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. ;)
I was pretty set on trying this book until I read the Martha spoiler. Female characters in mm can be highly problematic for me, and I especially dislike when they’re portrayed as either irredeemable bitches or conveniences without their own needs/desires. This goes on the wish list while I think about it. . . But thanks for the review.
I didn’t read the spoiler, but love the rest of your review. It’s on my Amazon wish list and I’ll be interested to hear about the second book.
I was all set to buy this book until I read the spoiler.
Why why WHY do m/m authors do this?
I can cope with the fantasy female-free world of so many m/m novels, although it makes me roll my eyes. But why do so many authors think that the romance won’t work unless they set women up as the “enemy”?
It’s like they subconsciously think those magic hetero-beams are so powerful that no sane man could possibly love another man unless all women are made repellent and evil.
Thank you for the interesting review. I haven’t read this author yet and I also find the portrayal of women in m/m one-sided and off-putting. I’m not entirely certain about the writing, either. It reads as more telling than showing, without very much subtlety to it. But maybe that’s just the excerpts you chose.
@reader: I love parts about Kim that I chose (obviously :-)), but you can always check an excerpt from Dreamspinner, or Amazon (or another venue) to get more taste of her writing.
@hapax: Trust me, I have asked myself the very same question many times. I have not come up with an answer yet. Your guess is as good as any. In all fairness I have not read Martha as evil, just cold and a character whose pain is undeserving of sympathetic look. And like you I can cope with world without women, even though I will roll my eyes too, but I prefer that to what I encountered in this book, truly. I also think that because I think that she is a terrific writer, this storyline and this character stuck out as sore thumb for me in comparison to everything else. I mean I had seen plenty of awful women characters which I could shrug off as caricatures, get annoyed, yes, but forget about it soon. This book just won’t let me go because it was IMO so well written and I got so angry on Martha’s behalf.
@Susan: See what I said to hapax, I did not feel that she was portrayed as evil. Based on the reviews I have read a lot more readers were not bothered by what bothered me than those who were indeed bothered, so maybe you will love this one. There is a lot to love about this book IMO.
@Darlynne: Thanks! From what I read on her blog second book should be out sometime in the fall.
Yeah, I think I’d have the same kind of problem Sirius. What Gabriel did was pretty shitty and I’d struggle with forgiving him too. There were other ways around this. He could have told Martha everything from the start, for example. They could have been friends.
I love Sarah Black’s writing but this book made me so very angry over the dismissive treatment of Martha. I can understand this story as being about the impacts of DADT on gay men and the changing world that offers them and younger gay men better hopes and opportunities. What I read was a story about male privilege in action.
Neither Gabriel or John took any responsibility for how their choices had come at the expense of Martha having the same privileges they were taking for themselves – being able to live a life of meaning with someone who loves her. But she’s just a woman, that doesn’t matter. I can only go by the author’s words on the page any promise that Martha finds love or is better treated is just authorly arse covering because this book is what it is.
Now if the author had intended to show the operation of the assumption of male privilege on a woman in Martha’s situation – I could have read that book and been on board for a strong arc of change and character development for everyone. The choices the author made in the way Martha was portrayed undermines that opportunity and sets her up as the straw villain/woman reifying villainous heteronormative society in her person.
Sure they do. We see heroes doing this quite often in historical and contemporary romances (especially category romances). From viewing the female population with veiled contempt (such as believing all are whores who were born to make his life a hell) to casting their long-time mistresses aside without a second thought the moment they meet heroines, and from believing the worst of the heroine, e.g. assuming she’s a prostitute, slut, gold-digger or whatnot (his attitude always changes the moment he finds out she’s a virgin), to believing the worst of other women where the heroine is concerned, e.g. they’re out to hurt the heroine.
When the heroine falls for the hero who’s engaged or married to someone else, authors generally treat the fiancée or wife as the Other Woman (when the heroine is supposed to be the Other Woman), who’s usually portrayed as career-obsessed, cold, selfish, materialistic, manipulative or emotionally empty. Heroes are usually allowed to say they have never loved their fiancées or wives the moment they find out they had an abortion behind their back, and that they did it to spite heroes or for their careers or other social ambitions.
I just think it’s more noticeable in m/m romances, which makes this supposedly norm so jarring. Might be just me, though.
@Maili: I am sure you are right :). I was strictly referencing m/m romances – I am very well read in m/m and all its subgenres but not well read in het romance at all. This once a month het romance I do read I pick based on reviews here and I do try to make sure I will be happy with the book. And I do not touch historical het romances ever unless I am reading Amanda Quick whose books are a guilty pleasure, but one of the reasons why they are I actually do not think her heroes ( while having issues for sure) treat the women as you described. But usually even the jerks of all jerks heroes in het romances are redeemed at the end, right? The romances by Judith McNaught for example are some of the books which made me happily forget about het romance for years and supposedly even her heroes are sorry – whether you think that them being sorry is enough would be a different story. One of my points was that I wanted to see Gabriel be sorry in any way, shape or form and he did not IMO.
I totally understand that as it’s what I usually want from other heroes as well, but they rarely redeem themselves in that respect. Not enough to suit me, anyway. :)
@Maili: That is a brilliant point and makes total sense. I’m one of those reader-reviewers who has railed about the Evil Woman character in m/m but is more forgiving of it in m/f, and I’m sitting here trying to figure out why. It’s one thing if the EW is trying to break up the couple, but oftentimes she’s out of the picture and villainized, or she’s the mistress of the hero and the hero gets a pass and she doesn’t.
You’re probably right that it’s more jarring in m/m because there are fewer women characters, or they play a different role. I think it’s also because when we’re rooting for one woman over another, it doesn’t *feel* as anti-woman, even though it often is (because we’re implicitly endorsing negative stereotypes as we do so). And perhaps it’s because we think of how we would behave in a similar situation to the EW character and assume we’d be better, so we’re inferring that the character is an uncomplimentary stand-in for us, the readers.
Given the characters are pretty similar to those found in m/f, it helps explain the disconnect between the authors who keep writing the characters and the readers who complain about them.
I bought this book and started reading immediately after reading a different (very positive) review that made no mention of the wife. And returned as soon as it was made clear that Sanchez married as a way to stay in the closet and cheated the entire marriage — and it seemed also clear to me that the wife, who was portrayed pretty negatively, had not been a knowing/willing beard at the outset.
That kind of behavior is antithetical to the “honor” touted in the blurb. How as a reader I am supposed to respect a “warrior’s code” that says dishonesty and using others is acceptable? Does an author really think that as a reader I should respect or root for an HEA/HFN for an MC who lies and cheats because it is easier than being truthful and facing who/what you are? I don’t think so.
jmc I completely understand but myself I do not even go that far – I do not think that gay men who were staying in the closet owed anybody anything and that this would have made them dishonest per ce. I mean we are seeing improvements but to me there is still way to go. But yes – the fact that society may treat you horribly does not give you a license to use others IMO. I am not at all saying that Gabriel should have come out – then he definitely would lose everything and would be forced to resign from the army. But why the heck could he not stay single that beats me? Even if the text would told me that he would have to get married for the specific job he was doing, even then I would feel better. But nothing to that effect – in fact his lover who indeed stayed single advanced higher than Gabriel did . So I am left to conclude that the only reason he got married is because he wanted kids. That’s nice. I wonder what Martha would have thought about it had she known that he already has a lover because as you said I did not see a single sign that she did know in the text.
Sunita as I said to Maili I am not qualified to hold an intelligent debate about het romance and compare my reactions on meta level to m/m romances but I have read plenty of non romance books with het romantic storylines where I absolutely remember judging a woman harsher than I judged a man and I not sure why it is either. Like in “Song for Arbonne”, I at least know that I adored Urthe and hated everybody who caused him pain – not that I thought Bertran should get a pass, not at all, but I absolutely hated Urthe’s wife more and hoped that she would burn in whatever hell the religion of that book provided. Did I understand on the rational level of my brain that she was just a scared young woman who was forced in arranged marriage to the person she did not like? Of course, but I could care less and still hate her I think:). My two cents :)
Kaetrin, sure and even in this scenario Martha’s pain and betrayal could have been portrayed with more sympathy – it is not one or another, I won’t necessarily hate a hero if I would have some sympathy to those he wronged.
Merrian I agree with most of what you said, except I am still looking forward to the book two and am curious what Martha’s finding love will transform into. If this will mean John and Gabriel following up on their ridiculous promise to check and vet suitable candidates and Martha not punching them, I may be done with these series though.
Beyond the way Martha is treated I really had a problem with the reactions other characters had when they found out about the long term affair.
Throughout the book the main couple were both held up as being honorable. Very, very honorable. Exceedingly, example to us all, honorable. And their actions simply weren’t. They lied and cheated. They lied and cheated for years and years and no one who learns about it thinks that this makes them dishonorable. Not at all.
I think that if you find out that someone you respect and admire had been less admirable than you thought them, there is an immediate sense of betrayal. Shock and anger and betrayal. Also disappointment and possibly some contempt. I am not saying this is fair, but its a pretty universal reaction to exposed feet of clay.
The fact that no one had this kind of reaction strikes me as rather unrealistic.
Christina, do you mean everybody else around them besides Martha should have reacted differently? I just want to be sure that I am not misunderstanding you. If that’s what you meant, I do not necessarily agree. I mean, as you probably saw from my review I have very little desire to defend the affair as it was written. Also I feel that the aggrieved party – Martha in this situation has every right to be as upset and angry as she wants to be and her anger should be shown as something valid, not dismissed. But let’s say I was one of the relatively neutral observers , although not quite, maybe somebody who knew the men as friends or colleagues. Would I feel bad for Martha? Absolutely. And again I would feel that if she wants to hate them in peace for the rest of her life she should be respected and not portrayed negatively for that. But I would also feel that society which forced gay men to hide if they want to stay in the army is the dishonorable entity first and foremost. I would also feel that often there may not be an honorable response to the situation “do not ask do not tell” had put the gay men and women ( and whatever existed before that). What I am trying to say that no, if I learned about such situation, if it was written differently I could have felt sympathy as wel and did not feel betrayed. So I guess I am trying to say that it did not necessarily struck me as unrealistic in theory. I just hated how it was done. I am trying to evaluate the book which was written not the one I would have wanted it to be so I cannot even say which scenario would have worked better for me. Oh I know – of course this would have been a different story but if Gabriel married Martha being confused about his identity and honestly tried to make his marriage work , but met John during the course of their marriage and started an affair then, I could have been pretty sympathetic to him. Or not, I don’t know. Hope my ramblings make sense.
The spoiler did make me sad. I do not understand this ongoing characterization of the wife as the cold, mean OW when in real life this is (mostly) not the case. A good author would surely understand that the story would have more emotional impact by making the spouse a more 3-dimensional person and perhaps showing some meaningful conversations between the characters to illustrate some potential real-life resolutions.
Honestly, it kind of cracks me up to know that for 25 years, these two have been carrying on except for one month. So what? Why make that part of the story at all?
@Shelley: I have no idea, I wish I did. Maybe it was supposed to show that Gabriel tried to make his marriage work during one month? I know how ridiculous it sounds, believe me.
@Sirius: I do not think all of the characters should have reacted differently, but I do think some of them should have. The very high esteem in which the general is held makes the feet of clay reaction likely in at least some of the people who find out about the affair.
I do think that there is a lot of room for understanding and compassionate reactions. I think they would be very realistic. I just found the fact that almost everyone had this reaction rather dubious.
@Christina: I understand what you are saying and respect your opinion, but I guess I can still see the scenario where I could see every character reacting as they did – I did not buy it in this scenario, but I can see that. I hope you do not mind if I will ramble some more.
Okay, of course this is a different hypothetical since it does not deal with cheating, but it still deals with honesty, so I feel at least some kind of analogy is possible. Let’s say none of them would have an affair, but they would have still hidden their relationship and hidden the fact that they are both gays. And I am sure many gay men and women while DADT was still in effect pretended to be straight. And let’s imagine that somebody discovered it. Would you say that they should have held our characters in lesser esteem than before? Because I would argue vehemently that both of them would still deserve to be in the highest esteem of their peers and friends, even though they would have lied for years. I think that to demand the honesty from the character whom society put in the situation – be honest, or lose your job and everything associated with it, well I think this is the choice that every gay man or woman had a right to kick to the curb and say honesty be damned (or not, I am just saying that no matter what they would have chose, I would have applauded them for it).
Again, I fully realize that what they did takes dishonesty to the whole new level and as I mentioned before, as it is written, I have absolutely no desire to defend what they did. But I can easily see a scenario where I would have no problem with people who respected them before to continue respecting them.
@Sirius: I think you might be misunderstanding me slightly. I do not think the reaction I described is a good way for someone to react. I only think it is realistic reaction and that from a believability point of view some of the characters should have had this reaction. My criticism was on the overly optimistic approach the author took in depicting these positive reactions not on the reactions themselves.
Reading over my comment I realized I did not make myself clear.
As to your hypothetical case: If you take away the cheating there is absolutely nothing dishonorable in their actions. People who stand to be persecuted for their sexual orientation are not obliged to be honest about it. I absolutely agree with you that in such a situation as you describe the characters would still deserve to be in the highest esteem of their peers and friends.
Christina I probably was. Thanks for clarifying.