On the one hand, there’s his public persona, the free-born Greek aristocrat who can’t wrap his head around now being a slave, someone’s property, with no control over what happens to him. On the other hand is Achilles’ private self, with a sexuality at its core that has an strong need to serve a master. He finds strength in submission, and joy in the pain of a whipping. It’s the tension between these two opposites that sets the theme of the story.

It’s in the description of the BDSM scenes that I found the closest thing to a flaw in the book. There was something rather ‘modern’ about the scenes – safe words, boundaries and limits are openly discussed. These things are very important to the story, in making Achilles feel comfortable enough to submit to Gaius’ domination, but they still felt somewhat out of place in ancient Rome. Although the Romans left plenty of documentation about what they got up to in bed, I doubt we have the level of detail to know if they understood the importance of safe words. This wasn’t one of those things that jars you out of the story, it was more a slow realization, and frankly, once I noticed it I simply overlooked it and read on. It doesn’t really detract from the story.

In then end, I felt the author was acting rather more responsibly than most. I do read a fair bit of BDSM, and even review it for another site. A lot of what gets labeled as BDSM really isn’t. It’s non-consensual sex, sexual torture and even outright mutilation. In “Gaius and Achilles” the author has shown how two (or more) consenting adults can engage in extreme sex safely. She probably could have glossed over some of the safety details without detracting from the story, but I think it actually becomes more powerful the way it is.

Hippothous is not completely forgotten in all this. He’s constantly in the background, forming a wedge between Gaius and Achilles. We get regular updates on his adventures as well. He is first sold to a brothel, but he fakes a seizure his first night on duty and is promptly resold, this time to a merchant with need of a Greek scribe. This at first seems a more suitable position, but his talent soon lands him in trouble with the senior slave, who frames the lad for theft to get him out of the way. While awaiting his fate, which will be whipping, or worse, Hippothous is allowed to escape by his master’s daughter and soon falls in with a gang of bandits.

It becomes quite obvious early on that, for the story to resolve itself, Achilles and Hippothous have to meet again. When they do, Achilles is forced to choose between his friend and his lover, between the freedom of Paphos with it’s moral restrictions and life as a slave to Gaius allowed to explore his innermost desires. It’s not much of a choice, really.

This book pushed a lot of my buttons, and more importantly, it pushed a combination of buttons I don’t expect a single story to push. That said, I realize this book is not going to appeal to everyone. In fact, I suspect it’s going to be one of those stories that people either love or hate. There won’t be much middle ground. If you have a taste for extreme sex, you’ll probably like this book. If too much sex in a book is a turn-off, just don’t read it.

I decided to give “Gaius and Achilles” 4.5 stars. The main reason I’m not giving it 5 stars is that, while it’s a ripping good yarn, it didn’t really tug at my heart-strings (although other bits got fondled). There’s nothing I can really put my finger on to account for this, the characters are well rounded and likable. I suspect it’s down to the remoteness of the time and circumstances. I just couldn’t get into the head of an ancient Roman or Greek aristocrat, and I certainly have absolutely no frame of reference for what it’s really like to be a slave, with absolutely no control over what happens to me. Others might get into it more easily, and really be tugged by Achilles’s situation, so I don’t consider this a real failing of the book.

Clodia Metelli’s web site

“Gaius and Achilles” may be purchased from Smashwords or Kindle (ebook only)

Review: When Love Walked In by Charlie Cochet (short story)

Bruce Shannon is a Private Investigator dealing with case after case of missing persons and infidelity. None of which inspire warm, fuzzy feelings during the week of Valentine’s Day. Then again, Bruce isn’t exactly a fuzzy feelings kind of guy, which suits him just fine. He doesn’t need anyone anyhow, only his cat, Mittens.

That is, until the handsome Jace Scarret wanders off the streets and into Bruce’s life. Will Jace end up showing Bruce that maybe Valentine’s Day isn’t so lousy after all?

Review by Erastes

I love Noir. The films, the books. Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler and all that. I love the morally ambigious characters, the twisted plots, the fashions, the cars, the settings.

While “When Love Walked In” is almost a vignette from what my mind fills in as a much larger story, it screams through every blue-nosed automatic pore that the author loves the era, loves Noir every bit as much as I do.

We meet our protagonist, who is a cagey, irascible, caffiene driven private dick–Bruce Shannon. He’s recently lost his secretary who was, it seems, a treasure, and he’s absolutely lost without her (so often the way!) We learn about Bruce in these opening sections: we learn he’s untidy, eats unhealthily, works too much, dislikes much of humanity and loves his cat, Mittens. Mittens is the star of this story in my opinion and you’d have to be hard-hearted not to love her too.

While it definitely has a Noir edge, don’t go expecting anything really Chandler-esque about it. For a start it’s told in third person POV whereas many Noir detective books are first person to retain the bafflement of the detective and to portray the voice (think the original Bladerunner with the commentary). While this works for this simple Valentine’s Day tale of new romance blossoming, I think that were the author to do a full-sized detective novel, I’d prefer a first person approach. There’s no real conflict either, which I’m not going to gripe about much seeing as how the story is only 30 or so pages, but I’ve seen it done in books as short as this, so it is possible.

That being said, what is there is good with a capital G. The writing is crisp and immerses you in the period, the characters are distinct and believable (even the off-stage secretary and the one-scene cafe owner burst with life) and the burgeoning romance isn’t too much insta-love to be eye-rolling. Rather the characters are turned on by each other which is much more realistic.

The editing wasn’t bad–it’s been a while since I read a Torquere book, and was surprised only to find one misused homonym. However the price seems pricey for a short story–other publishers sell novellas for that price.

However, as a piece of fiction that will take you 20 minutes or so to read, it’s highly enjoyable, well-grounded in its period, written in a cinematic way that will make you relive the gritty days of the 1930’s depression and a solid little story. As I said above, it seems (and I hope this is the case) that the author has a lot more to tell us about the back story and the continuing story of Bruce–he would do very well, as many Noir detective do–in a series and I for one will be lining up to read it. More please, Ms Cochet.

Author’s website

Buy at Torquere

Review: Stone by Stone: A Novel by Stevie Woods

Can two men build a relationship when one must tear down each stone that the other has worked so hard to build?

In the year 1535, after a misspent youth, Brother Mark is a hardworking Benedictine monk toiling as a stonemason at Tavistock Abbey. There he finds himself irrevocably drawn to one of the men sent out by King Henry to audit the monasteries prior to closure. Andrew Cheyne is fascinated by the handsome young man and breaks down the monk’s boundaries with an ease that neither expected.

When Andrew returns four years later to finally close the abbey, each man must also come to terms with their past to attempt to plan a future they can share. But fate plays a cruel trick on them. Or, as

Mark wonders, is it God teaching him a lesson? Attempting to forget Mark, Andrew commences a brand new life, but fate has more lessons in store for him yet.

Review by Elliott Mackle

The most riveting historical fiction is set against what the Chinese curse as “interesting times” —wars, revolutions, disputes between rival princes, invasions by barbaric hoards and widespread piracy upon the high seas. For every pastoral-domestic Pride and Prejudice, I’ll give you five Gone with the Winds and six Tales of Two Cities.

Stone by Stone is set in the turbulent period immediately following King Henry VIII’s break with Rome and proclamation of himself as head of the Church of England. Henry, a profligate spender always in need of cash, saw the realm’s rich monasteries and nunneries as easy pickings. A program was devised whereby royal commissioners inspected these establishments, drew up lists of accounts and possessions, and gave abbots the choice of either turning over land, buildings, livestock, furnishings, art and manuscripts to the head of the new church – or facing trial and perhaps execution for heresy and failure to obey a royal command. Monks and nuns were simply turned out into the road, sometimes with a pension, sometimes with a trade to support themselves in the outside world, and sometimes not.

The king was then free to pay his debts with gold plate, priceless illuminated bibles, works of art, grain and cattle, and to sell or give the former cloisters and abbeys to those nobles and officials who had supported him in his long effort to rid himself of Queen Catherine, marry Anne Boleyn and produce a male heir.

Stone by Stone is based upon historical fact: the dissolution of Tavistock Abbey in Devon. Fictional and historical figures are nicely mixed. The last abbot, John Peryn, who surrendered the abbey in return for a pension of one hundred pounds, is sympathetically treated, and was a real person. The king’s henchmen, royal commissioner Sir Richard Louden and his assistant, Master Andrew Cheyne, are presumably fictional. They serve, however, at the pleasure of the quite real Thomas Cromwell, among the King’s closest advisors, who is also at the center of the international bestseller and Man Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. More on that below.

Stone by Stone opens with a short preface, contrasting snapshots of the protagonists: Andrew Cheyne, a confirmed bachelor, topping an anonymous male stranger in the flea-ridden back room of a tavern in Southwark, London; Brother Mark of Lydford, an apprentice stonecutter at Tavistock, awakening from a wet dream, guiltily savoring the pleasure of being fondled by another man. “He needed someone to love him—a man to love him. A man he could love. God forgive him…”

Brother Mark will soon get his wish.

The novel itself is divided into three parts spanning seven years. Sir Richard and Master Cheyne arrive at Tavistock during the summer of 1535. Cheyne, in order to better observe the easy lives of the friars, elects to sleep in a cell rather than the priory. He has hardly done more than drop off his saddlebags when he encounters Brother Mark. Their affair follows a familiar track: The Look. Instantaneous Mutual Recognition. The First Kiss. Solitary Masturbation (fantasizing the other, albeit including the very modern term “pre-come”). The Body-to-Body Kiss. The Initial Refusal (by Brother Mark) to Go Further. And so on to The First Encounter (very explicit undressing, sucking and fucking in the deserted library by candlelight).

After a few days, the inspection party must leave and the lovers must part. Brother Mark reflects thusly:

“He lifted his eyes heavenward and wondered, for maybe the hundredth time, why life was so complicated. Why couldn’t others see what now seemed straightforward to him. For some men, it was more natural to love a man. He had tried to blame the devil for his inclination, but everything was created by God, even the fallen angel. If one believed in the power of God, how could it be otherwise? God made nature, God made man, including those men who loved other men. Mark had come to understand the definition of what is ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ was made by man. Mark had found a measure of peace in accepting his own understanding of God—what He is, what He does and how He works.”

It hardly needs pointing out that this line of reasoning is modern, not renaissance, nor that the concept of homosexuality as a state of being did not exist until the nineteenth century. Randy monks, however, are stock figures in the comedy, fiction and art of many cultures, and Brother Mark is a particularly attractive example of the type.

Four years later, during the winter of 1539, Andrew Cheyne, now himself a king’s commissioner, returns to Tavistock to accept title to the abbey on behalf of the king, and to carry off the most valuable treasures. There is a good deal of discussion concerning administrative matters, valuations and pensions. While I understand that historical novels set in the distant past cannot succeed if cast in the exact language of the era, authors should make some attempt to suggest the flavor and accents of the characters within the narrative. Author Woods’s dialog is cast almost entirely in conversational modern English, some of it quite wooden.

The most egregious such lapse, among many, occurs during the initial exchange between the new commissioner and the abbot.

“‘Abbot Peryn,’ Andrew said, keeping his eyes on the abbot, ‘I am Andrew Cheyne, King Henry’s Commissioner. I am here to facilitate the procedure.’”

Beyond the inelegant repetition, the line is laughable. Phrases such as “facilitate the procedure” date to the late twentieth century and today are taken seriously only by tin-eared bureaucrats and non-commissioned officers.

After a good deal of “Does he?” “Should I?” “Will he?” dithering, Andrew and Mark do get it on again, declaring their love and expressing it in as hard-core an erotic encounter as anything available in today’s one-handed-fiction magazines and websites. Stand warned.

Mark’s apprenticeship has been transferred to a civilian master mason. Forced to make a hurried departure on the morning of the abbey’s dissolution, he leaves a note in Andrew’s saddlebag explaining where and with whom he is bound. Naturally, there is confusion and the note is lost.

Andrew, having made enough in commissions over a decade or so’s service to the crown, begs to retire and is rewarded with the opportunity to purchase a confiscated country house and surrounding acreage at a bargain price. Lacking only one thing to complete his happiness, Mark, he spends a year searching unsuccessfully for the younger man and, at the end of part two, gives up in defeat.

The HEA conclusion is clear from the opening pages of part three. It is the summer of 1542. Thomas Cromwell is two years dead, beheaded after losing King Henry’s favor. Andrew, lonely but engaged in his new role as country squire, takes a wife, Emily, the daughter of a wealthy neighbor. Andrew is able to make love to her only by imagining he is topping Mark. When Emily becomes pregnant, Andrew realizes he must make improvements to his crumbling, drafty old house. Applying to the Guild of Stonemasons in nearby Plymouth, he is swiftly reunited with Mark, now himself a master mason, who agrees to oversee the necessary repairs.

Andrew and Mark are likeable characters, well worth knowing. The novel’s historical frame and narrative are skillfully constructed. The Tudor period is of continuing interest to English and American readers. Typos and misspellings are relatively few and minor—monks for monk’s, “pouring over” a set of drawings, for instance. Unfamiliar words—dorter, obedentiaries, carrack—can be puzzled out, though I’d prefer they’d been explained.

Simply put, however, author Woods has failed to imagine herself inside the abbey, observing and eavesdropping on men as they argue, pray to God, spy on each other and make love. So many details—stonecutting, modes of travel, a monastery’s daily schedule—are well observed. It’s thus too bad that much of the scene setting fails to rise much above the level of tourist guidebook. Too bad, also, that the lovers experience so little fear and danger, that there’s so little tension in the novel. Although Henry’s reign was marked by violence, disorder and officially sanctioned, often whimsical murder, little or no blood is spilled here.

Finally, a note on Wolf Hall. That novel follows Cromwell’s meteoric rise from battered village youth to King Henry’s chief minister and Anne Boleyn’s confidante. The success of the novel has prompted author Mantel to compose a sequel, “Bring Up the Bodies,” to be published later this year in both the U.S. and U.K. I have no idea whether the popularity of Mantel’s epic had anything to do with the conception of Stone by Stone, a sort of sidebar to Cromwell’s story. In any case, it is a compelling tale but one not perfectly told.

Author’s website

Buy at Amber Allure (ebook and paperback)

Review: Almost an Equal by Heather Boyd

When Nathan Shern, Duke of Byworth’s, empty sham of a marriage is threatened by a fellow duke he is naturally aggrieved. He cannot allow the potentially damaging contents of his wife’s diary to reveal the depths of their estrangement because exposure of his secret dalliances with other men would taint his innocent children’s lives. Not to mention end his life. So, without revealing his mission to his steward, Henry Stackpool, a man he trusts for everything else, Nathan undertakes to steal the diary back alone.

Former pickpocket and molly house whore, Henry Stackpool, works hard to keep his position as right hand to a moral man, the Duke of Byworth, but he fears his kind hearted employer is ill-equipped for a confrontation with his unstable opponent. Yet Henry cannot reveal his knowledge of the threat without exposing the secrets of his past or his keen interest in Byworth’s safety. So when fate places Henry in harms way, he risks his hard won reputation to retrieve the diary. Yet he too is held captive, and when Byworth comes to his rescue his lies are revealed.

Can Byworth forgive him for his deception and will Henry keep the country life he’s grown to love?

Review by Erastes

Sadly unoriginal story which I think I’ve read at least six times since starting reviewing the genre. That’s not to say that it’s not readable, because it is and at $2.99 it’s not expensive. But it says nothing new and the characters and plot are so derivative I got a little bored.

Two men who both fancy each other and of course neither knows and both think they have heterosexual inclinations, then there’s an intervention and suddenly PING they fall into bed together–they can’t even look at each other (including in front of the children which was mildly repellent, no control at all) without getting instant hard-ons. You know. Then when they do go to bed, rather than being “Almost an Equal” the servant goes from calling the Duke “Your Grace” to “Nate” (after being asked to call him Nathan.) And in a day or so they are madly in love. Of course. Sound familiar? Yes.

Oh, and course the Token Woman who is necessarily Evil.

Then of course there’s the obligatory BDSM elements which seem to be de-rigeur these days. It appears that you simply can’t be a Regency homosexual without either being a sadistic rapist OR wanting to play BDSM games.

At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, it’s self-published and yes, the editing is dire. The author clearly didn’t bother to have anyone check it over (or if she did, she needs to use someone else) because there are dozens of typos–lack of apostrophes where they need to be, wrong homonyms etc etc.  I’m this close from never reviewing self-pubbed books again at this point.

I found myself intrigued, though in some respect. The books is subtitled “The Hunt Club Chronicles book 1″ and Henry and his friend “Archer” were both whores at the ubiquitous upper class gay brothel so I would be interested in reading more about the background of the two men. It might have been better though had the saga started in the Club and shown how they left rather than showing it as backstory.

There is a large proportion of sex in the book, which will probably please many. The build up is teasing and then there’s many long, long scenes which are meticulously described and well-written. Although, once again, there’s nothing new here, the sex scenes were the best parts of the book for me.

I might try book 2 if it gets published, but if it’s not noticeably better than this I won’t be going on to book 3. Unmemorable.

Author’s website

Buy at Smashreads

Review: Achilles a Love Story by Byrne Fone

Achilles: A Love Story

By the author of American Revolution: A Gay Novel. The story of the war at Troy, as Homer’s readers all knew, was not only a tale of battles and exemplary heroism, but also a a story of love between men–of the devotion of Achilles, unrivalled hero, terrible warrior, and so it is said in legend, the most beautiful man in the world, for another great warrior, the handsome Patroclus. Their names resound in the catalogue of heroes and lovers and their tragic tale is one of the greatest, most emblematic, and earliest gay love stories ever told. In the “Iliad” Homer also tantalizingly hints at another love story, that of the handsome Prince Antilochus for Achilles, as it plays out against the legendary battles of the Trojan war that brought down a great kingdom and created one of literature’s greatest stories and most enduring legends. 

Review by Michael Joseph

The Greek era has always been one of my favorites for historical romance. Perhaps it’s because Mary Ranault’s Alexander books were the first historical novels with a gay bent I ever read, or maybe it’s just because it was a time when love between men was not only accepted, but almost expected. So I had high, perhaps unreasonable, hopes when offered “Achilles: A Love Story”.

This is the story of Homer’s Iliad, re-told from the point of view of Antilochus, a prince, the son and heir of King Nestor of Pylos. The young prince has formed a sort of obsession with the already famous Achilles, who is only two years older. Antilochus comes off as a bit of a stalker at first, determined that one day he will meet the object of his desire, and they will instantly become lovers.

Then comes news of the impending war. Kind Agamemnon comes to Pylos to enlist King Nestor’s support in the war against Troy. Nestor somewhat reluctantly agrees. He and Odysseus then embark on a tour of the other Greek states to garner their support. One of the stops is to be Pythia, where the support of King Peleus and his son the mighty Achilles will be sought. Antilochus naturally jumps at the chance to finally meet his lover-to-be, and begs to go along. Of course, once the party lands in Pythia, Antilochus is slapped with the cold hard reality of Patroclus. Somehow, the fact that Achilles already had a lover to whom he was practically joined at the hip had escaped the young prince.

Antilochus is crushed, but he doesn’t give up the determination to one day make Achilles his. First though, there’s a war to fight. Nestor, Achilles and the rest of the Greeks take off to fight, while Antilochus is deemed too young and left behind in the care of his mother. The prince cools his heels in Pylos for eight long years. His mother won’t let him leave to join the war without word from his father, and Nestor never sends for his son.

Tired of waiting and anxious to partake of the glory of battle, as well as win the heart of Achilles, Antilochus arranges to make his way to Troy with the help of a sexy sea captain. Arriving in Troy, the prince faces the wrath of his father, but Achilles intervenes and it’s agreed that Antilochus will serve as Achilles’ squire. Actually, he will serve both Achilles and Patroclus since they live together. At first this seems like a boon, but faced with the obvious love the two have for each other every day does drive home how impossible Antilochus’ hopes are, although he never gives them up.

Not that Antilochus doesn’t get to experience what Achilles is like as a lover. Achilles and Patroclus seem to have an ‘open relationship’ and Achilles takes Antilochus from time to time when Patroclus isn’t around, and apparently Patroclus also beds the prince at least once. Achilles does teach Antilochus the art of warfare, and eventually the prince returns to his father’s service to lead his own battalion as captain.

Antilochus fights alongside Achilles on occasion, and he is there to witness the capture of Chryseis, a priestess of Apollo. This is a pivotal event that sparks the tiff between Achilles and Agamemnon, and ultimately leads to first the death of Patroclus, and then Achilles. If you know the Iliad, even the Marvel Comics version, then you know most of what happens.

The author does a rather good job, on the whole, of capturing the epic style of the Homeric tales. This is in spite of a huge number of typos and a few seeming anachronisms – would King Agamemnon really say “we’re in a pretty pickle”? However, the authentic sound of the prose was not entirely a good thing. I found that the formality of the style put a distance between the reader and the characters. I never quite connected to Antilochus in the way I would have liked.

Of course, a lot of this is because the author doesn’t really share much of what Antilochus is feeling. He’s very good at bringing alive the blood-lust and fog of battle with some rather eloquent prose, but when it comes to love – what the book is supposed to be about – Antilochus gets very terse and even downright vague. You would expect someone so besotted with a man that when he and Achilles do couple, even if it’s not as lovers, you would think he would go on and on about it. But Antilochus gives us little more than a sentence or two. He has flings with others on occasion, but says no more about them and sometimes simply infers that he’s slept with a man without really coming out and saying it.

As for Achilles, he never really becomes a fully fleshed character. He remains more the mythical abstract object of Antilochus’ obsession rather than a real person, or demi-god. While Achilles is the key character in the story, he doesn’t actually appear in person that much. We spend more time getting to know Odysseus and King Agamemnon. In many ways, this book is more about the folly of war and the greed of men than about love, but then I don’t suppose many people would want to read a book titled “Agamemnon: A Drunken Sod.”

Given the degree to which any discussion of love was avoided, in the end I’m not sure what the “Love Story” of the title is alluding to, even after reading the author’s afterword. Is it Antilochus’ unrequited obsession for Achilles? That never seemed real to me, and hardly qualifies as a love story. No, I have a hard time seeing this book as a love story, or a romance of any kind. It’s a capable, though unexceptionable, piece of classical literature with a slight homoerotic bent, which is why I’ve given it three stars.

[Author does not appear to have a web site]

This book may be purchased in hardcopy or ebook form from Amazon (self-published)

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