Despite being afflicted with a historical romance novel addiction, my reading never veered into the m/m romance category. Yes, I read and loved the Lord John Grey series by Diana Gabaldon, but despite Overdrive’s categorization to the contrary, they aren’t really romance novels. I was completely unaware that I could find the same tension, angst, and romance in existing historicals with a gay twist. This was mostly due to reader-blinders, or specifically, publisher-blinders. Most of the historical romance novels available at my public library (my entree into the world of romance) are from major publishers like Avon, St. Martin’s Press and Berkley, which are decidedly heterosexual/normative romance publishers. Had it not been for Jay’s infectiously enthusiastic love of m/m romance (and stellar recommendations), I would not have recently read two excellent historicals.
This Edwardian romance takes a classic historical trope–scandal at a house party–and pairs it with an intriguing mystery. The two romantic leads–Captain Archie Curtis and Daniel da Silva–embody two very different versions of turn-of-the-century manhood. Where Archie is the bro-iest of military bros (and has the war wounds to prove it), Daniel is effete, sardonic, and decidedly queer. The two become entangled when their hidden motives for attending the house party lead them to a darkened study late one night and force them into a relationship neither one expected.
Although the whodunnit storyline is the driver behind the plot, the romance gives the story substance. It is not, as one would guess from the juxtaposition of the two protagonists, a supremely loving romance at first. Archie’s disgust at Daniel’s effeminate public persona was at times, a bit overwhelming for me. It was clear that our dear captain was protesting just a wee bit too much. Although I understood the need for Archie to grow and accept his own hidden desires, the homophobic language was a bit shocking to my modern, liberal sensisbilities. Archie’s journey to love and self-acceptance was a rough one, so I thought Charles was smart to include a character like Daniel, who was not only comfortable in his own skin but willing to play up his queerness when it worked to his advantage.
Think of England offered interesting commentary on Edwardian manhood, coupled with issues of class and ethnicity. Daniel’s “otherness” derives as much from his non-conforming gender performance as from his identity as an Italian Jew. He’s a stark contrast to Archie’s bland stereotypical public persona, and manages to draw out his hidden depths. I was thinking about this romance long after reading its stunning conclusion.
WHERE DO I BEGIN?!?!?!?
Unnatural is absolutely everything I personally love in romance with a GLBT twist. All my favorite tropes are played out in the most wonderful way possible: childhood love growing up, heartbreak and betrayal, second chances and absolutely grand reconciliations. This soon-to-be-released novel is a satellite story in Chamber’s Enlightenment trilogy (which I am devouring right now; review to come). It features the charismatic Captain Iain Sinclair and shy scientist James Hart, whose close boyhood friendship becomes fraught with romantic longing as the two grow into manhood.
Iain is magnetic. Men and women are drawn to his stunning good looks, affable nature, and considerable charm, but it’s James who truly knows Iain. James has been smitten with Iain since they were children. What started as boyhood hero-worship grew into a love that broke James’ heart and left Iain bereft of his best friend. Years later, as Iain is poised to move to India, he returns for one last family gathering in hopes that he and James can salvage the best of their complicated relationship. James wants love and all of Iain, but Iain isn’t quite ready to make that leap of faith.
WHEW. Can you feel the romantic angst already?
There’s a bit of back-in-forth in this novel, with Chambers deftly transitioning between the critical turning points in Iain and James’ relationship, both “now” and “then.” It’s a plot device I love because it gives the most fantastic backstory and build up to the inevitable happily-ever-after. That said, I know it’s one that some readers find problematic (I am not one of those readers).
Unlike the protagonists in Think of England, both Iain and James understand and accept their homosexuality. The problem isn’t with lust, it’s with love. As Iain so often mentions, he “never goes with the same man twice” and has managed to divorce sex from any deeper emotion. With James he would have both physical and emotional intimacy, which is terrifying. James was all in, heart and body, but Iain’s fickle reactions to their sexual encounters leave him heartbroken. It’s up to Iain to repair their relationship and prove that he can love with his heart as well as his body.
I cannot say enough fantastic things about this novel. I read it in about a day and a half and it’s a story I’ll be turning to again and again on cold, rainy days. It’s a total comfort read.
Rating: ALL THE STARS, A+++