REVIEW: The Haunted Heart: Winter by Josh Lanyon
Dear Josh Lanyon:
Sunita: As your faithful readers know, you took 2012 as a sabbatical year and did not release any new novellas or novels (although you did release two short stories). Blood Red Butterfly, which I reviewed briefly earlier this year, came out in February, and last month you released this first novella-length installment of a new series. Since both Sirius and I consider your books auto-buys, we thought it would be fun to do a joint review of The Haunted Heart: Winter.Readers of earlier Lanyon stories will find themselves in recognizable territory, but this book is definitely the beginning of something new. Flynn Ambrose is living in a big drafty house in Connecticut, going through the inheritance left to him by his Great-Uncle Winston. Winston left a museum full of antiques and collectibles, some of it valuable and all of it strange. When a Regency mirror starts housing a ghostly something-or-other, Flynn seeks help from the reassuringly strong and solid tenant he also inherited, writer Kirk Murdoch. Reluctant at first, Kirk warms to Flynn and becomes as intrigued by the ghost in the mirror as Flynn is.
I purposely didn’t read anything about this book before it was released. I read both the 2012 short stories and Blood Red Butterfly and enjoyed them all, but I was really looking forward to a new Lanyon book that was (a) longer and more developed; and (b) in the style of his mysteries, which I enjoy the most of all his writing. I am not a huge fan of ghost stories, but I figured I would trust him on this, and I wasn’t disappointed.
If you’ve read The Ghost Wore Yellow Socks, some of the setup and characterizations will be recognizable, but it’s a quite different book overall. For one thing, the ghost aspect is front and center and real. More importantly, though, Flynn in this book feels more complex and mature to me than Perry did (I know a lot of Lanyon fans love Ghost, but while I enjoyed it I don’t return to it like I do some of his other books). And since the story is told from Flynn’s perspective, we really get into his head.
Sirius: Yes, The Ghost Wore Yellow Socks was my least favorite book by this writer. I know that’s his standard way to make a character vulnerable — either with grief or with illness (not just his, of course, but he uses it often) — but I felt he way overdid it with Perry (funny, I do not even remember what the issue was, but I do remember that I felt he was helpless, and damsels in distress annoy me). I liked Flynn much more than Perry.
Sunita: I’ve read a number of books lately that feature protagonists who are grappling with depression, darkness, and/or suicide. Reading this reminded me of how nuanced Lanyon’s treatment of characters with physical and mental difficulties can be, and how unusual this is in romance, whether mainstream or m/m. Where other writers will pile on the angst, Lanyon goes the subtle route. The reader knows right away that Flynn is mourning the loss of his partner, who was also quite young, but we don’t know exactly what happened, and the revelations of what Flynn has gone through since are parceled out slowly and indirectly.
Sirius: I felt Flynn’s grief as clearly as you did. One of the reasons I like his books is because I always admire how much Lanyon can achieve with so few words. That quote about snow on Alan’s eyelashes make me choke up a little.
If I closed my eyes I could remember snowflakes in Alan’s eyelashes and his breath warm against my face …
I like a variety of writing styles – I can admire, let’s say, Carole Cummings for her lush writing style in Aisling and her other series, and I was tasting the words on my tongue when I was reading Ash’s musings in Alexis Hall’s Glitterland, but I also love the restraint Lanyon shows in his works, especially because he can achieve so much with very few words.
Sunita: Flynn’s grief is understandable, and we know his previous actions flow from that, so his parents’ and doctors’ worries about him make sense. It’s only toward the end of the book that we realize the full extent of his unhappiness, and it hits like a punch. The ending is a pretty tenuous HFN, and you really have to trust the author to be able to pull off a genuine HEA over the next three installments.
Sirius: That’s a really good point you make about trusting the author. I thought the ending was perfect for this book. Considering Flynn’s state of mind and the state of his emotions, I thought anything happier than what we have at the end would have felt way too soon and would not ring true to me, but definitely I have no doubt that we will get the genuine happy ending at the end of the series and this is only because I trust the author. Otherwise I would have wondered whether the series would end with another solution which is also clearly hinted at.
Sunita: I agree. An HEA would have been jarring here. That said, this isn’t an overwhelmingly depressing book. Flynn is deeply unhappy, but he still has a sense of humor, and his youthful perspective (he’s in his early to mid-twenties) works to make some of his pronouncements feel less certain than he thinks they are. For example, when he asserts that he’ll never be attracted to anyone again, my reaction was that while he might believe that about himself, I didn’t. And I was right!
Sirius: Flynn felt like a very strong person even if his main determination was to do something I really do not want him to do (this is not resolved at the end of the book yet). But I also thought that his very determined pursuit of the ghost’s story showed him as somebody who could be very goal oriented.
Sunita: The plot is fairly straightforward. As Flynn and Kirk puzzle out the provenance of the mirror and try to understand why Flynn seems to be the conduit, they get to know each other better, gingerly become attracted to and closer to each other, and eventually travel to the original home of the mirror. This section opens out the story and includes relevant historical information without info-dumping. There is also a scene involving characters from an earlier novel that Lanyon fans will recognize, but which new readers don’t need to have read in order for the scene to make sense.
This story is entirely Flynn’s; we don’t really learn much about Kirk except through the ways he interacts with Flynn. What we learn about him is appealing, and Flynn’s interest in him is understandable. By the end of the novella it’s clear that he has his own, somewhat troubled history, but this is not a story about two damaged people being made whole through True Love (at least not so far, it isn’t). I’m hoping that future installments fill out Kirk’s character and develop the relationship, and given Lanyon’s track record, I’m pretty sure they will.
Sirius: Yes, I do agree that we do not know much about Kirk’s character yet and I do hope that he will fill out in the next books. My thoughts were wondering along the lines – eh, so he’s dark, brave, kind, and mysterious. I like his canvas, and I am sure we will see his depths in the next books of the series, but so far I do not feel like I know him well yet. We know that he is a good and honorable guy, of course, because he helps Flynn. We know that he has a sense of humor, and we know that he has a sense of adventure. I mean, we do not know the full extent of what he was doing in the army, but surely at least part of the reason he joined was because he is an adventurous person? I also thought that since in fiction the books the character likes often help us to to learn more about his personality, the fact that he seemed to like Jules Verne also indicates that he likes adventure.
What did you think of the mystery in the story?
Sunita: For a writer who is known for his mysteries, I thought this was more “ghost story” than standard mystery. The investigation was interesting sociologically but not exactly a mystery, at least not in the genre sense to me. I’m not really that up on ghost mythology, but I assumed that the ghost wanted the truth to come out, and haunting Flynn was part of that. The resolution to her story was almost anticlimactic, I thought; not because it wasn’t interesting, but getting to the end was more important than the end.
Sirius: Ah, I think you nailed it. I was a little confused as to what I felt when I was reading about the investigation. I mean, I was interested, I thought it fitted the story, but it did not really feel like a mystery. So what genre do you think this series belong to? Paranormal romance?
Sunita: Oh, good question. It feels like a classic ghost-story setup, which I guess falls within paranormal romance. So yes, but emphasis on the ghost, since everything else is non-paranormal. Plus, there is the mystery part. So paranormal-mystery-romance? With an HFN? Or, let’s just call it a Lanyon. ;) Whatever we call it, I give it a grade of B+.
Sirius: I agree, a grade of B+ for me as well.