Monthly Archives: September 2018

Point of Sighs – Melissa Scott (Lethe Press)

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Melissa Scott has returned to Astreiant! Scott first invited us to Astreiant in 1995 in Point of Hopes, followed by Point of Dreams (both co-authored with her late partner Lisa A. Barnett), and continued since then by Point of Knives and Fairs’ Point, and now by Point of Sighs. Each of these novels is basically a police procedural, clothed in the garb of fantasy, and set in the quasi-Renaissance city-state of Astreiant. Nicolas Rathe, the protagonist, is an adjunct pointsman, charged with investigating crimes and keeping the peace within the various districts of Astreiant. His leman, Philip Eslingen, is a foreign mercenary hired to be a captain in the newly formed City Guard—who are suppose to police only the city’s nobility and the land outside the city walls. The various points stations, however, fear that the Guard will encroach upon their traditional spheres of authority.

It appears that the points’ fears are justified. As Point of Sighs begins, an unusually rainy autumn has delayed merchants’ ships from abroad; when the murder of a sea captain hired by a tea merchant in Point of Dreams (Nico’s district) occurs in the neighboring Point of Sighs, the merchant family implicated by the murder employs Philip as a neutral party between the rival points stations. The rivalry only escalates when a senior pointsman from Point of Sighs is found murdered, and Nico is tasked with solving the case. Meanwhile, the higher than usual rate of river-drowned (and dogfish-eaten) corpses fuel rumors of the return of the legendary Riverdeme, a hungry spirit that haunted the River Sier but has been bound for centuries, who formerly was appeased by the sacrifice of beautiful young men. It is up to Nico and Philip together to uncover the connection between these distinct happenings, hopefully before the Riverdeme breaks free from her bindings.

More than just the latest in a series of supernatural mystery novels, Scott also continues to chronicle the evolving relationship between Nico and Philip. For not only do they need to navigate the complexities brought about by the potential conflicts between their professional relationships against their personal relationship, their still new relationship is tested by the appearance of Balfort de Vian, an attractive young candidate for the City Guard, who has developed an unrequited love for Philip—and who also has ties to the mercantile family under suspicion of the murder.

Characterization is Scott’s strength: all of her characters, from the two main protagonists to familiar recurring secondary characters to those with “walk-on” roles all appear as fully realized people, set in an equally realized and vivid place. Moreover, in a subtle subversion of gender roles, women—who rule the home, the domestic sphere—therefore hold most of the positions of authority in Astreiant: a Queen rules over the city, and the City Council, and most of the points stations, guilds, etc., are led by women. As a corollary to this, just as many of the characters are involved in same-sex relationships as not, so that Nico and Philip’s relationship is not viewed as unusual in any way, aside from Philip being non-native to Astreiant.

A rich, complex novel, Scott deftly weaves these disparate narrative strands and more together into a satisfying continuation of the stories of Nico and Philip.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Naked Launch, Book Two – Neil J. Weston (Riverdale Avenue Books)

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The gay pulp novel was a significant innovation in the early history of gay literature and publishing. Though underground and only available to readers in the know, gay pulp boldly portrayed sex and relationships in a way mainstream books could only do through coded language and allegory, and even then most often as stories of loneliness and tragedy. Many titles are out of distribution, and happily Riverdale Avenue Books recently took up re-printing some favorites from the 1960s and 1970s as Classic Queer Pulp Fiction editions under their 120 Days imprint. Their most recent release is Neil J. Weston’s Naked Launch 2, the continuation of a very randy pirate saga.

Originally published as a two-book series in 1968 and 1969, Naked Launch is essentially the story of a love affair between two seafaring Brits in the 17th century. Only the second book was available on NetGalley, but with Maitland McDonagh’s effective introduction and the simple structure of the story, Naked Launch 2 surely works fine as a standalone and a first foray into gay pulp.

Alan and Malcolm found each other as teenagers, two marginal youths seeking adventure and opportunity on the high seas. But they had to get through imprisonment and torture by the Spanish navy to reunite. The second book picks up with their campaign to recruit a crew of like-minded fellows to sail back to the Caribbean and take vengeance on the Spanish. They name their ship Ballocks Delight, enlist an assortment of horny, cock-loving sailors, and embark on a run of raiding and sinking King Charles II’s galleys, along with a ton of below-deck debauchery.

That’s largely the extent of plot for Weston’s tale, which for its purposes favors scenes of sailor-to-sailor fellatio and frottage over exploring the more consequential conflicts that might arise from such a quest. Weston, a penname by the way, achieves a satisfying sense of time and place through nautical terms and dialogue, but this is a story to be enjoyed in context and with a wry shrugging off of disbelief. Alan and Malcolm’s crew are one-and-all easy compatriots to their cause, the freedom to share their bodies sufficient motivation to risk life and limb. A hardened pego – a period term – is never far aloft aboard the ship, and most ridiculously of all, the men are aroused to full mast when they storm the enemy. In Alan’s words, calling his men to arms: “’Twill be a fast battle, with our pegos raised as high as our cutlasses!”

Their pirate flag is, of course, a skull-and-crossbones composed of erect penises. If that sounds to you like the stuff of a middle schooler’s imagination, ‘twould be right. But for readers who can stay with the story’s hypersexualized antics, the book has a surprisingly compelling through-line and uplifting convictions for the wounded queer soul.

Alan and Malcolm are two men in love trying to make what we would now call an open relationship work. While Alan’s zesty sex drive leads him to play around with his shipmates, often in twos and threes and more, above all, he’s emotionally committed to his partner. They are faced with the common reality of having mismatched libidos, and Weston’s handling of that issue is straightforward and dare I say instructive. Malcolm, who may have some manner of erectile dysfunction, tolerates Alan screwing around, though his jealousy comes to the fore in their moments alone. For his part, Alan is frustrated by his inability to get a rise from his partner, questioning his own desirability, which weighs heavy on him since he was rendered completely hairless after recovering from a tropical fever.

Yet rather than leaving their problem to stew and growing distant from one another, they talk it out, naturally over a steamy scene of pirate bondage. This is foremost an erotic escapade after all. Still, their choice to take the issue head-on is nicely portrayed. They arrive at mutual understanding, compromise, and a re-validation that each of them is who the other wants.

Moreover, the story provides a lovely vision of how things could and should be for gay men in the world. Written in the late sixties, one can imagine a bit of the free love movement and gay liberation sloganeering swarming inside the author’s brain. Consider this excerpt from one of Alan’s rousing speeches:

Strip a man of his clothing and let him be proud of his pego and ballocks and he becomes a beautiful creature. Given cause he can fight ferociously, and yet with pego aroused for pleasure he can love tenderly, much preferring loving to fighting.

Once they reach the warm Caribbean, Captain Alan insists that his crew shuck their clothes, and not merely for easy hijinks. They are a company of naked pirates proudly thumbing their noses at convention, and their reputation attracts persecuted gay men eager to find a place where they belong. The couple manage their ship as a kind of utopian commune:

There was to be equality among the men, whether a ranking office or a ship’s youth, with sharing of the same tables and quarters.

We see little of the day-to-day challenges that come along with realizing such an egalitarian fraternity on open water, though again, that’s not Weston’s interest. It’s a story about the possibility of sexual freedom and the triumph of gay love. Besides Alan and Malcolm, many members of their crew find lifelong partnerships through their orgiastic journey. Those storylines are told with great melodrama, but they are heartwarming and truthful about the way gay men discover friendships and loving relationships both historically and today.

The book’s strident idealism is in fact what makes the story so engaging. Alan and Malcolm set sail with the purpose: to free the enslaved, punish the enslavers and find an island paradise where man could love man and always be free.

With that mission statement, who could resist signing up to join the Ballocks Delight? Not I.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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Beowulf for Cretins – Ann McMan (Bywater Books)

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I’d never read Ann McMan before, but I’ll be certain to cover her in future if her latest, Beowulf for Cretins, is representative. I love watching a pro at work, making the most of the gifts she has. For McMan, it’s farcical romance as smart as it is smartly-written, packed with solid characters and twisted just a tetch.

Grace Warner, unpublished novelist and English professor at a New England college, meets a woman named Abbie on an airplane. By coincidence, they are both friends of the same woman and wind up at the same party. By less of a coincidence, they sleep together. Grace intends for them to go their separate ways but that proves impossible when Abbie is named the first woman president of the institution at which Grace teaches. Toss in a jealous academic rival angling for the only tenured slot in the department, and you have lots of obstacles getting in the way of that happy ending.

McMan takes an improbable coincidence and makes it work smoothly. In fact, so much about this book is smooth. The plot turns are handled with aplomb and grace, the characters are developed with ease, and the dialogue is funny. If, at times, the latter in particular seems a bit too glib, that’s a small price to pay for the smiles induced as McMan delights in dangling Abbie in front of Grace–and vice versa.

If I was to offer any suggestion up at all, it would be that Bryce–Grace’s rival for tenure–doesn’t seem threatening enough for the feat he attempts to pull off to improve his chances over Grace. He has no fangs and doesn’t present the obstacle to their future that he could have if he’d been portrayed a shade more evilly. But Grace and Abbie are dead-on, as are most of the other major and minor characters. I particularly liked CK, a mutual friend of theirs who also teaches at the college. And McMan has a way with sitcom scenes, such as Grace climbing the thorny vines outside Abbie’s bedroom window that make them not only plausible but natural.

Beowulf for Cretins (Grace’s rather dispiriting assessment of the classes she teaches) is a smoothly entertaining romance that will leave you grinning at both the book and the author’s assured style. It’s really a perfect summer read.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

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