REVIEW: Wicked Gentlemen by Ginn Hale
Dear Ms. Hale,
I first heard of your book, Wicked Gentlemen, when it was nominated in the GLBT category of our DA BWAHA March Madness tournament. Wicked Gentlemen made it to the third round of the tournament, which means it was the runner-up in the GLBT category.
At the time we were collecting votes, K.Z. Snow mentioned that the prose and storyline in the pdf excerpt posted on your site were phenomenal. Since I’m always hungry for the combination of phenomenal prose and storyline, I proceeded to read the excerpt. I was very impressed, and I quickly ordered the book.
Wicked Gentlemen is comprised of two closely connected novellas which blend the genres of steampunk paranormal, M/M romance, suspense and allegory smoothly and expertly. The first novella, “Mr. Sykes and the Firefly” is written in first person and narrated by one of the book’s two heroes, while the second novella, “Captain Harper and the Sixty Second Circle,” is written in third person, in the POV of the book’s other hero.
Both novellas are set in a world patterned after Victorian England, but one in which the descendants of demons, known as “Prodigals” have risen from hell to accept salvation from human priests. But instead of salvation the Prodigals encountered persecution. They are confined to the city, where most of them live in a subterranean ghetto called Hells Below. If they are suspected of any crime, they can be arrested and interrogated by the Inquisition, a religious police force.
Belimai Sykes is a Prodigal who resides above ground and makes his living by offering various services for hire. Like other Prodigals, Belimai possesses pointy ears, black nails and yellow eyes. Besides these, his demon ancestors also bequeathed him paranormal abilities, but since the nature of these aren’t revealed immediately, I won’t spoil their discovery for readers. In his past, Belimai was captured and tortured by the Inquisition, an experience which left him scarred and addicted to a drug called ophorium.
As “Mr. Sykes and the Firefly” begins, two men arrive at Belimai’s door. One is a physician, Dr. Edward Talbott, and the other an inquisitor, Captain William Harper. The two men are brothers-in-law. They want Belimai to investigate an abduction. Harper’s sister, Joan, who is also Tablott’s wife, has gone missing. She was last seen in a carriage which had been broken into. While Dr. Talbott reported the break in, his wife rode home in the carriage. But on their arrival at the Tablott residence, the driver and groom discovered that the interior of the carriage was empty.
Before her disappearance, Joan had been receiving warning letters from a Prodigal named Mr. Roffcale. Joan and Roffcale were both members of the Good Commons Society, an organization of activists that agitates for suffrage for both women and Prodigals. Joan’s involvement with the Commons was not a matter of public knowledge, though she often wrote controversial pamphlets. Now Captain Harper has arrested Roffcale and is holding him in a cell, but he hopes to avoid interrogating Roffcale since he doesn’t want Joan’s activism to become publicized.
Belimai agrees to take the case, and he and Captain Harper go to the Inquisition House to question Roffcale. Just entering the Inquisition House is agony for Belimai, who is assaulted with painful memories of his stay there. But worse is yet to come. When Belimai and Harper reach Roffcale’s cell they find only his disemboweled remains.
The sight leaves them both shaken, and when Captain Harper suggests that he owes Belimai a drink, Belimai prefers getting drunk to a sleepless night of trying to forget the murder. While they are drinking together, Belimai warms to Harper, despite his being an inquisitor. A drunk Harper then ends up in Belimai’s bed, but the next morning, they dismiss their lovemaking in what is a wonderful bit of dialogue and narration:
“About last night…” Harper shifted slightly. “I think it would be best if we got it clear between the two of us–“
“I have no intention of telling anyone, if that’s what you’re worried about.” I smiled so that Harper could see my long teeth. “And I don’t think you’re likely to go bragging about it, so what’s left to say?”
“No, I meant between us… We were both pretty drunk. I just wanted you to understand that… ” Harper paused, unwilling to go on. Steadily, the pause began to spread into a lingering silence. He seemed unable to make himself speak of the night before. It amused, but didn’t surprise me.
“You want to make it clear that it was just a drunk fuck?” I filled in for him at last.
Belimai is incredibly hard on himself, but his self-deprecation is also part of what makes him fascinating. For example, his response to the above conversation is as follows:
It was pleasant to find another man as willing to let go as myself. Others had lingered in my bed and concerned themselves with the syringes scattered across my desk. They had clung to me as I descended into ruin. Some had attempted to save me. I had been wept on, slapped, and pulled into a dozen chapels by men who had mistaken me for their true love.
None of them had understood that my moments of sweetness were pure ophorium. Everything that they seemed to love about me came from the needles they detested. The man they desired was an illusion, an ugly stone made briefly beautiful by a trick of the light. In their own ways, each of them had fallen as deeply in love with my addiction as I had. None of them had known how absurd they were, begging me to leave behind that drug that was the source of all they loved most about me. My kindness, my calm, even my careless ease. Ophorium made me their perfect lover because it erased the truth of what I was.
But Belimai is in fact a better person than he believes he is, and Captain Harper is also not quite what he first appears to be. As they investigate Joan’s disappearance and Roffcale’s murder, which seems to be related to other killings, they begin to see through each other’s facades, even as things become more and more dangerous for them.
Wicked Gentlemen is a one of the most original books I have read in a long time. Though I’m not an expert on the paranormal and fantasy genres, the world building here struck me as fresh, consistent and startling.
The world of Wicked Gentlemen is constructed of unexpected combinations of pieces from our own history and mythologies that fit together into a flawless design. You also use physical, sensory details like the Prodigals’ sensitivity to light and holy water, and the humans’ sensitivity to heat, to make the reader feel that world.
Not only that, by making the priesthood police force threatening and dangerous, and the Prodigals victims of persecution, you raise thought provoking questions about the line between maintaining law and order and allowing personal freedom. But though it can be read as an allegory about racism, homophobia, and other forms of persecution, Wicked Gentlemen never feels preachy.
The characters of Belimai and Captain Harper are both appealing and extremely interesting, and a few of the secondary characters are almost as intriguing. Even though some of them only appear in a few pages, they felt very real to me.
The mystery and suspense plots are also well-executed, especially the one in the second novella, “Captain Harper and the Sixty Second Circle.” I wish I could say more about this novella, as I enjoyed it very much, but since it picks up where Belimai and Harper’s lives and relationship were left at the end of “Mr. Sykes and the Firefly,” I think that to do so would reveal too much.
Suffice to say that Harper, when we finally get his point-of-view in the second novella, is just as intriguing as Belimai.
The contrast between Belimai and Harper is the engine that drives the book.
Where Harper is a respected member of high society and a priest-inquisitor, Belimai is viewed by the same society which so respects Harper as guilty until proven innocent. If Harper is the pinnacle for which some men aspire, Belimai is viewed as the dregs.
The gap in their positions, and Harper’s seeming flawlessness in comparison with Belimai, is epitomized in the first moment of intimacy between them:
I led Captain Harper back to my rooms and peeled off his black coat and his priest’s collar. Slowly, I worked his gloves off, exposing his long fingers. His nails were as pink and glossy as the insides of a seashell. Each was tipped with a perfect white crescent. I kissed the soft skin of his palm. His stainless body was everything mine could never be. I hungered for that perfection.
It is that gap in their status that makes their relationship forbidden on all sorts of levels. Not just because they are both men, and the world in which they lived is Victorian in its sensibilities, but because of the mistrust, prejudice, and bigotry that separates their two races, and also since their stations in life are so very different that most of their acquaintances would not understand the relationship if they became aware of it. The barriers they face make their hunger for each other extremely compelling.
Harper and Belimai’s personalities are different as well, at least on the surface. Belimai is a sarcastic, self-deprecating rebel who is often contrary just for the sake of being contrary; Harper is seemingly devoted to duty. But the disappearance of his sister triggers long-dormant impulses in Harper, impulses that reveal that he too, is at heart a rebel, if one of a more quiet and less overt sort.
Just as the two men contrast, so do the two novellas, which differ not only in their suspense story arcs and POV characters but also in the fact that the first is narrated in first person and the second in third person.
Although I found that choice unusual, it worked for me because it made the book more textured and varied, and because while first person narration was suitable to Belimai’s talkative personality, third person was more appropriate for the quiet and private Captain Harper.
I have just a few quibbles about Wicked Gentlemen. First, there were a few times when I felt that the grittiness of the descriptions was slightly overdone, such as for example in a scene in which Harper just barely dodges the contents of a chamberpot. Second the description was frequently vivid and sharp; I loved, for example, this bit of ophorium high:
Two hours later, the night blossomed. The sky unfolded in rich waves of purple and blue velvet. Breezes traced pale violet ribbons through the darkness. Tiny buds of glittering stars burst into brilliant illuminations.
But as much as I loved your writing style, I noticed, after a while, that all the sentences were either short or medium-length, and I would have loved a little more variety in sentence length — an occasional long sentence here or there would have been nice.
Lastly, there were so many interesting characters, situations, and backstories in Wicked Gentlemen that I would have loved for the book to be a bit longer so that these could have been explored in more depth. More of Belimai and Harper’s relationship would have been good, too.
For our readers who may be wondering, I should mention that there is only one explicit love scene — but that one is pretty high on the heat meter. There is also violence in the book, but though I tend to be fairly sensitive to violence, I was able to handle it.
Although Wicked Gentlemen is not perfect, it is so sharply observed, so uniquely constructed, so original, and so touching in places that I have to give it a high recommendation. I am not in the habit of reading M/M romances but I enjoyed this one so much that I was very glad of the chance I took by spending $12.95 on it, and I’m now off to buy the anthology Tangle, which contains your novella, “Feral Machines.” As for Wicked Gentlemen, it’s an A- for me.