REVIEW: Hawaiian Gothic by Heidi Belleau,Violetta Vane
Dear Ms. Belleau and Ms. Vane,
I really enjoyed the free short story of yours I read and have been on the lookout for your other work. Hawaiian Gothic sounded like something up my alley, even with a ghost angle: an m/m with multicultural characters set in Hawaii with a mystery twist and a gothic flavor. I can’t say that this was an unmixed pleasure, though. It’s a very ambitious work, and some of the writing is lovely, but the story is a hybrid of a number of different subgenres and it ultimately didn’t work for me.
It’s a difficult plot to sum up without giving away spoilers. Ori Reyes returns to Hawaii to see his childhood friend and unrequited love, Kalani, who was savagely beaten in a hate crime and is now in a coma with little possibility of recovery. Soon after he arrives, Kalani appears as a ghost who is corporeal and visible only to Ori (yes, Kalani is still in a coma, but his soul or some equivalent is able to leave the comatose body and appear to Ori in a healthy one). After some extremely requited, hot, smexxin’, they talk over the attack and realize that it was part of a curse put on him as a child.
Ori is determined to track down the person who cursed Kalani, which requires figuring out why he was cursed in the first place, which requires unraveling a years-old murder mystery. Once the mystery has been solved, Ori has to find a way to remove the curse.
These three sequences represent three distinct aspects of the book. The first section is an m/m romance, with the added twist that we don’t know whether there can be an HEA given one member of the couple is in a coma. The next section is the murder mystery. The next and longer section is a (grim)dark fantasy (it may also fall in the horror genre, but I don’t read horror so I can’t speak to that). And then the last few chapters and the epilogue return to m/m territory, again with a twist. There is definitely an HEA, but it is preceded by a lot of not-so happy stuff.
This is a very difficult balance to pull off, and the authors don’t quite manage it. The shifts from one genre to another were somewhat jarring to me; they involved shifts of tone and content that didn’t always work, and each section was necessarily shorter than it would have been in a book that stuck to one genre, so they weren’t foreshadowed and set up effectively. I read in all three of these genres, so it wasn’t the content so much as the quick changes and the abbreviated nature of each segment.
There are also regular flashbacks between the present and the past through the entire book, which are sometimes quite effective, but they also interrupt the rhythm of the story. So the overall effect is choppy, and the book winds up feeling a lot longer than its page length (not necessarily a bad thing).
Most of the story is told from Ori’s third-person POV, which means that we are in his head a lot and we see all the other characters through his eyes. Ori is a deeply angst-ridden man. He has PTSD from his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, which shapes his behavior and reactions, but even more consequential is his unrequited love for Kalani. Ori’s discharge from the army and consequent punishment are triggered by Kalani’s attack:
“I wanted leave to see Kalani after he got jumped. I got Julie to mail me a newspaper. Figured I’d show it to the lieutenant, you know, prove to him it really happened, that it was really serious. But the article headline said something about a possible hate crime. He asked if I wanted to go see my boyfriend.” He shrugged his shoulders. Shrugged off the weight of the story.
“And for that, you broke his jaw!” shouted his father, his face darkening to an almost eggplant color. “For that? You know what I’ve been through? In the seventies, my squad leader left a dead dog on my bunk with a note that said ‘chow’, and you know what I did? I filed a formal complaint.”
But this wasn’t like some peon fucking drill sergeant throwing out an impersonal “faggot” to humiliate him into obedience. Honestly, it wasn’t about his sexuality at all, when he thought about it. So what if somebody accused him of being gay and meant it? He’d worked hard not to let anything on, and if he failed, then he failed. So he’d be kicked out. So what? It was Kalani. It was the thought of anyone cheapening what he and Kalani shared—no, could have shared. What went between them…it should have been too sacred to use for humiliation, especially now—especially now that it had turned tragic.
I have to suspend some serious disbelief to accept that an Army Ranger, from a military family and with several tours of duty under his belt, attacked his superior because speculating about a boyfriend was somehow beyond the pale.
It goes beyond obsession to the point where we know little about Ori apart from his focus on Kalani, who winds up being something of a cipher. We see Ori with his family and with Kalani’s family in a few scenes and we see him with others when he is trying to undo the curse. But all of these scenes are about Kalani, Kalani, Kalani. It’s a testament to the authors’ writing ability that I wasn’t sick of character by the end of the book.
However, they were good together, in the chemistry sense, on the page. For readers who enjoy angst and a couple who seem to fit together, this was a great read. When they were together in the present day, I believed in them. But when I stopped and thought about it, I didn’t really know exactly why.
Another strength of the novel is that the multicultural aspects are strongly foregrounded. Most of the characters are non-white and the dialogue is peppered with Hawaiian words and phrases. The supernatural aspects of the plot are drawn from Hawaiian myths and legends. The initial introduction and exposition of these myths was a bit clunky, but the way they shaped the storyline worked quite well.
And as I said above, there are some lovely passages, especially those describing the island:
That night, after a dinner eaten alone, just a few mouthfuls of rice and a grilled ono steak, he went to the beach. Other than the once with his sister, he’d been purposely avoiding the ocean—no small feat on an island—afraid that if he looked too long, he’d be hypnotized by it, called to it, and the undertow would drag him home. Of course, when he’d first made that decision, it was under the impression that there was no Kalani to give him reason to stay here, but now it was something else. Some determined, weird resolve that he wouldn’t let himself enjoy Hawai’i’s goodness until Kalani could too. All of him.
He drove a little north of Hilo so that he’d be alone, parked on a side road, and followed a narrow trail down to where the land dropped into the ocean. Fifty feet of flat rocks and driftwood formed the beach; it was bounded on either side by steep cliffs trailing with flowering vines. The ocean rushed into the cut, frothing white, clawing back. The smallest, smoothest rocks tumbled musically back and forth with the waves. The beach seemed like a whole world in miniature, where water, air, and earth (born from fire) clashed into one another and negotiated uneasy, shifting boundaries.
Ori picked up a rock the size of his hand and threw it into the waves. The sound of its splash melted into the roar of the waves and the rainmaker clatter of the stones.
“I’m here,” The words were quiet, but they cut straight through the sound of the waves.
The writing is vivid and forceful, if a little overwritten at times. The dark scenes are very dark (especially in the fantasy portion) and the sex scenes do a good job of placing the reader within the action. The murder mystery development and solution is largely done in third-person narrative, so it is the most distancing, but I assume that was intentional.
For m/m purists, I should note that there are on-page sex scenes that include a woman, although not with the main characters. In contrast to the m/m scenes, which are explicit and detailed, the m&f scenes are brief and relatively non-explicit (I can’t say more about these scenes without spoiling a major plot point). The inclusion of MMA fighting techniques into the sex scenes made them more interesting than the average, too.
It’s hard for me to know who the target audience for this book is supposed to be. Despite the mystery subplot I don’t think it’s for mystery fans, and if you don’t like dark fantasy or horror, this may be a bit too much. But readers of angsty m/m romance who also enjoy reading dark fantasy and don’t mind a dash of mystery should enjoy Hawaiian Gothic quite a bit, despite its weaknesses.