REVIEW: Unnatural by Joanna Chambers
The heart breaks but does not change.
An Enlightenment Story
Captain Iain Sinclair. Perfect son, perfect soldier, hero of Waterloo. A man living a lie. The only person who really knows him is his childhood friend, scientist James Hart. But they’ve been estranged since Iain brutally destroyed their friendship following a passionate encounter.
Iain is poised to leave the King’s service to become an undercover agent in India. Before he leaves his old life behind, he’s determined to reconcile with James. An invitation to a country house party from James’s sister provides the perfect opportunity to pin the man down.
James has loved Iain all his life, but his years of accepting crumbs from Iain’s table are over. Forgiving Iain is one thing—restoring their friendship is quite another.
In the face of James’s determined resistance, Iain is forced to confront his reasons for mending the wounds between them. And accept the possibility that James holds the key to his heart’s desire—if only he has the courage to reach for it.
Warning: Contains a dashing military hero with one weakness—a scientist who feels their chemistry in every cell of his body. Kissing in the rain, skinny dipping, and emotional flashbacks. Huzzah!
Dear Joanna Chambers, I loved your “Enlightened” series, so when I saw that you had written another book in this world, I clicked right away. As the blurb states, this story is about Captain Ian Sinclair, who briefly appeared in “Enlightened” as Murdo’s friend.
First of all, let me just say that the flashbacks worked perfectly for me in this book, even though usually I am not very fond of them. Here I felt that they were used to maintain or increase the tension in the story and it worked. Basically, every couple of chapters the story switches between “Now” and “Then”. Now takes place in the year 1824, when Iain is leaving the army after twelve years of service and is about to accept the position of intelligence agent/spy in India. But before he goes he wants to patch things up with James Hart, his childhood friend. It very soon becomes clear that James is also the man Iain loves more than anybody in the world, but he won’t let himself show that. “Then” begins in the year 1808, when both boys met at David’s father estate, and it keeps moving forward in multiple-year jumps, until a few chapters before the end, when “Then” catches with “Now” and there is only “Now”.
I think one of the main reasons why the flashbacks worked for me was because it is hinted in the story that something happened between the guys which hurt their friendship but we do not know what it was. I really wanted to know, so the flashbacks did not annoy me the way they often do when I am more interested to know what is going to happen in the main storyline. It was all tightly connected and the narrative moved very smoothly.
I also thought that both boys were such appealing characters that seeing them in the past, seeing how their friendship matured and how they grew to feel more for each other than friendship, before we get to the “Now” part of the book was interesting and added to the richness of my reading experience.
The story is written in third person limited POV with the narration switching between Iain’s and James’ heads. Both men seemed to accept that they were attracted to men; however, that does not mean that their love story was smooth sailing, quite the contrary. For years Iain was fighting the fact that he grew attracted to James as more than a friend (not always successfully) and assuming I understood him correctly, I found his motivations to be very realistic and easy to understand. There is no Romance story if the characters find their way to each other too fast of course, but sometimes the reasons for the characters being apart just do not ring true for me – but they did here. At times Iain is so confused throughout the story, and I wanted for him to figure things out earlier than he did, because when we hear something like this from him, I thought what he felt about James cannot be more clear.
“Iain didn’t know what to say to that, especially when James looked at him, a stupidly happy expression on his face- happy and hopeful and unguarded. As though Iain was the best thing he’d ever seen. For some reason, that expression made Iain feel both pleased and panicked at the same time. James had been looking at him like that all day, which was doubtless why that loathsome fellow had started in on him, calling him a molly. Christ, when he’d heard that exchange on his way back to the curricle, the anger that had gripped him had been overwhelming. He’d wanted to the pound the man’s face to bloody pulp for threatening James.
James, a molly?
As a somewhat related aside, there is a characterization point addressed here that I always wonder about in historical gay romances. I always wonder, how did the character work out for himself that there is nothing wrong with him (assuming the character does appear to go through that thought process; sometimes it’s just assumed in the text). I realize that many gay people lived happy lives in the past even if they had to hide from the authorities and society that they were together. But I feel like it was probably harder for at least some of them to come to the realization that there was nothing wrong with them, because of the teachings of so many Christian denominations, because of society in general, etc., not to mention the laws against homosexual behavior. Because of this, I was so pleased that in this story the author took time to show at least briefly how it worked out for James:
“James had thought about this a lot over the last few years. And ultimately, he had done as his father always taught him: considered the evidence and drawn his conclusions from that, determining, finally, that there was nothing wrong with Iain Sinclair. And if that was right – and he felt sure it was – then the next, inexorable conclusion was that there was nothing wrong with James either. That they weren’t wicked degenerates, just another sort of person. Classifiable, like James’s specimens, with a place on the taxonomic table, as valuable as any other sort of being in the world.”
Despite interpreting Iain as the more conflicted character of the two, I liked James just as much if not more than Iain. I want to give special thanks to the author for making James a naturalist – I thought that his fascination with insects and plants and all things alive made him an even more interesting person. It felt as if author researched the bits about butterflies and bees, and other nature things, very well. I also thought that some of the allusions between nature and what people like James and Iain had to do to stay alive and be happy were lovely – not very subtle, but still lovely.
I was happy and satisfied at the end of the book. I believed in the future for these guys and Iain’s realization felt earned.
“He wouldn’t be free. He’d be lost. Because he’d realised something true and vital today. The thread between them – the love between them – wasn’t a chain or a tether.
It was a lifetime.”