Hidden Conflict by Alex Beecroft, Mark R. Probst, Jordan Taylor, and E. N. Holland (Cheyenne Publishing)

Buy it Now at All Romance Books.

I hope no one minds if I call Hidden Conflict an excellent collection of short novels, as opposed to the publisher’s description of the book as a group of four “novellas.” You see, I’ve always agreed with Katherine Anne Porter’s opinion that novella is “a slack, boneless, affected word that we do not need to describe anything.” She much preferred the term “short novel,”and so do I.

I had to get my grumbling over with in the above paragraph,because honestly, from here on out I don’t have much to complain about in Hidden Conflict. The idea of collecting tales of gay military men from different periods in history is a great one, and we can instantly grasp the significance of the title: these men face not only the overt conflict of battle but also the inner conflicts that most gay men come to know, no matter where or when they have lived.

Don’t let the peaceful-sounding title of the first work in this volume, Blessed Isle, fool you; this narrative is a perfect example of what would happen if Murphy’s Law and the dictum “life is just one damned thing after another” got married. Set in1790, Captain Harry Thompson of the HMS Banshee falls in love with his lieutenant, Garnet Littleton, during the ship’s first—and last—voyage. Garnet is smitten also, but what these men have to endure will have you white-knuckled with anxiety: pestilence, mutiny, storms, shipwreck, and even a death sentence.

Alex Beecroft, who is at the top of her game as a writer of historical fiction, makes a shrewd tradeoff here. By framing the story as a series of alternating journal entries by the two men, she robs the narrative of any suspense regarding the outcome—obviously these guys live to tell their tale. But she balances out that choice by creating characters that you care about—you want to know how these guys get out of the scrapes they’re in. And the settings are so vivid that you are completely drawn into the writing. It’s a great read.

The next entry in the book, Mark R. Probst’s Not to Reason Why, tells about two U.S. Cavalry soldiers in 1876, marching from North Dakota to Montana to do battle with Indians. Hmmm, something about that place and time seems familiar, doesn’t it? When we learn, very soon, that their commanding officer is Lieutenant Colonel Armstrong Custer, a sense of oh-I-don’t-feel-good-about-this touches the heart like the cold tip of an arrow.

As in Blessed Isle,this short novel sacrifices some suspense by making at least part of its outcome a foregone conclusion: we know there’s disaster ahead. But the urge to learn the exact fates of the two soldiers, Brett Price and Dermot Kerrigan—the former desperately in love with the latter, who is of course straight and doesn’t have a clue—keeps us reading. I haven’t read many accounts of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but the description here is unforgettable.

No Darkness is a tour de force. For this World War I drama about two men trapped in a cellar somewhere on the Western Front, author Jordan Taylor gives herself the challenge of having to move most of the story forward through dialogue alone. She accomplishes this so skillfully that it’s easy to imagine this work as a radio play (with a few terrifying sound effects). The delicate bond formed between the two men—one an officer, one a private; one (mostly?) straight, one gay—feels authentic in every way.

Our One and Only is a different sort of tale because it’s about two lovers who are permanently separated by war. Young Eddie Fiske is killed in France, leaving his lover, Phil Cormier, to try to make a life of his own in their home town of Baltimore.As the story follows Phil across four decades, we see him struggle to let go of his love for Eddie, or at least find a way of breaking its hold on his life.

Our One and Only misfires only when an anachronism drops into the dialogue; for example, the expression “on the down low” didn’t exist fifty years ago. But the emotional reality of the story is genuine all the way, and Phil’s climactic confrontation with his grief and anger, and the hopeful aftermath, provides a catharsis for the reader as well.

As a whole, Hidden Conflict is an eloquent reminder that lives lost in battle can never be replaced.If that seems like a simple lesson to learn, then why can’t the bloodthirsty nations of the world—including our own—take it to heart?

Reviewed by Wayne Courtois

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