Review: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

The Ballad of Black Tom coverI’m reading a bunch of horror and weird fiction and not so much queer fiction at the moment. (If only I could combine the two more often.) As I’m editing some at the moment and want to get in the right head space, I’ve been hunting down modern Lovecraft inspired stuff, particularly written from the point of view of marginalised groups. I may post more about that in general, at a later date. For now, here’s a review of Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, which was recently voted a Hugo finalist.

The novella is a retelling of Lovecraft’s short story, ‘The Horror at Red Hook’. The original is considered to be one of Lovecraft’s most racist and xenophobic stories, so LaValle has taken it and switched it, with Tommy Tester, a black hustler from Harlem as the main character. The story is split between Tommy Tester’s point of view and that of the original Red Hook character, the white Irish police detective, Malone.

I love the premise for this and I love the first half, where Tester hustles on the edge of the occult world, passing dubious items across New York’s different neighbourhoods, using his guitar case as transportation. Tester wants a different life from his parents, who broke themselves working hard manual jobs for white men. When Tester meets Robert Sudyam, a wealthy occultist, he’s invited into the heart of Red Hook’s occult scene.

The story plays with ideas of otherness and monsters. The original Lovecraft story is invested with a powerful sense of alienation and Lovecraft’s trademark fear of the unknown. LaValle challenges the whole concept of the unknown in his story—showing the neighbourhoods he frequents as homes and communities, rather than seething pits if horror, as Lovecraft saw them, and celebrating the diversity within.

When police brutality and corruption pushes him to the edge, Tester embraces his monstrous identity and uses his power for revenge. The story poses and doesn’t resolve the question of what is the right way to live under the sort of systemic abuse Tester and his parents experience and I think that lack of resolution works well for the tone of the story.

I think the retelling is successful, both as weird fiction and a way to explore these themes, but the second half for me was a bit weaker. It focuses on Malone, but is often omniscient. It felt a little distant and not quite as intense as I’d hoped in the horror sections. Saying that, it’s still a good story, but the first half is much stronger. It’s also satisfying to see writers being uncompromising about the broken aspects of early spec fic writing, whilst also paying them homage; it’s a tricky balance and I think LaValle gets it right.

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Queer Book Club: The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

The Gracekeepers cover

The Gracekeepers is a fantasy novel set in a flooded future world, though the fantasy elements are quite low key, reminiscent of fairy tales. Callanish works as a Gracekeeper, performing death rites for those who live at sea (known as Damplings). North is a performer in a floating circus, who dances with a bear. Although they live very different lives, they’re joined by secrets and the dangerous superstitions of those who live on land (known as Landlockers).

I picked this up on the strength of a short story collection of Kirsty Logan’s (The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales), and wasn’t disappointed. Logan writes beautifully and I found myself once again clicking with her style and subject matter. The floating circus is a mess of simmering rivalries and conflicting ambitions, as they float from island to island, shocking and titillating the conservative Landlockers with their mix of gender bending and satire.

Beyond the style, the world building really grabbed me. There are lots of little details and observations which brought the flooded world alive, particularly around beliefs and superstitions.

The story is told in third person, from various different points of view. As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that every character has a yearning and every character is keeping secrets. Despite the various points of view, North and Callanish are the best developed and deepest characters, and it’s really their story. There is a striking sense of loneliness and isolation, of people misunderstanding one another and failing to communicate.

It’s quite a difficult book to talk about without running into spoilers, so I’ll make this a short one. The Gracekeepers is a mournful book about finding your place in the world, even if that place is only one small island and one small family you choose yourself.

Gods and Insects Playlist

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Vanitas by Simon Renard de  Saint-Andre, Public Domain

I know a lot of writers like to work to music. I tend to write best in silence, which is not very exciting. I do occasionally put together playlists for inspiration (and procrastination). However, I get to be extra lazy here, because my friend has made an amazing one for me, to go with one of my vamp novellas. Here’s the gothtastic playlist for my second vampire novella, Gods and Insects, in all its glory, courtesy of Johnny Truant.

Gods and Insect Playlist on 8Tracks.

As 8Tracks has a weird licensing thing outside the US, here’s a track list, in case anything skips (it does for me, in the UK).

  1. Spellbound – Siouxie and the Banshees
  2. Nocturnal Me – Echo and the Bunnymen
  3. Kill Your Sons – Rozz Williams
  4. The Fix – Bloody Dead and Sexy
  5. The Sanity Assassin – Bauhaus
  6. Figurative Theatre – Christian Death
  7. Radiant Boys – The March Violets
  8. Man on Fire – Silent Scream
  9. His Box – Dalis Car
  10. Lion King – Ghosting
  11. Day of the Lords – Joy Division
  12. Ruins – O. Children
  13. Cernunnos – Faith and The Muse
  14. Penance and Pain – Soper Aeternus and The Ensemble of Shadows
  15. Sebastiane – Sex Gang Children
  16. Sharp Fangs, Pale Flesh – Coliseum
  17. The Drowning – Christian Death
  18. My Kingdom – Echo and the Bunnymen

 

 

Writing Sex Scenes without Sex

 

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Sometimes a heart shaped lock is just a lock and sometimes it’s a not very subtle sexual metaphor.

Here’s a little ponder about the craft of writing sex scenes. It could just as accurately be titled Writing Poetic Sex.

 

Once upon a time, I guess like a lot of writers, I found writing sex scenes embarrassing. Writing and critiquing erotica broke me of that squeamishness. Now, if I write a sex scene or erotic scene, I tend to write it in a fairly frank manner, but recently, I’ve become intrigued by sex scenes that are less literal. I’ve come across a few that caught my attention, whilst reading, that are much more metaphorical, figurative, poetic. Sometimes, they can feel distant and floaty—maybe (especially in YA) the writer wants to focus more on emotions and less on the physical aspects. Other times, the metaphors and figurative language end up being just as smutty and visceral as a more physical account would have been. I’ve found a couple of examples from books I’ve read recently, to illustrate what I mean. They fit broadly into these two camps.

This scene, in Tanith Lee’s The Book of the Damned, caught my eye. The style of this collection of novellas is quite overwrought and gothic (in a good way), with supernatural elements. The way she uses language in this scene suits the style of the work and the intangible, changing nature of the characters. The erotic charge is there, but the physical aspects are intertwined with figurative language.

Ecstasy was always near, it came and went, swelling, singing, widening, never finished, never begun. Her coldness was warm now, like the snow. Her lips which had come to my throat so quietly, had begun to burn. Her lips were fire. She threw me down and down, into the caverns of the night, where sometimes, far away, I heard myself groan, or her murmuring voice like a feather drifting….

Tanith Lee (1990), The Book of the Damn, p.37, The Overlook Press: Woodstock, NY

This second scene is from When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore. This is a YA novel and I’ve found it’s not unusual to focus on thoughts and emotions in YA, but the writing style is particularly poetic in this one.

She was shutting every window in this house and scaring them off with the light from Sam’s moons. It was just him, and her, his fingers flicking against her like the hot light of falling stars, her touching him in the best way she knew to remind him there was no distance, no contradiction between the body he had and a boy called Samir.

Anna-Marie McLemore (2016), When the Moon Was Ours, p.183, Thomas Dunne Books: New York, NY

Within a story, a sex scene can be important for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it suits the style of the story to aim for something less literal. Sometimes it suits the emotional or narrative purpose better. Sometimes it’s fun to add a little variety. It’s a more emotionally engaging approach than fading to black, if a writer doesn’t want to have a graphic scene but still wants sex to feature in the story. Even if there are physical aspects, as well, it’s useful to broaden the possibilities for approaching these scenes, which can run the risk of being samey.

Thinking about this, I realise that, even though I tend to write my sex scenes in a literal way, I just wrote a vampire novella with a bunch of trippy blood drinking sessions, full of symbolic fragments of the characters’ subconscious. Blood drinking often takes the place of sex in vampire fiction (you could say the whole of gothic fiction is a pile of symbolic fears and desires); it fills a few different functions in mine. So, I guess I’ve already been writing symbolic sex, to an extent, but it’s useful to reflect on the technique, in a more conscious way, and think about the possibilities across a variety of genres.

The Ides of March

To mark the Ides of March, my writing buddy and font of gothic inspiration, Jack Swift, is sharing an excerpt from The Conspirators, his deliciously gothic take on the twisted relationship between Cassius and Brutus, following their act of tyrannicide. You can find out more about Jack’s work, and his upcoming novel, Nik’s Revenge Road Trip Mixtape on facebook, or pre-order it here.

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The Death of Caesar by Jean-Leon Gerome, public domain.

THE IDES OF MARCH

I.

Sleep has not come for me tonight. I lay for hours tossing and turning and trying every trick I know of to quiet the mind, all in vain. In time, I grew tired of the stifling air in the bedroom, thick with my tensions and anxiety for tomorrow.

Throwing the sheets aside, I rise and dress myself. Watery moonlight breaks through the clouds and pours in at the window, and a soft breeze stirs the curtains, as if to beckon me outside. I obey it, and my inclinations.

Once I have the grimy cobblestones of a back alley under my feet, I feel a little bit better. I have come, in the past year, to associate such places with relief. Let others shake in their shoes, fearing for their purse or their honor (if they be not one and the same). I know the dirtiest corners of Rome now in the same way that I used to know great classics of Homer and Euripides: by heart. Like a spider that spins its web in a cellar, I have come to belong in such dark places.

I wander, letting my feet take me where they will. Having no clear destination in mind, I find myself near my favorite den of sin. My feet slow as I approach it. The door is partly ajar, casting a streak of reddish lamplight across the wet pavement. Dark figures of men lurk around it. I contemplate how easy it could be to sleep. For the price of a few silver coins, and some of my dignity, I can have my way with one of these young brutes by letting him have his way with me. You can be sure I will sleep soundly then, though I may wake up bruised.

With an effort of will, I walk past the establishment. Several pairs of resentful eyes fairly burn holes in my back, but I don’t care. During the past months I have done my damnedest to purge myself of vile habits. I must be clean for the work that I have to do tomorrow. It is this vital work, and not dumb lust, that separates me from the embrace of dreams tonight. Tonight, the secret to rest will not be found in a stranger’s ungentle clutches. Calm will only come when tomorrow’s task is well and truly finished. So much hangs on tomorrow. I will sleep when it is over.

It begins to rain. I welcome the cold drops splashing against my skin. The wind picks up, lashing them into a stinging barrage. I wrap my cloak more tightly about me, lower my head, and walk on.

My steps take me out of the Subara’s squalor, and into the quiet, well-kept avenues of the Palatine. I should feel out of place among these fine houses, with my hair tangled and drenched from the wind and rain, my cloak sodden, my boots covered in mud. I do not, because no one is around to censure. In fact, the silence of these wealthy neighborhoods is so complete that I am put in mind of catacombs. To amuse myself, I imagine that all the mansions are abandoned, their masters and mistresses long dead, and rats the only occupants left.

I stop outside the gates of a dreary, palatial building. There are roses growing over the fence, their fragrance sweet and surprising in the cold of night. I reach up to finger velvety white petals. They are covered with raindrops which cling to my skin when I take my hand away. Trying to wipe my fingers dry on my damp shirt, I stare up at the manor with a mixture of longing and dread. It seems that there was a destination to my late night ramblings after all, whether I wanted to admit it or not. I let out a sigh that mists on the chilly air.

“Cassius?” The voice speaks from out of the dark. It takes a minute for me to locate it as coming from the other side of the wall. I step up to the gate and peer through it, straining to see through the dim.

“Brutus, it’s I,” I call. I lace my fingers through the grating and wait.

In a moment I see him approach, his face a white blur through the dark and rain. His footfalls are unhurried but firm. As he draws near, I am better able to make out his features, handsome and balanced as if by mathematical formula, but pulled from equilibrium by some cruder human element. The corners of his mouth draw down, his brow furrows, and his eyes seem to gaze inward at some troubling paradox. On anyone else, the expression would be called thoughtful, and not altogether happy. But I know Brutus, well enough to know how deep his Stoic convictions really run, and to see such a look on his face rends my heart as though I had come upon him weeping.

He steps right up to the gate, close enough that I can feel the warmth of him even through the rain, but he makes no move to open it. His eyes are stern.

“Why have you come here?” he demands of me.

It hurts, to have him not trust me. It hurts more to know that he should not. I lower my eyes to hide my pain from him.

“I thought perhaps you would need to speak with me, before tomorrow.”

“Why?” His response is too quick, too sharp. It cuts me.

I raise my eyes to him. “Because we cannot succeed together unless we have an understanding.”

“I understand you all too well, Cassius.” His tone is withering.

I clench my fingers around the bars of the gate. “Then let me understand,” I plead. “My brother, may I not come in?”

He looks away, then slowly shakes his head. At least he has enough shame that he needs to avert his eyes while denying me. “Go get some sleep, Cassius. After all, you’ve no conscience to keep you from it.”

That galls me. I let out a breath that hisses through my gritted teeth. “Why should you complain of conscience? You know that what we do is right.”

He clenches his jaw, saying nothing. I persist, pressing my advantage.

“It would be wrong to do nothing. If I were to lose my mind and decide at this point to take no action, I pray that I should never sleep through a night again in all my life. What we are to do tomorrow may be bloody, but if we stand by and permit, democracy dies. Will you allow that, Brutus?”

He shakes his head again, this time slower still, and more slightly. My fingers are still clenched in the mesh of the gate. He closes his own over them, and lets his hand rest on mine. The warmth of his skin shocks me, like something too intimate and sudden. His wrist is pressed against my thumb, and I can feel his pulse. The contact only lasts for a moment before he abruptly withdraws his hand, almost as if recoiling from me, and turns away.

“Perhaps I did need to hear you speak,” he murmurs, with his back to me. “Go home, Cassius, and sleep the sleep of heroes.”

I laugh softly, relieved at hearing wryness in his tone. It means that we were friends again, at least for a little while.

“You are too much the philosopher, Brutus,” I return. “Don’t spend all night in your garden.”

He nods wearily, as if to dismiss me, then turns on his heel and walks towards the house. As I watch him go, I feel my heart lighten with the sheer awe of his beauty. Brutus is a man who by his mere existence makes the world more a more worthy place. Every breath he draws is a triumph for all that is clean, honest, and in danger of dying out. His innocence is precious and rare. Nothing must ever be allowed to ruin it, I decide. Tenderly, I make a silent pledge to safeguard it, let come what may.

“Good night, my lord,” I murmur. I kiss my hand in the direction of his house, a gesture of love tossed into oblivion, never to be received. As I walk back home, the sky is already beginning to lighten, and all this night I have not closed my eyes.

II.

I pass the remaining hours until dawn with Euripides, in the shadows of my library. Of all the rooms in my house, this one is the finest and best kept. Junia has no hand about it, and neither do any of the slaves save one, who I allow to come in and sweep daily. The rest of its upkeep, which is to say the cataloging and organization of my books, I tend to myself. This is important because the scrolls are ordered purely according to my own logic. Whenever I allow visitors into this chamber, which is rarely, they examine the labels and shake their heads, unable to fathom why I would keep Symposium next to Lysistrata. Mad Cassius, they think to themselves– he of the late night walks and cryptic bookcases.

The single taper by which I read casts flickering shadows over the walls. The fountain in the center of the room throws ghostly reflections of light onto the ceiling. Its noise lulls me like Euripides’ poetry as I read about Medea slaughtering her children. For a time I almost forget what it is that I must do today. Eventually, I even doze off.

When I wake, it is daylight. The candle has burned down to a pool of hardened wax on the table, and my scroll has fallen from my hands onto the floor. I groan and squeeze my eyes shut, not ready to face the morning.

“Father.” The voice belongs to my son, Marcus. I open my eyes and see him standing in the doorway. By the tone of his voice, he is repeating himself. Perhaps it was him calling that originally roused me from sleep. A normally quiet and sedate boy, he is grinning from ear to ear, his face flushed. His hair has been neatly cut, and his cheeks, so boyishly downy when I saw him yesterday, are perfectly clean and smooth.

“Oh, Marcus!” I exclaim, sitting upright. “You should’ve wakened me!”

He shrugs and looks away, scuffing his toe on the floor. “Mother wanted to, but you were sleeping like the dead. It’s all right.”

I shake my head. “It most certainly is not all right. You only shave for the first time once. I should have been there, and you should have wakened me.”

I am being too stern. His face has fallen. My son does not know me well. I am, regrettably, a mostly absent father, always off to war or out on business. Though I have never raised my hand to him or his mother, I know that he fears me. It breaks my heart that I have only a few hours today to make up for sixteen years of coldness and neglect.

“Come here, my boy,” I say, as gently as I can.

He ambles towards me, hesitant and shy. He is so coltish, still, with his long arms and legs, his large skittish eyes. He looks like my wife’s side of the family, fortunate for him: tall, fair, and with harmonious features. He is the image of his mother, Junia, just as Junia is of her brother, Brutus.

When he is near enough, I take his face between my palms, feeling the smoothness of young skin newly devoid of hair. He looks back at me, his expression open and unabashed, not frightened anymore, but merely curious. I realize that, in spite of all my shortcomings, I still have the essential trust of this child. It is a gift more precious than any I have ever dreamed of receiving, and it moves me more than the greatest poetry.

“Look at yourself,” I say huskily, “You were a boy, not so long ago.”

I lean forward and kiss him on the brow. He blushes furiously, rolls his eyes, and tries to twist away. “Papa,” he says, protesting.

I laugh and tousle his hair. “Don’t worry, Marcus. This is the last time I will ever do that to you.”

Tears stab at my eyes as I let go and allow him to step away. Yet at the same time I am smiling, savoring a pure and wholesome happiness. It encourages me to know that, even today, I can find joy. Perhaps I am still a human being after all, rather than the entirely political creature I sometimes fear I am becoming.

“My boy,” I say to him, “Today, you become a man.”

And so will I, I add to myself, as I follow him from the room.

 

III.

My wife, Junia, accosts us in the hallway. She is elegantly dressed and bejeweled beyond our means, and altogether looks what I suppose one would call ‘beautiful.’ Her dark red curls, which inflame other men and leave me so unpleasantly cold, are wound into a coil at the nape of her neck. Her lips have been painted the color of fresh blood.

“Cassius, you’re not even dressed yet!” she chides. “Hurry, or we’ll be late for the augury.”

I open my mouth to rebuke her for nagging. Then I think of Marcus, so happy on this most important day of his young life, and snap it shut again. Grumbling, I allow myself to be spousally shepherded into the bedroom, there to cast off my cloak and tunic from last night with bad grace. But when Junia tries to come at me with my toga, I snap my fingers for an attendant to do it instead. I would rather trust a slave with this intimate task than allow my own wife to come so close to my body. So instead of helping to attire me, the said wife stands a few feet off, watching with a snakelike stare.

“You were out all night,” she accuses.

I glance over my shoulder, checking for Marcus. I can see him through the open doorway. He is in the atrium, stroking a kitten’s belly while it lazes in a patch of sun. Though he pretends to be otherwise occupied, I know he is listening.

“I had business,” I reply.

Junia rolls her eyes. She thinks she knows just what I am talking about. On any other morning after, she would almost be right.

“Don’t you think you can carry on your nocturnal business some other time?” she venomously inquires.

I round on her, sharply tugging the half-wound toga from the slave’s hands in the process.

“Junia, so help me,” I hiss. “If you make a scene today, I will toss you back into the gutter where I found you.”

Junia’s eyes go wide. She has been stunned into silence. Well she might be startled—I have just escalated the ongoing conflict that is our marriage. Never, in all our miserable years together, have I alluded either to the state of her reputation when I took her to wife, or to the possibility of divorce. I did not avoid these topics because it would have been ungallant to bring them up, oh no. In point of fact, I have not been gallant to Junia in fifteen years. I avoided them, rather, because to speak of either would’ve further eroded the slippery ground we already stood on, and sent the argument into a downward slide towards the dangerous topic of Brutus. To admit aloud that I married her, and remained married to her, as a favor to him, would incense her to fling out wild accusations. Doing so, she might accidentally hit on painful truths. I can imagine the conversation and the turns it would take all too clearly, down to the look on her face as she spits: “You’re married to Brutus, not me.” If those words should ever be spoken, I know, I will break down very quickly.

She does not say them now. Instead, she sits down heavily on the bed. To my secret horror, she begins to cry. Marcus, in the atrium, cannot see her from where he sits, and I pray that he cannot hear. She must be having the same thought because she is quiet about it, uncharacteristically self controlled as she stifles her sobs with a little clenched fist and wipes her eyes with her sleeve.

“Why today, Cassius?” she entreats.

I sigh. I’m not good with crying women at the best of times, and now is most certainly no exception. I tell her the truth, but only because I know she won’t understand it.

“Because today is too important,” I say coldly, and turn away.

Junia dries her eyes and endeavors to compose herself as the slave puts the finishing touches on my toga.  The sound of heavy knocking at the door reaches us just as he is making the final fold. My heart leaps into my throat.

“Marcus, go see who it is,” I call, though I already know.

There is a pattering of sandaled feet as Marcus hurries to obey, then the creak of an old door, and a low murmur of voices. I free myself from the servant’s ministrations as quickly as I can, and go into the hallway.

The entry is full of somber, well dressed men. They are taking turns shaking Marcus’ hand and gravely congratulating him on reaching manhood. The boy looks terrified by this influx of strange adults, whose names, he suspects, he is supposed to remember. He mumbles awkward homilies and blushes furiously. Poor boy, I think with sour humor. If he is frightened of them now, how much more so would he be if he could know their true purpose here. He has not seen them as I have, hooded and cloaked, gathered by the light of one smoky candle to lay their grim plans in the dead of night. I have been one of them. What would he think of his father if he could have watched me then?

“Gentlemen,” I greet them. “I will be right with you.”

I slip back into the bedroom, just as Junia comes out of it, and takes in the size of the company with wide eyes.

“I had no idea so many people were coming, Cassius,” she whispers to me. “I would’ve been sterner with the help about the cleaning.”

I have to smile at this. Strange how such little concerns can still loom large in the minds of those who have nothing better to think about. “It is, after all, a very great occasion,” I say cryptically, and shut the door in her face.

The moment I am alone, I breathe a sigh of pure relief. I lean back against the door and take a few seconds to collect myself. This room is rather dark in the morning, with the window facing west and last night’s taper burned down. I make my way over to the desk, and unlock its drawer by sense of touch. The thing I am looking for glitters dully in the dim. I pull it out from where it lies on top of a pile of papers. It is a dagger, about the length of my forearm from hilt to point, more than long enough to run a man’s heart through. Its edge is hard and sharp, its balance exquisite. I run my finger along it, for the sheer pleasure of seeing a drop of blood blossom at the tip. My reflection, dark and elongated, stares at me out of the blade. My eyes look frightened, but my jaw is determined.

I sheathe the dagger, hang it on a belt, and carefully wrap it around my waist, tucking the whole thing underneath my toga. The heavy folds of white fabric do not show so much as a bulge. Surveying myself in the mirror, I conclude that I look the very image of a Roman senator: grave and harried, but well attired. No one would suspect that I am hiding cold steel underneath such a respectable veneer.

I go back out into the hallway, where my comrades are still patiently waiting, and Junia and Marcus less patiently so. One of the party, Casca, raises an eyebrow at me. I raise mine back at him, and touch the front of my toga. He smiles knowingly, and copies the gesture.

“Will Brutus be attending his nephew’s coming of age?” He asks.

I shake my head, and bite back on bitter words. “No,” I answer. A secretive smile, which has little in it of happiness but much of irony, curves my lips. “But we’ll be seeing him later.”

IV.

It is a beautiful day. The whole of the city has been made fresh and clean by last night’s rains. Puddles reflect a clear blue sky, scattered with clouds. They blow along rapidly, but whatever wind hastens them barely touches us here below. I cannot tell why, but I have always thought the world would end on a day like this: a bright day, with complacent people hurrying about their business, unaware of the violent purge that is to come.

From where we stand on the Capitoline hill, all of Rome, and indeed, all the world, seems to be at our feet. The air is still. The augur has chosen a section of the sky for Marcus, a patch of perfectly calm, perfectly clear blue. No bird, nor even a cloud, moves through it. After staring at it for a certain amount of time, my eyes begin to lose focus. I imagine I can see the atoms, the very particles of air, whirling about in their chaotic fugue. I blink, and they are gone.

Marcus shifts beside me. Junia sniffs. Somebody else coughs. We are all impatient, but while my son and wife are simply bored, the rest of us are anxious as well. An augury takes as long as it needs to. If we begin to run short of time, all of us who are bound for the senate today shall have to excuse ourselves, a gesture which will be seen not only as spectacularly rude, but also as unlucky. What worse sign than for a father to miss his own son’s coming of age augury? Even my own father, insufficient as he was, attended mine. Marcus will never forgive me.

The silence is shattered by the shrieks of angry birds. A cloud of ravens swoops over us, so low that some of our number instinctively duck. Beside me, Casca exclaims aloud and brushes a black feather off of his toga. As the ravens wheel off again, I see that they are in hot pursuit of a larger bird. A hawk, I think at first– but in a moment I realize with a thrill that it is an eagle, a majestic creature with a massive wingspan and cruel talons. It flies lopsidedly, as if wounded. Every once in awhile, it attempts to slash at its attackers with beak and claws, but they are too many and too fierce. My lips part with awe and wonder, because, even as they go hurtling through Marcus’ quadrant of the sky, I know that this omen is not for my son.

“Do you not what a group of many ravens is called?” I ask Casca in an undertone.

He shrugs, feigning indifference, although he is still wide-eyed like the rest of us. “A flock?”

I smile faintly and shake my head. “No, Casca,” I murmur, “A conspiracy.”

Marcus turns to the augur, his eyes wide with fear. “What does it mean?” he demands petulantly, much more a boy in that moment than a man.

The augur’s expression is very serious. He takes Marcus’ hand in reassurance, but addresses himself to me instead of to the boy. “Merit is never safe from envy,” he declares. “Your son, Cassius, will have many gifts, for which many will hate him. He must guard against false friends, and never for a moment carry himself with arrogance– or else he will be violently driven from the society of his fellow men, just as that eagle was chased from the sky.”

Marcus, in spite of his bravest efforts, appears to be close to tears. I wish I could comfort him. But I cannot offer him reassuring words without giving away our purpose.

“A hard fate, my son,” I say to him, “But a worthy one.”

The boy wraps his arms around me, burying his face in the front of my tunic.

“I’d rather be a raven,” he says against my chest.

V.

Inside the theater of Pompey, there is a sense of perpetual dusk. The high ceiling lets in light, but the dome itself is lost in shadows. The white marble walls lock in the chill as does the grave. It is a vast room, and profoundly empty.

My footfalls echo as I cross it. The others file in behind me, as silent with awe as I am. It seems we are the first ones here.

In the center of the chamber is a statue of our fallen general. The figure is fully eight feet tall, not counting the pedestal its huge sandals are planted upon. It stands with one hand outstretched, palm down, as if in single gesture to bless the whole world– or, perhaps, to claim it as his own. The expression of the marble face is one of stern forbearance, but when he lived, the man himself was quick to smile. The memory of his laughter almost breaks my heart. Indulging in a little bit of superstitious play acting, I stretch my own hand out, palm down, parroting my dead commander’s stony salute.

“Pompey Magnus,” I whisper, “We will do you proud today.”

“Getting superstitious, Cassius?” The voice from behind me takes me by surprise. I flush– it was certainly not my intention that anyone should overhear my muttered prayer. But if somebody has to bear witness to my moment of weakness, it is only fitting that it should be he.

“No, Brutus,” I reply, without turning around. “Merely desperate.”

With a soft rustle of linen and wool, he steps up beside me. He does not look in my direction, but keeps his gaze fixed on Pompey’s statue. As he stares down the effigy of the man he so hated, Brutus’ face, though flesh, is harder and more set than the one of stone, his eyes, more blank and implacable.

“I did not come here on behalf of Pompey, my brother,” he says softly, “Nor of any tyrant.”

I ignore his more pointed words for the time being. There is nothing to say to them. Something else that he has said catches my attention, and fills me with hope.

“So we are brothers again?” I ask.

He turns and looks down on me, and his lips curve in something like a smile.

“Always, Cassius,” he says.

His words warm me. I reach out and grip his hand, squeeze it. My palm is sweaty, but his is dry and cool. Together, I know, we can do anything.

“Remember, Brutus,” I pitch my voice low to say, “That every man takes a cut.”

He blanches slightly, but his reply is arch. “Don’t worry, Cassius. I promise to leave something for you.”

I laugh, with an edge of hysteria. A certain sense of gallows humor is something that Brutus and I have always had in common. “You had better.”

We share a grim nod between us.

The room is beginning to fill. Other senators are filing in, men with gray beards and bald heads who have been longer absent than we from the battlefield, men who carry no hidden daggers and have no idea of our designs. I spot many men who I distrust, and a few who I actually fear.

“It’s better we part for now, Brutus,” I whisper to him. “The Imperator and his creatures still think us enemies.”

Brutus nods abstractedly. To my shock and delight, he reaches over and gives my shoulder a quick squeeze. The contact is fleeting, as with his every tenderness. In a moment he turns on his heel and walks away. I want to linger by the statue, drawing continued reassurance from the calm marble face; but fearing my communion with Pompey’s shade may be all too obvious, I walk away as well.

Not since my last battle have I felt such a nervous twisting in my gut. The minutes drag by as more senators arrive, but the guest of honor is nowhere to be seen. I begin to fear the worst. The Imperator is mercurial in his whims. He may have simply decided not to attend today’s senate. Incidentally, this meeting is the last before he departs for the East with the army, to bring more territory under Roman sway. If he does not deign to grace us with his presence this morning, our narrow window of opportunity will be gone.

Against my own beliefs, or lack of them, I find myself praying. I ask of the Gods who are not there: Let not today be another attempt. I cannot bear another attempt. There have been too many attempts already, too many failures. I am tired. I do not have the strength in me to try again. For me, there is only today. So after today, however it goes, please Gods, let me rest.

But this is foolishness, like all prayers. Come, now, Cassius, I tell myself sternly, Fear is not profitable. All this anxiety cannot influence the outcome of today, only make the waiting less tolerable.

Philosophy is cold comfort, but it is comfort nonetheless. Calmed, I look around the room for Casca. There he is, standing by a window, anxiously peering outside. I approach him quietly from behind, and say his name. At the sound of my voice, he jumps like a startled animal. His eyes are wide as he turns around. Seeing it’s only I, he lays a fluttering hand on his heaving breast. Casca has always had a taste for theatrics, just like any queen.

“Cassius!” He exclaims. “That’s the second bad fright I’ve had in ten minutes.”

Delicately, I lift a brow. “Then perhaps you’re too jumpy.”

“As well I might be.” He puffs himself up like an orator. “This terrible morning would be hard on anyone’s nerves– except for yours, Cassius, as you have none.”

Here, I am treated to a sour simper. I do my best to parrot his expression back at him. “Why do I need nerves, when you’re so eager to tell me all about your own?”

Casca, instead of being properly insulted, takes my words as an invitation. “Well, not five minutes ago, Cicero came up to me here with the most confoundedly knowing look on his face. ‘So Casca,’ he said to me,” Casca affects an extra snide tone to represent the speaker, “‘You’ve tried to keep this thing a secret from us, but Brutus has told me all, and now, everybody knows.’” He tittered, shrilly. “Ye gods, I nearly fainted away! before  he said, laughing, ‘And here we all thought you were too poor to run for office!’”

An awkward pause follows the story, where normally there would have been laughter. Neither of us seems inclined to indulge in humor at the moment. The grimness of what we are about to do lies heavy over us, depressing our spirits like a cold, heavy fog.

“Well,” I say finally, “I am sure all of this will be very funny once today is over.”

A soft footstep and discreet swish of toga from behind us makes me turn my head. It’s dark and handsome Decius, his expression, very grave. Taller than Casca and I both, he inclines his head slightly in order to speak to us.

“People are saying now that the dictator is not to grace us with his presence,” he informs us in a low murmur. “The auguries are bad, and he is feeling unwell. His wife has convinced him to stay home.”

At this, I have to laugh. “His wife!” The thought of any woman keeping the first man in Rome from his appointment with destiny is maddening— comically so, an irony worthy of a great tragedy. Or farce, as it may be. I sober quickly.

“Are you certain about this?” My voice has more of an edge than I would like. So much for my supposed nervelessness.

Decius shakes his head. “It’s just what people are saying.”

“Well, confirm it,” I snap. “Because if it’s so, we need to start planning a morning visit. If the dictator is feeling unwell, we shall have to pay our respects to him in his home. ”

Casca looks horrified. To a lesser degree, so does Decius. “Cassius,” the former exclaims, “You can’t be serious.”

I grab his arm, my fingers digging into the flab of his bicep, and hold his eyes with mine. “I am completely serious. If we are to have a dictator for life, the only democratic thing to do is to ensure that it will be a short life. Today is our last chance. We must see this task through.” I drop my voice lower still, so that it emerges from between my lips as little more than a hiss of breath. “You made an oath.”

Casca’s eyes are locked on mine. His gaze is dark with the shadow of a memory. I know he is thinking of that vow, made in earnest, sealed in blood.

“I’m with you still,” he whispers hoarsely after a moment, and squeezes my arm back. I let him go, satisfied.

“And you, Decius?” I ask.

Decius’ lips curve wryly. “You don’t have to ask.”

I favor him with a grim nod. “I know it, friend.”

My words fall on a hush. Skittish as we are, the silence unnerves us as much as a sudden noise. All three of us turn around at once, in time to see the great doors swing open. A band of golden sunlight falls across the floor, and illuminates the dust motes whirling in the air. Into the chamber strides an opulent figure, tall, with the bearing of a king. I let out a soft sigh. My infidel’s prayers have been answered.

He was reckoned quite attractive in his youth, at least by himself. Somehow he always convinced a fair number of people to agree with him on that point, but then, he’s a hard man to argue with. His vanity persists to this day, in his futile attempts to comb his remaining hair forward across his naked scalp. A golden laurel crown sits on his brow, distinguishing him as a conqueror. The face below it is hawkish and angular, creased with years of hard decisions. A few vestiges of his handsomeness still linger, however– for example, his eyes, which are keen, dark, and penetrating, yet gentle with compassion. His thin lips curve in a perpetual smile. It is a smile of perfect confidence, a smile that expresses better than words ever could what it feels like to rule the world, to have accomplished everything you set out to do, to be almost like a god– in short, how it feels to be Julius Caesar.

It is that smile, I realize now, that made me despise him on first sight. Over the years, that smile has driven me mad. I take in the sight of him with a kind of greed, and with perverse, proprietary pride. You are mine now, O Caesar, I think. All mine, for the rest of your life.

            Men surround him instantly, besieging him with papers, petitions and obsequious compliments. Caesar somehow manages to smile on them all at once even as he attempts to fend them off.

“Apologies, my friends.” His voice, a warm baritone, rings through the hall with all the clarity and confidence that years of command have given him. Contrary to the rumors of his ill health, he looks fresh and well rested. “My lateness, I fear, is inexcusable. I will hear all of you momentarily.”

He sweeps across the room to take his seat, his retinue still in hot pursuit. Following close behind him is the rakish Mark Antony, whose brawny arms, dusted with golden hair, bulge out of his sleeves. For all his strength, Caesar’s dearest friend will not thwart us today. I watch with satisfaction as our friend Trebonius drifts over to engage Antony in serious conversation, quickly drawing him out of the room. Caesar is now without his right hand. Everything, so far, is going according to plan.

I rest my hand on the front of my toga, checking my dagger. I am giddy with fear, drunk with it. Looking for Brutus, I see him standing by himself, his face frozen between two disparate emotions. He knows, as I know, that the moment is upon us.

I can hear my own blood pounding in my ears as I turn to Decius and Casca.          “It is time,” I say.

With grim intent we approach the dictator. From all around the room, other conspirators saunter towards him as well, their faces casual and blank. Almost imperceptibly, we replace the constellation of beggars and well-wishers that had surrounded him moments before.

As I draw near, Caesar glances up and fixes his gaze directly on me. It’s the look I hate, a stare that seems to strip me of all my pretenses, leaving me horribly naked. But worse than this moral dressing down is the complete lack of judgment in his eyes. When Julius Caesar looks, he always seems to pity what he sees. This morning the effect of his gaze is especially unnerving. It is as though he knows exactly what I am about to do, and, for his own capricious reasons, has decided to permit it. I wonder if he has ever held rancor towards anyone in all his life. I cannot imagine that he has, certainly not like that which I hold for him. Perhaps, in his final moments, I can teach him how to hate.

But there is no more time for reflections. Now Tillius Cimber sinks to his knees before Caesar, his toga spreading onto the floor around him like a rippled pool.

“Your Majesty,” he begins, “I have come to humbly beseech your mercy.”

Caesar regards Cimber with an arched brow. He lifts a finger to command silence. “First of all, Cimber, it is entirely inappropriate to address me as a king.” He lets his words hang on the air for a moment like an icy breath. “Secondly, if this is about your brother, we have already discussed the matter at length. The law is clear. His exile cannot be revoked.”

Cimber lets out a low cry. He grabs the hem of Caesar’s toga in a gesture of supplication, clinging with such vehemence that the dictator’s garment is pulled askew. Caesar exclaims in annoyance and stands up, ignorant that the signal has been given to end his life.

“Why, this is violence!” he cries.

In a flash of steel, Casca raises his dagger and brings it slashing down. He is too slow. Whether Caesar catches the motion out of the corner or his eye, or perhaps is alerted by inhuman instincts, he twists away, barely nicked by the blade. With brutal reflexes, he rams his writing stylus forcefully into Casca’s chest. Casca gapes at the blunt instrument buried deep in his flesh, his eyes wide with amazement and pain.

“Casca, you bastard, what the hell are you doing?” Caesar shouts the question with such force that Casca flinches, looking more like a guilty child than a grown, armed man. For a minute everyone is frozen, shocked by what just happened. We stand like actors stricken with stage fright, forgetting what comes next.

Then Casca recovers his voice. “My brothers, help me!”

As one we surge forward. Where nothing was happening a moment before, now everything is happening at once. Knives hack wildly in all directions, and it’s hard to tell which, if any, are making contact with the body of Caesar. I get a cut on my hand. The pain incenses me and I push forward, clearing a path for myself with shoulders and elbows.

Suddenly the shoving of bodies stops holding me back and starts propelling me irresistibly to the front, as if a tide had changed. I blink as I come face to face, body to body, with the dictator himself. He is bellowing in pain, his features contorted in a rictus of agony and rage. I make sure that his eyes meet mine before I slash him across the face. He always was so vain. Blood streams out of the gash. It splatters onto me, warm and sharp-smelling. Caesar, my victim, sways on the spot, blanching as though nauseous with pain. I spit on him, laughing.

Then someone jostles me out of the way, so violently that I lose my footing and fall. The floor is slick with blood. I slip twice trying to get to my feet, then give up and simply crawl out of the way, shielding my head with one arm and trying not to get trampled. When I am clear of the mass and finally stand, I find that entire front of my toga is bright scarlet, soaked through and sticking to my skin. The stuff is all over me, on my hands, on my face, and in my hair, making it stand up in sticky chunks. I can even taste it.

Other conspirators are drawing off now, bloodied like me and wearing dazed expressions. A few are sprawled on the floor, wounded by the daggers of friends. One of these does not seem to be breathing. Many men are still stabbing Caesar, who continues, fitfully, to resist. He has fallen back against the pedestal of Pompey’s statue, and leans heavily on it for support. The fierce will to live still burns in his eyes, but it is clouded, now, by blood loss. Perhaps he feels the beating of Mercury’s wings, coming to escort him to the land of the dead.

Brutus approaches him, knife in hand, and murderous intention in his gaze. I am shocked by the look on his face. He is pale, his jaw set, his eyes glittering with the anticipation of violence. What startles me the most is the cruelty that twists up the corner of his mouth. Like a God of vengeance he walks towards Caesar, his steps unhurried. I have never seen him look so handsome.

Caesar looks up at Brutus, and a flicker of humanity, of recognition, of some final emotion beyond pure animal rage, lights his face. It is the dawning of comprehension and betrayal, true— but more than that it is love, and grief at being parted from a loved one far too soon. There is no hate, no judgment in that gaze.

“You too, my son?” he manages hoarsely.

Brutus’ knuckles, clutching the dagger, whiten. He lunges forward and thrusts his blade deep into Caesar’s groin. As he pulls away a geyser of blood spurts out, in grim parody of a climax. Caesar’s body spasms with agony, but he does not make a sound. Shakily and with tremendous effort, he pulls his toga up over his face. Proud to the last, he will not let us see his tears. And then he falls, this most powerful man in the world until barely five minutes ago, he falls in a crumpled heap, like a palace of blocks knocked over by a child.

Brutus stands over Caesar– dare I call it Caesar’s corpse? He raises his chin to stare defiantly back at the other senators, who have been frozen in their seats all this time. He raises his knife, blood dripping down his white arms. His voice, when he speaks, is hoarse.

“Thus always to tyrants.”

The senators, those ancient apes, remain petrified a moment more. Then the stampede for the door begins. Pushing and shoving, they try to squeeze past one another, the faster to flee. Pieces of legislation are dropped on the floor, chairs are overturned, and togas threaten to come unraveled. The poor fools are terrified of us. Brutus, alarmed, tries to call to them to stay, shouting that no one else need fear, that death came only for Caesar today. A few of the others try to join his pleading. I glimpse Casca through the crowd, forcibly trying to detain Cicero with a bloody hand on his arm, a gesture of reassurance negated by the dagger he still clutches. What folly! I am too tired for all this, and besides, I know it to be futile. Let the senate fear us for awhile. It cannot do us harm. In fact, it may simplify our proceeding.

As I stand still in the midst of all this panic, a surge of emotion washes over me, so strong that I cannot tell its exact composition. There is relief, of course. The task is done, we have succeeded, nothing else matters. With that realization comes triumph. Triumph turns to jubilation, and jubilation, in turn, becomes a kind of wild, exquisite terror, immense enough to swallow me completely. With this act I have signed my name in blood on the face of the earth. Where do we go from here? What world shall we make out of Caesar’s ashes?

Shaking myself from my daze, I grab hold of Cimber, en route to the exit. At my touch, he starts, and looks at me with wide eyes. His expression is so distraught that I have to laugh, although I myself am hardly the image of composure.

“Let them go,” I tell him. “We have more to do here.”

He nods, not understanding, but trusting me in any case. His face, in that moment, reminds me of Marcus. I wonder about my son. How soon will news of my actions today reach him and Junia? Already I can hear a dull roaring outside, a roaring that will travel through all the city. The streets will be dangerous today, and we will have to brave them. The people must be told something. The people are not my strong suit. I will leave that part to Brutus. That task is his, to be our brave figurehead, at the prow of our movement, towering over the dark tide of the rabble. But he will need guidance, a hand at the prow, and that hand must be mine…

Why am I trying to think right now? I am too full for thoughts, full to the brim, set to overflow in tears or a bestial scream. Rationalist that I am, I feel that a divine madness is about to overtake me. If I stand still a second longer I shall become a maenad, a woman, a child.

The hall has gone silent, now that the last of the graybeards has fled. They have left the place in terrible disarray, littered with upended furniture, which makes the carnage seem worse than it actually is. A gentle draft wends through the doorway and stirs the papers scattered across the floor. In the center of it all lies Caesar, a wreck, a carcass. His blood stains the white marble, pooling in the cracks between tiles.

As if under compulsion I go to him, kneel down by his side. Hesitantly, I reach out to touch the body. He is still warm. I recoil from the all-too-familiar touch of his skin. I know that exact heat, can recognize his odor even through the fragrance of blood. He has hidden his face well in the folds of his toga, like a sleeping man who does not wish to be disturbed. Maliciously, I try to yank the fabric from his stiffening fingers. They grip it tightly, unyielding. Stubborn myself and spiteful to boot, I keep on trying.

A warm hand rests on my shoulder. I look up and see Brutus. His face is hard, lined, drained of the savage ecstasy that gave him such a glow in murder.

“Leave him be,” he says sharply. “Hasn’t he made his wishes clear?”

Hot rage flares up within me, that his compassion for a corpse takes precedence over allowing me to savor my greatest triumph. I return his glare for a few moments, then subside, lowering my eyes.

“All right,” I mutter fiercely, “For you, and not for him.”

Brutus flushes, and lowers his eyes as well. Fingers trembling, he reaches out to touch what remains of Caesar, gently, with tenderness, even with love. Yet almost immediately he recoils as though burned. The gesture is characteristic: Brutus has always had a way of flinching from physical contact with other men. His hand comes away bloody. He stares at his reddened palm in fascination, then lowers his fingers again to trail them through the congealing scarlet on the floor.

Unable to resist, I do the same. What a bright color!— yet becoming dull so quickly.

With a soft rustle of linen, the other conspirators draw nearer, bending down to join our strange ritual. Together, we all wash our hands in Caesar’s blood. We smear our forearms, shoulders, necks, and even faces. The red battle paint makes us fearsome. We stare at each other with frightened eyes, solemn, yet exhilarated. Every once in awhile, a nervous chuckle shatters the silence, which is otherwise composed of nothing but the whisper of cloth and the hushed rhythm of breathing. With these gory rites, we cleanse ourselves of guilt. Instead of desiring to wash Caesar’s blood from our hands, we wash ourselves in it, not denying our deed, but reveling in it, as remorseless as Gods.

At long last, Brutus stands. He is a terrifying sight, a deity of war adorned with the entrails of his enemies. But his eyes are those of an orphan child.

“Come on, good friends,” he commands. “It is time to face the streets of Rome.”

His red hands upraised, he walks towards the door that stands open, letting in a single piercing shaft of sun. We follow him into the light. As we emerge we are temporarily blinded by it, deafened by the angry roar that rises up from below us— a roar like an ocean, coming from a sea of citizens who clamor for explanations.

Brutus shouts something, but his voice is carried off by the wind, to be lost in the din. I merely stand still in the daylight, blinking, dazed, and dizzy with pride. The end of the world has come. All of these people have been shaken by it. And not even we, the harbingers of doom, know what the fates will write for us next.

I raise both of my bloody hands in the air, for the moment not caring, merely laughing with joy in the sun. I shout, indifferent to whether I am heard,

            “Hail Caesar! Remember you are mortal!”

 

(c) Jack Swift, 2016

Queer Book Club: Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones by Torrey Peters

Infect Your Friends coverSpeculative fiction novella. In the future, everyone will be trans—that’s Lexi’s plan. With the help of her scientist friend, Raleen, she finds a way to shut down human hormone production, so that everyone has to make the choice trans people make. It’s both a revenge fantasy and a satirical ‘what if?’

The story is told in fragments by Lexi’s Patient Zero (who I don’t think is ever named). The narrative hops about in time, before and after ground zero of Lexi’s disease. It’s a quick read, but packs one hell of a lot into a small space.

I really love this. It’s funny, subversive, full of complexity and anger and frustration and satire and biting social observation about trans women, they way they treat each other and the way other people treat them. The style is fluid, dynamic and accessible—it was a joy to read. I don’t want to say too much more, because the story is compact, and I don’t want to spoiler.

I read in an interview with Torrey Peters that she’s made a point of not getting to hung up on traditional publishing conventions. There are a couple of tense shifts that threw me, but really, not a big deal.

Just, yeah, wow. I wish there were more books like this. One of my reading resolutions for 2017 is to read more spec fic with trans characters, and another is to read more subversive trans fiction. The world does not abound with books like this. This ticks all my boxes.

You can download an ebook copy from the author’s website, for a donation (or for free) here: http://www.torreypeters.com/ It’s also available in paperback.

Queer Book Club: For Real by Alexis Hall

For real cover

Adult BDSM M/M romance. A rare erotic romance review for me. I worry my responses to this genre are pretty personal, so I’m not sure how much use my opinion is to another reader, but I did really enjoy this and think it’s well written, so I thought I’d try a review.

Laurence is 37, and still hurt over a relationship that finished six years ago. The BDSM scene is feeling pretty stale to him, but he struggles to trust anyone enough to get close. Toby is 19, and completely new to the scene. The one thing he knows is he’s dominant. Can Laurence overcome his trust issues, and his misgivings about Toby’s age, enough to be submissive in a relationship again?

The point of view switches between Laurence and Toby, with Toby’s bits written in present tense and Laurence’s in past, to convey their different ages and personalities. I think the style switch works well. The voices of Laurence and Toby are also very distinct.

The main premise, and what makes For Real pretty unique, is the dom is much younger and less experienced than the sub, so there’s a learning curve for both of them, both in terms of each other, and what they want from kink. Laurence’s life is well established—he’s a successful emergency doctor with a nice big house—whereas Toby has lost his way and is stuck working in a greasy cafe for minimum wage. I really like the emotional exploration of what BDSM means to the two characters and how that interacts with the other parts of their lives. I think this is the most successful aspect of the story (aside from the kink scenes, which are very good). Alexis Hall avoids clichés in order to deliver something which feels fresh and unique. If your tastes run to traditional hard-ass alpha doms, this isn’t for you. Toby is pretty fragile, at times, and finding his feet.  But there are also a lot of inventive smut scenes, as Toby finds his way into what he likes and what Laurence likes. There’s even a foody scene which I enjoyed, and I usually get squicked out by that sort of thing.

My only criticism of this book is that, particularly in the second half, I found the emotional rollercoaster a little bumpy and extreme at times (oh my God, everything is perfect, oh no we’ve crashed, it is the very worst…), but it is a huge page turner, with a lot that’s good about it, so the bump didn’t detract too much. The smut is extremely hot (or at least, I found it so). There’s a lovely sweet little bath scene near the start, which I adore. I wish this had been followed up, but only because I like bath scenes. Oh, yes, and 37 isn’t all that ancient! As if my mid-life crisis needed any help.

One of the interesting things about this story, from the point of view of other queer fiction I read, is that the ‘coming out/coming of age’ bit is about kink and not about being queer. I like that Alexis Hall takes this aspect seriously. Read, if you want a responsibly written, hot BDSM novel with a convincing, realistic emotional aspect to the kink.

Queer Book Club: Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

girl-mans-up-cover

YA coming of age novel about Pen, a Portuguese-American girl who is struggling for a place to fit, being a masculine girl and a lesbian. She hangs out with Colby and some other boys, but Colby’s brand of macho bullshit starts to grate when Pen talks to Olivia, and gets an insight into the harm he does to the girls he picks up and throws aside. Then, when Pen finds Blake, a girl she really likes, she has to define her own way of loving girls and negotiate her own sense of masculinity. In the background, her traditional Portuguese family are making life hard for her and her brother, Johnny, and nothing they do is good enough.

This is a quick read, and pulled me in from the start, especially the creepy friendship with Colby. Girard does a good job of portraying a really messed up power dynamic there. I could relate to tolerating misogyny as a teen, in some mistaken attempt to compensate for gender issues. Pen’s unreconstructed approach to her gender and sexuality stuff felt realistic and believable, and Girard highlights, through the action of the story, a lot of problems with traditional messed up gender roles and relations. Colby is on a massive power trip, and uses women like objects. Olivia ends up pregnant, with no support. Pen’s parents want her to fit in and not attract trouble—to act like a “nice girl”. Throughout, Girard plays with the different ideas of what it means to “man-up”. Even Johnny, Pen’s supportive older brother, still has some stuff to work through around solving problems with violence.

I had a small misgiving that a lot of the issues raised stay implicit, bubbling below the surface of the action, whereas by the end, I wanted some of the characters to be having a more explicit dialogue. I don’t expect a 16 year old character to have everything sussed, but given she goes looking for info online at one point in the story, I would have thought Pen might trip over some gender or feminist theory along the way. I guess, I felt like a bunch of problems were thrown up in the story, but only the most tentative road-map is offered out of them. At one point, Colby sexually assaults Pen, and that’s brushed over and never really named for what it is, even though it’s not shown to be okay. I think there’s a danger in being too subtle about some of this stuff.

My only other misgiving was, the students all attend a Catholic school, and I would have expected at least some of them to have internalised more guilt (about gender, sexuality and abortion). Those internal obstacles are not so easily jumped or reconciled, particularly at 16 when school and family are your whole world. Don’t get me wrong—the characters do have plenty of internalised prejudices, but the religious side is given a very light touch. Maybe there wasn’t space to fully explore those aspects. It was a niggle, rather than a deal breaker.

Overall, I think this book is on point flagging up problems, showing how misogyny and toxic masculinity function in practice, but doesn’t completely follow through with pointing the way to solutions. The characters are well realised, and it’s an enjoyable and compelling read. The relationship between Blake and Pen is sweet and healthy, and there’s no contrived narrative drama thrown in the way to create tension, which I liked. Blake is comfortable with being bi, which is also cool. It’s interesting that Pen never gives herself a gender label, other than girl. I’ve seen a few reviews stick different gender label on her, but it’s not there in the text, so I’m not going to. It’s testament to the complexity of this book that it’s been an absolute pain to review, and I’ve ended up saying so much.

Queer Book Club: The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan

the-rental-heart-coverA collection of short stories, which vary from fairy tale re-imaginings to original magic realism and steampunk stories. There’s a lot of meat here, to get your teeth into—the sort of short stories that leave you thinking. There’s also a lot of originality and imagination on show.  A good chunk of the stories have queer characters (I especially noticed the bi visibility).

One of the highlights for me is the title story, ‘The Rental Heart’, in which the main character employs technology to have relationships without the risk of a broken heart. I also enjoyed ‘The Coin-Operated Boy’, a tongue-in-cheek steampunk story. (Although I kept getting the Dresden Dolls song of the same name lodged in my head.) ‘Matroyshka’ is an original twist on Cinderella, with a self-involved spoiled princess not getting what she feels she deserves. The settings vary from fantastical to modern day.

The collection includes some of my favourite elements of magic realism, with the magic representing intangible aspects of longing, lust, love and the stand-ins for love. This is definitely an adult collection, as there are a few smuttier bits.

With short story collections, there are always bound to be some I like more than others, but this is a really solid collection with no real low points. I’d definitely give more of Kirsty Logan’s work a look on the strength of this collection.

Queer Classics: Funeral Games by Mary Renault

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The final part of Mary Renault’s Alexander the Great trilogy, Funeral Games begins with Alexander’s death, and concerns the fallout that follows as his people vie for power, and to fill the huge void he leaves.

I found the action of this fascinating—the politics, the way that things fall out, the lengths the different characters will go to in order to achieve their aims, the sheer venality of it all. I didn’t enjoy it as much as The Persian Boy, which is by far my favourite. Funeral Games sees a return to the multiple third person points of view of the first book, and lacks the central driving emotion of that, so it’s my least favourite of the three.

Women, again, come out quite badly, though they get more screen time. Although, to be fair, everyone comes out badly, except Bagoas and Ptolemy. No tool is left unused in the bid for power—murder, manipulation, lies, deceit, the rewriting of history and war are all employed, with disastrous and tragic results. I did lose my temper at one point with Renault when something very silly happens to Eurydike (one of the key players in the power struggle) to thwart her bid for power. I won’t spoil it, but it drove me nuts and left me feeling incredulous.

Reservations aside, it’s still a fascinating study of a power vacuum. Politics don’t get any more vicious than this. Overall, I love the trilogy, but this isn’t the high point for me.