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Thom Lane

REVIEW: Healing Heart by Thom Lane

REVIEW: Healing Heart by Thom Lane

Dear Mr. Lane:

TL_HealingHeart_coverlgAs I immediately emailed to you when you sent met his book, “Good God, the fairy godmother of cover images likes YOU, doesn’t she?!” I adore this cover, as I did the cover of the first Amaranth novel. (Anne Cain did the art. One might almost say “Of course, Anne Cain did the cover art.” I’m not sure she’s capable of doing a bad cover.) And while I read the novel in one sitting, unable to put it down, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as Dark Heart and, despite its labeling on Loose Id, I wouldn’t call it a BDSM novel as such.

Coryn is a newly trained Master Mage, a healer. On his travels one day, he stops three men from slaughtering a plague-ridden slave. He heals and claims the slave as his own, then goes to the plague-ridden city Elverton to help the people there. Days later, he has healed so many people, he himself is dangerously weak, but he’s not closer to figuring out where the plague came from and how it’s spreading, which is when he calls in more of his Guild, healers and necromancers and other mages.

Healing Heart was no less lovingly crafted than Dark Heart, but the issues I had with Dark Heart were not superseded in Healing Heart by the romance or the brilliance of characterization. Instead, they became the story for me.

In Dark Heart the disturbing fact that slavery is the foundation for the world you create was subordinate to the explicit domination/submission dynamic between Lucan and Tam. Even though he was a slave, Tam was much more submissive to Lucan than anyone else, because that’s the reaction Lucan specifically brought out in him. This dynamic was very well-depicted and lessened my issues with the slavery aspect of the world you’ve built (as morally questionable as that lessening might be). In Healing Heart, however, I don’t know if I was too aware of the troubling issue of slavery in the world you have created and therefore unable to sink into the book, but the book seemed to me to be more about solidifying the world-building around and justifying the existence of slavery in Amaranth than in demonstrating that Coryn and Raff specifically had a D/s relationship. Maybe it was because Coryn was so young and needed to remind himself how to treat a slave, but the beatings inflicted on Raff seem to be much more about supporting the system of slavery, rather than an expansion or expression of the sexual relationship between the characters. What I’m trying to say in my long-winded professorial way is that the beatings and whippings in Healing Heart were about Raff being a slave, not about Raff being Coryn’s sexual submissive. The beatings and whippings, in fact, had nothing at all to do with the sexual relationship between Coryn and Raff (unlike in Dark Heart) and as such, the novel itself was much more difficult to enjoy, because I felt complicit in supporting a world based in an unquestioned, unchallenged system of slavery.

This also, to my mind, made the novel NOT a BDSM novel. The relationship wasn’t one of sexual domination/submission, but societal D/s, with a strange sort of sexual equality, as much as there can be in a novel about a slave and his master. This quote, for example, would be an interesting depiction of a voluntary D/s relationship:

Oh. Yes. I’d forgotten that chain. I subsided, feeling the tug of it now almost as a comfort. It’s good sometimes to have no choice at all. Maybe that’s why we love our masters, us poor doomed besotten boys: because they take away all our choices, because they name us and dress us-’or not, as they choose-’and feed us and work us at their will, love us back if they choose to. I don’t know. I only did know that I would wear one man’s chain gladly, proudly, as I wore his tag; that I would kiss his feet and serve him all my life if he would let me, if he would keep me. That I would love him whether or not he ever returned that love. That I would settle for a smile, for an occasional touch of affection. And live without even that if I had to, because I belonged to him regardless.

Helpless, hopeless, my master’s boy entirely.

Except, it serves instead to naturalize the slavery. Once a character becomes a slave, they apparently lose all desire to be free. Raff’s only been a slave for three years, and yet he never questions his status. Ever.

Maybe my hyper-awareness of the issues I had with the book made me unable to turn off the literary critic in me, but I thought that the writing didn’t seem as smooth with this book as with Dark Heart. Mainly I noticed a lot of repetition. If you made a thematic point once, you made it three times, often within about three pages, and that got a little wearing. Trust your readers. Your writing is good enough that you should be able to trust us to get the nuances of theme threaded through the novel.

Once again, though, the characters shone through. I loved Coryn, confident in his powers, but so very young and inexperienced. I loved Raff, a cheeky, mouthy young man who chaffed at being a slave. I loved seeing Lucan and Tam again, in scenes that were necessary to the plot, not just a revisiting of previous character for the mere sake of seeing them again. The characters almost made me forget my major problems with the world in which they lived — almost, but not quite.

But the depth of the characterization made it difficult for me to trust the depth of Coryn’s and Raff’s feelings for each other, because the love that bloomed between them seemed abrupt, unexplored, and mainly founded on hero-worship and idealism, rather than based on the characters’ personalities. Lucan and Tam in Dark Heart loved each other because of who they were, their life experiences until that point, and their reactions to each other. Coryn and Raff seemed to love each other because of proximity, hero worship, and narrative necessity — they had to to make it a romance. Late in the story, Coryn thinks:

What good could it do a slave to learn that his master loves him? It changes nothing, except that it might go to his head and make him behave foolishly, give his master cause to regret the confession or even the emotion.

No, better to stay silent and let the boy stay ignorant, keep him strictly and never let him guess.
Besides, I could never know if he loved me in return, not truly. He’d probably never know himself. How do you tell love from duty from obedience from fear, when they’re all so intricately bound together? Or love from desire from simple physical pleasure, from the sensual touch and the physical strain and the erotic rush?

I was sure, entirely, on my own account: I loved him and owned him and wanted him, all three. But I could never be sure of him. So no, I’d not say a word.

I would expect this concern to be overcome by the end of the story, some sort of reciprocal acknowledgment given between the characters. And while I believed they would be happy together and would stay together, I wasn’t convinced by the emotional depth of their relationship.

All this is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book. I enjoyed the medical mystery (where DID the plague come from?) and I enjoyed seeing Coryn grow into his power and knowledge of himself. I liked Raff as a character — he wasn’t brave, but did what he needed to do anyway, as best he could. And I will probably still be reading more Amaranth novels, as they come out. While I was definitely squicked by the society’s unquestioning reliance on slavery and the narrative’s own lack of undermining or questioning of the system, I’m fascinated to see how you’re going to continue to build Amaranth and the characters there. I’ll also be reading it because this novel more than the first reminded me of nothing less than Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series, not only in the particulars of the world itself, but in the writing and the voice of the story. And I loved that aspect of it.

Grade: C

Best regards,
-Joan/Sarah F.

This book can be purchased in ebook format from Loose ID.

REVIEW: White Flag by Thom Lane

REVIEW: White Flag by Thom Lane

Dear Mr. Lane:

TL_WhiteFlag_coverlgI reviewed your Dark Heart in February (the book of the gorgeous cover), which I very much enjoyed. So when you sent me White Flag, I was thrilled to have it, short though it is (only 68 pages). And it was an enjoyable, if predictable, little read. But I’m really writing about it because of its place in another conversation I’m having about romance.

Charlie is a travel writer, a rolling stone, content never EVER to settle. On a canal in the French countryside, he meets Matthieu, scion of a vineyard family, who is attractive, seductive, determined…and has put down roots so strongly there’s no way to uproot him. Instant drama. Instant, unfixable conflict.

As I said, it’s a short little book, told from Charlie’s first person POV. Every now and then it’s got the emotional disconnect that I associate MFA program writing, in which the characters are observers of their own lives, not actors. But that’s appropriate for Charlie, who’s terrified about being dragged out of his observational mode and into the life of a boisterous, loving family. But then the emotions come back, most especially when Charlie and Matt consider Charlie’s inability to stay and Matt’s inability to leave. It’s a gentle little book, evocative of French wine-country, beautifully descriptive of Matt’s special wine, piercingly emotional when necessary. Predictable, yes, even in its ending, but that predictability is not necessarily a bad thing because it lets you just feel the emotions–and what else do we all read romance for, anyway?

So I whole-heartedly recommend White Flag as a half-an-hour read that just lets you sink into the gentle, emotional romance of two attractive men. And such beautiful writing:

Sometimes I thought those few days were like the water that we navigated. On the bright, sun-warm surface they were all glitter and idleness, an ideal time, two young men in no hurry at all to get where they were going. Matt slept beside me every night and woke me in the morning, tender and demanding: sometimes an ambassador with gifts, sometimes a fortress to be stormed. During the days he was just there, shirtless and beautiful, bringing coffee or demanding his turn on the tiller, lying sprawled on the cabin roof asleep or reading or sometimes reading aloud when he found something he wanted to share, talking or listening or interrupting, trying to correct my accent. Taking me away from the canal to show me a market, a citadel, a view. Opening a bottle of wine while he criticised my cooking. A constant presence, charming and desirable and maddening sometimes, always a delight and a promise and a sense of impending loss.

Grade: B

But the conversation into which this book so neatly inserts itself for me is one I’m having over at Jessica’s Racy Romance Reviews about Anah Crow’s Uneven (my review)and BDSM in fiction and real life. One thing that’s in contention over there is the issue of how the violence in the BDSM relationship in Uneven is self-negating for Rase (the masochist) and whether that is ethical and/or moral and something to be pursued and/or approved of. And what White Flag shows for me so beautifully is that all romance is about self-negation. All romance comes down to the conflict and the compromise to make the relationship work, in real life as well as in fiction. Because if one doesn’t compromise, if one doesn’t negate something about oneself, the relationship cannot work.

So Charlie (which I hear with such a strong French accent: Sharlee–blame French Kiss, my favorite movie of all time)…Charlie says to Matthieu:

I gestured at the white flag and said, “I surrender.” Wholeheartedly, uncomplicatedly, unconditionally. “I will stay, if you will let me. If you’ll still have me.” At whatever cost to myself, my life, my work. I could learn to stay still, to live another kind of life. As long as I was loved, as long as he would love me, I could learn.

And of course, Matthieu reciprocates. They both deny or change or adapt an essential part of themselves, they both surrender, they both give up their individual selves in order to be a whole together. And that, that right there, is the essence of romance for me. That’s what makes me keep reading. That moment of surrender, of giving up, of compromise and connection after the dark moment: “As long as I was loved, as long as he would love me”. And if that’s gently done through a white flag, or violently done through a backhand across the face, surely both are still romance.

Thank you for making me think and for such a thoroughly enjoyable hour of reading.

Best regards,
-Joan/Sarah F.

This book can be purchased at Loose Id.