REVIEW: The General and the Horse-Lord by Sarah Black
General John Mitchel and his favorite pilot, Gabriel Sanchez, served together as comrades and brothers-in-arms for more than twenty-five years. They followed the warrior’s path: honor first, and service, and the safety of the tribe. Their own needs for love and companionship were secondary to the mission. Retirement from the army, however, proves challenging in ways neither expected.
When old warriors retire, their armor starts falling away, and the noise of the world crowds in. That changing world sets up longings in both men for the life they might have had. After years of loving on the down-low, the idea of living together in the light seems like pure sweet oxygen to men who have been underwater a little too long. But what will it cost them to turn their dreams into truth?
Dear Miss Black,
I am a huge fan of your writing. I used to think that you were one of the few writers in the m/m genre who has mastered the art of writing real short stories and novellas. Recently you started writing longer books, and I was even happier. Unfortunately while I found many things to like in your latest novel, one aspect of the storyline and characterization made me angry, both right after I have read the book and then again when I reread it.
Let’s start with what I loved first. I loved that both characters are mature men in their late forties – early fifties, because mm romance does not have nearly enough of older protagonists. I loved that after retirement John and Gabriel choose the professions that make them use their brains: John becomes a college professor and Gabriel a lawyer. Not that I mind when in so many m/m books army vets choose the professions like private detective, bodyguard, etc., but I’ve thought more than once that many retiring officers have a lot to offer to professions like John and Gabriel choose. So I was very happy to see the characters actually choosing to make a living with their brains in their civil life.
I also loved the chemistry between the guys and I thought the writing was exquisite – as in so many of her previous stories. There are not many sex scenes and none of explicit ones – this is also one of the features of her works – but the connection between Gabriel and John felt so real, so very beautiful.
My favorite character of the book was undoubtedly John’s nephew Kim, whom John had brought up as a son since Kim’s parents died. Kim is a beautiful spirit and the love between him and John was very well portrayed.
Kim smiled at him from across the table, and John remembered a summer’s day in the park when Kim was four or five. He’d come whirling across the green grass, his arms outstretched like wings, and he’d announced his soul looked like a butterfly and was full of beautiful colors.
Kim had been the darling of his tiny Catholic orphanage in Seoul. There was no question, from the moment he had crawled delightedly into John’s sister’s arms, which baby they were going to take home. John’s sister and her husband had stayed with him on base while they worked through the lengthy system for foreign adoption. The Koreans required a six – month wait between the initial application, done in person, and the final award of adoption. When they had gone back to States for their six-month wait, John had walked the two miles from his quarters to the orphanage nearly every evening to check on Kim. Kim would see him from across the tiny playroom and climb over the furniture and any playmates in his way to get to his big uncle. The boy would reach his leg, and then tug on the cuff of his pants. Two tugs and John would reach down and pick him up. It was their secret signal. Kim still did it, though John could not believe he remembered that far back. When he was in trouble, when he was so outrageous that he scared himself, he would curl up next to John and give his sleeve a couple of tugs. And John knew it meant his baby needed to be picked up, lifted high above the scary world.
One of the main storylines of the book (probably the main storyline of the book) is John and Gabriel defending Kim against an abusive faculty member who almost became Kim’s boyfriend. I loved that storyline – I thought it was awesome how both of them used military strategy and tactics in formulating their plans. Kim refused to be a victim, but his reaction to his treatment was different from John and Gabriel’s. I had no problem with resolution actually – in real Iife I might, but I felt like John and Gabriel tried very hard to go through all the proper channels before taking the actions they did.
Now for what made me angry. Besides John and Gabriel dealing with the abusive professor, the story is also about them adjusting to civilian life and actually trying to build a life together. I really wanted them to have a life together, but I had a huge problem with the way they went about it.
So Gabriel got married twenty five years ago and shortly after the book starts we learn that he continues sleeping with John after his marriage. Eventually we learn that the only time in their marriage when Gabriel managed to stay away from John was one month after he and his wife just got married. He got married while having a lover, because he “wanted a family” and he was perfectly okay with using his wife as an incubator, because they indeed had two kids together.
Just to be clear, I am not a reader who cannot handle infidelity in her romances, quite the contrary. I think often it is a very useful plot development for the characters to learn and grow as people. However, I *hated* how the cheating storyline was done in this book. When I opened this book I was under the impression that I was reading a romance novel and while I like my romantic leads to have flaws, I still want them to be likeable. And the more we learn about Gabriel’s family life, the more I kept thinking that romantic leads do not treat women that way: romantic leads do not treat their wives that way even if they never loved them romantically. At the end I wanted to take a baseball bat and smack Gabriel with it. Yes, I tend to get very bloodthirsty sometimes when I feel that a gross injustice is being committed towards one of the characters and when I do not see that text has any intentions of correcting such injustice – in other words when my reading appears to be going against the author’s intent.
What bothered me the most was how very carefully the text tries to keep us from feeling any sympathy towards Martha’s situation. I mean, obviously I will feel and think whatever I want when I am reading, but I did not see any clues in the text that the author wants us to feel such sympathy.
From the moment we see Martha for the first time, the text told me that she was a cold and unfeeling woman:
The door opened, and Martha came into Ho Ho’s. She looked carefully at the crying student and the sleeping homeless guy as if they were alien life forms; she studied the linoleum and the greasy handprints on the glass serving counter and the teacups on the little tables.
Martha Sanchez was a proud, reserved woman. Perfect posture, her hair gathered into a shiny dark bun at the back of her neck, rosy nails perfectly manicured. She looked at Gabriel like he was somehow to blame for the seedy restaurant, maybe for the decline of the Western world, and when her eyes fell on John, they went cold.
No softening of her features when she looks at crying student or homeless guy, nothing to that effect and her portrayal never changed in my opinion. I felt that the story did everything possible to steer the reader away from the slightest sympathy for her. Granted, very often in the situations like this I would feel the exact opposite and cheer for the character I am not supposed to, but I guess I was upset that I was not “allowed” to sympathize with her if that makes sense, that her situation was not supposed to appeal to my emotions if that makes sense.
What also bothered me is how this situation made Gabriel look. In the romance novel context I was ready to forgive him no matter what, as long as he took the slightest responsibility for what he did to Martha. Instead we get the sanctimonious quotes from him like this one. This is when Gabriel tells John that he asked Martha for divorce:
“Pissed off and feeling vindictive. Looking for someone to blame. She’s gonna use the kids against me. She’s already telling herself it’s in their best interest.”
“What did you tell her?”
“I told her I didn’t love her anymore.”
When I was reading this I was thinking that in my book somebody who was having an affair for twenty five years never loved his wife in the first place, but what do I know? There was nothing to help me accept it – I would feel a little more forgiving if Gabriel met John during his marriage and the marriage started falling apart, etc. But this story portrayed such a cruel scenario – how am I supposed to believe that Gabriel wanted to make their marriage work if the only time he did not cheat on Martha was one month out of twenty five years? And of course we all know that for so long gay men and women were officially denied and still in many states denied the right to marry but I still wanted Gabriel to accept that he was the one in the wrong towards Martha and couple of sentences which paid lip service to that (which then he went to denounce completely) just did not do it for me.
After I finished the book I discovered that the author is doing a series (trilogy?) with these characters. Despite how much Gabriel’s attitude towards Martha made me dislike him, I will buy and read the next book because Kim owns a very special place in my heart and he is supposed to be one of the main characters in the second book. And who knows, maybe Gabriel will decide to own up his mistakes too and I can like him again as well.
I have a huge problem rating this book. My rant/ review on Good reads was a C – only because of Martha, but I am really torn, because if I imagine that there was no Martha in the book I would consider this one of Sarah Black’s best works.
So here we go – a grade of A for everything but Martha and D for Martha’s characterization and her storyline; make what you wish out of it. ;)