REVIEW: ePistols at Dawn by Z.A. Maxfield
Dear Ms. Maxfield.
I love meta books: books that are enacting the very thing they’re about as they’re relating it. Books about romance authors are a favorite of mine (Jayne Ann Krentz has a Harlequin Temptation trilogy from 1990 that I love and recently re-acquired, much to my delight: The Pirate #287, The Adventurer #293, and The Cowboy #302). Your ePistols at Dawn is not only meta, it’s meta about its meta. There are so many layers, so many folds and twists, it’s like an exquisite origami mobius strip, if such a thing is possible. The literary critic in me was running around its little cage so very very happy (gotta keep them caged, those literary critics–you don’t know where they’ve been or what they’ve been or will get up to). But the thing that you managed to pull off that made all of me happy was that ePistols at Dawn was also a damn good story and a hot, exciting romance.
When he was very young, one Keiran Anders wrote Doorways, a book that has since become the seminal coming out book, the lifeline of gay youth everywhere. It is the self-proclaimed “sacred cow” of Jae-Sun Fields, a reporter for a gay tabloid devoted to outing closeted celebrities. And Jae’s pissed that one Kelly Kendall has written an e-published, erotic spoof of Doorways called Windows. He admits that Windows is fun and hot and cute, but he hates that it pokes gentle fun at Doorways, he’s convinced that the author of Windows is a woman, and he’s determined to unmask her, so he takes on an online female persona to correspond with Kelly Kendall, which of course, blows up in his face about half-way through the story.
This in itself would be a brilliant meta-m/m-romance. You’re a woman, writing about a man posing as a woman to hunt down the woman who wrote an erotic m/m spoof of a brilliant gay coming-out story. I could have fun just with that. But you don’t stop there, because of course the author of Doorways and the author of Windows are the same person, Kelly Mackay, a reclusive, OCD, agoraphobic screen-writer who lives with his fuck buddy, “houseboy, factotum, and general all-around slut” Will Lanier.
To make it all the more brilliant, Kelly (and Will) and Jae meet at the funeral of an actor, Hunter Leighton, who committed suicide a year after being outed by Jae’s newspaper when Jae was going out with him. (It’s losing a bet to Will that The Adversary would next out Hunter Leighton that made Kelly write Windows in the first place.) Jae was not the reporter who outed Hunter, didn’t know that his newspaper was writing the story, but feels guilty for leaving Hunter even though he was convinced Hunter would never want to see him again. The thing that I love about the obvious political and social commentary in this story is that it never seems heavy-handed. It’s just life (or death). It’s just people. And although there’s a definite message to be taken away (Silence is Death), it’s not unalloyed with commentary of its own (where does privacy begin and end? whose truth is the right truth?). There are too many layers to the story, to the narrative itself, for anything to be absolutely right or wrong. And that’s as it should be.
And for all that, the relationship between Jae and Kelly is completely sweet. Kelly is a mess of psychoses, that he freely admits and bravely deals with as they hit him. He’s OCD, agoraphobic, has panic attacks, and you don’t hide them. They’re there and they’re real and Jae loves him with his issues, not despite them, because they make Kelly who they are. I watched these two men fall in love with each other and believed it completely. They were perfect for each other and so individual as characters and so wonderful as a couple.
And funny, dammit! Your writing is wonderfully funny. Jae (who is 6’5″ which is an issue in the story) and his colleague get in her car:
They walked to the parking garage, and he girded his loins before folding himself into her tiny car.
"Clearly, they didn’t think of you when they designed the Beetle."
"No, it’s like a fucking clown car. All we need now is about forty-three of our closest friends and we’d be in business."
"May I remind you that if you take public transportation to work, you’re going to have to take what you can get?"
"And of course when you drive, you drive that sexiest of all street machines, the cock-rocking Honda Element. Isn’t their advertising slogan, "So square, it’s significant’?"
"No, it’s "Because outside every Ã¼ber cool Asian dude there’s a pencil-necked geek dying to get in.’ You just don’t like my car ’cause it’s a GeekBoy Magnet."
Funny and poignant, though. After Kelly kicks Jae to the curb:
Jae’s eyes burned. "I broke his heart. I really, really let him down, and now he’s not going to look at me anymore at all."
"Time to go home, Jae," Shannon said gently, signaling the bartender. He knocked back his final drink and nodded dumbly. The man came over and handed him the receipt to sign. He left a large tip.
"I’ll cry in your car," he warned.
"As long as you don’t puke." Shannon caught Jae’s arm.
The crowd of people milling by the door watched as he walked past unsteadily. He tried not to lurch like a drunken giant, knowing how terrifying it was to look up at him and imagine that he was going to topple over. Somehow, that feeling of being outsized and out of control, foreign and immense and possibly frightening was the last straw. When they finally made it to Shannon’s car, he put his head in his hands and wept.
The two issues I had with the story: Kelly tells his story about writing Windows–the cause of all his psychoses–to Jae’s boss, not to Jae. We do not see Jae’s response to the horror in Kelly’s background, and while it fit with the story, it seemed contrary to the characters of Kelly and Jae to avoid that confrontation. And second, the plot of Doorways is never described. We know very little about it at the end of the novel: the main character’s name is pretty much it. It must be difficult to write about a novel that is described as being so brilliant and amazing and it’s probably tempting to leave it to be all things to all readers, but I would have preferred to know at least something about it (did it end happily for the protagonist, for example).
That aside, I adored this book. I’ve been recommending it to everyone as a truly good romance, but also brilliant commentary on the issues of m/m romance, on what it means to be gay where your sexual preference automatically becomes a political statement, on what it means to write about gay people, and on what a romance novel is, who reads them, and why.
Thank you so much. I can’t wait to find the time to read your other stuff.
This book can be purchased at Samhain in ebook format or other etailers.