Tag Archives: historical romance

On Accuracy in Historical Romance

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Adam and Immanuel from The Winter Garden.

Back in April, I presented a paper at Ithaca College’s feminist pop culture conference From Pippi to Ripley on the issues surrounding the perceived “inaccuracies” in historical romance, especially queer historical romance. Since this issue has reared its ugly head again, I thought I would share my paper with you.


 

Queer Historical Romance and the Reclamation of Identity and Power

 In recent years, as media has become more diverse, from Star Wars to romance novels, critics have claimed that portrayals of marginalized characters are historically inaccurate or done to pander to political correctness. What these critics fail to understand is that historical “accuracy” is often far from accurate. As with all wars, to the victors go the spoils and that includes the historical narrative. The narratives found in modern historical romance novels are by and large white supremacist, Christian, and upholding of colonialist values. Following the expansion of LGBT rights and the acceptance of queer characters in media, queer authors have fought to reclaim the history of those who have come before us, whose voices were lost to puritanical scholars and censors that twisted the public’s perception of the trajectory of LGBT lives. By writing historical romances to fill in the missing gaps in queer history, queer writers strengthen the modern community by asserting a history of sexual and bodily autonomy. Modern queer historical romance novels aren’t meant to be a revisionist history but a re-enlightened one that seeks to capture on the page the people and communities that had previously only lived in the margins of history.

If you’ve ever looked at the reviews of any piece of diverse media, you have come across someone spouting that the diversity present is forced or that it was impossible for a homosexual relationship to be semi-public given the time period. Questions of “realism” and “historical accuracy” have been the greatest hindrance to diverse media, but this begs one to consider what is truly historically accurate. In her essay, “Reclaiming Historical Romance,” Elizabeth Kingston posits that often what we, as readers, consider to be historical fact is actually historical fantasy that has been passed down by previous historians and repeated until it morphed into “fact” (Kingston 1). History has been overwhelmingly written by the “victors” or those who have maintained imperialist or political control. For most of the modern Western world, that has been white, Christian, heterosexual men who have espoused white supremacist views in their writings. As Bronski states in A Queer History of the United States, “The writing and reading of history is always, consciously or not, a political act of interpretation” (xiv).

Until the last few decades, queer history has been relegated to the periphery, and those queer figures who appear in the past are seen as aberrations or were viewed as deviants. The language surrounding queer stories in mass media was tainted by white supremacist political views. Despite a large portion of the queer community, especially in the seventeen to early nineteen hundreds being white, they were viewed by the community at large as going against the white supremacist view of sexual purity. This stems from Puritanical Christian views and was widely adopted after the Second Great Awakening (Bronski 89). To deviate from the heteronormative family structure was to go against the entire structure upon which evangelical and puritanical society was built (10). To many, this would mean that queer populations were nonexistent or were so afraid of persecution that they wouldn’t dare act on their feelings, but this is exactly what white supremacists want us to believe. To make a person who is not like them feel isolated or that they should be ashamed of their differences, is a way to keep them powerless. For if they hide who they are, they are less likely to find others who sympathize or understand their situation.

Developing communities of support and creating public sympathy through shared experience is how marginalized populations gain a foothold on power and social autonomy. In the mid-nineteenth century queer communities began to take root in cities and gained visibility. Due to the anonymity of city life and the ease for single people to find same-sex housing, queer relationships could blossom in relative security. Nowhere were these queer communities more visible than in the arts’ districts. Many places we think of as queer communities now, were the same over a century ago. Greenwich Village, Harlem, and Bloomsbury in London became hubs for the arts, which were often dominated by queer voices. Queer voices were consumed by the masses in vaudeville shows, plays, novels, and the visual arts, but as these voices grew stronger, political institutions stepped in to “protect” the public from what they deemed to be dangerous or deviant behavior in flouting their views of sexual purity and gender norms.

As we can see from the Oscar Wilde’s trial, art could be used as evidence against the creator if it contained homosexual or homoerotic themes, but this didn’t stop authors from publishing “scandalous literature” in America and France. While it was illegal to mail sexually explicit material through the mail, it happened and books regarding sexology and those with homosexual themes were increasingly popular well into the first half of the twentieth century (Bronski 126). History has shown that trying to stop publications is like a game of Whack-a-Mole. It was near impossible to stop people from distributing written material, especially since it was protected by the First Amendment, but the government could stop Hollywood from promoting queer or sexually progressive stories, such as Morocco, which featured the first on-screen lesbian kiss. After the US government threatened to create a censorship board, Hollywood adopted the Hays Code (or the Motion Picture Production Code) and began enforcing it in 1934. Among other things, the Hays Code stated that immorality had to be punished on screen, only “correct standards of life” could be portrayed, sexual behavior could not be shown, and “perverse” behavior could not be shown (“The Hays Code”). All of this combined to make it impossible for queer characters or relationships to be portrayed on screen without heavy coding or a tragic ending. The “bury our gays” trope sprung from this code as those who acted “immorally” according to puritanical Christian beliefs had to be punished and in many cases killed as penance for their behavior. Despite that the Hays Code stopped being enforced in 1968, the damage had been done. The general public had internalized years of anti-queer propaganda to the point that fiction became reality and the myth that queer characters could not have happy lives was solidified in Western culture.

Over the past decade, a new genre of romance has solidified itself as a rapidly expanding subset of historical fiction: queer historical romance. These stories seek to fight against the tide of historical myth that has painted queer relationships formed in the past as impossible or filled with strife. Authors such as KJ Charles, E. E. Ottoman, Joanna Chambers, and Cat Sebastian have sought to not only create works of fiction that uphold the idea that queer characters are entitled to a happy ending but have produced scholarship that upholds that what critics believe is historical fact is truly a political agenda to ignore what doesn’t fit their narrative. The question some of you may be asking is, “Why focus on romance?” Historically, romance as a genre has been treated with disdain by academia because it is portrayed as a genre filled with shirtless men and trope-laden stories about love. Bodice-rippers, as historical romances have often been called, are generally women’s fiction. They are stories written for women by women and act upon the desires and fantasies of women that have largely been ignored by society. The Western canon, despite rising scholars’ best efforts is still largely misogynistic, so the stories that are seen as feminine, such as romances, are shelved as drivel for the masses when in reality, romance strikes at the heart of what oppressed populations truly want: autonomy and power over their own destinies.

In her blog post “Historical Romance: Who Gets the HEA,” KJ Charles explores why readers get hung up on supposed historical accuracy in diverse historical romance. She writes, “And yet there is a powerful strand of opinion that holds that any m/m histrom must reflect the fear of legal persecution,…that marginalised people simply cannot have happy endings,…because history was too cruel” (Charles, “Historical Romance”). We see this on a 2 star review for Cat Sebastian’s A Ruin of a Rake. The reviewer states, “It’s extremely difficult to suspend my disbelief about the relationship between Lord Courteny and Julian Medlock as in 1817, Homosexual relationships were illegal and there were very serious consequences if they had been exposed” (Rodriguez). The reader is correct in that there were sodomy laws on the books in England, but the rate at which people were prosecuted for being in a homosexual relationship is far lower than many modern readers realize. Furthermore we must explore the idea of the legality of something being a hindrance for its occurrence. Gambling, graffiti, and jaywalking are all far more visible than the private lives of two people and are all illegal, yet they occur unpunished with alarming frequency. Readers of historical romance rarely complain that a story is lacking lice, a healthy fear of venereal disease, or the stink of chamber pots, but queer or interracial relationships occurring during earlier historical periods are remarked upon. As Kingston states, “Historical Romance is a shared, collaborative fantasy” that has shut out more people than it has let in (Kingston 4). The greater issue is that the trends within traditional historical romance send the message that “only straight white Christians deserve loving relationships” (4). No matter the amount of privilege the characters have, like Lord Courteny who is titled, rich, and already seen as a rake, it is impossible for certain readers to believe that alone could have afforded him the privacy and social standing to not be prosecuted for sodomy.

A key flaw in historical romance, as a genre, is the definition of a happily ever after disproportionately favors straight, white, cis couples. Generally a happily ever after in romance involves the couple courting, getting engaged, married, and often books end with a pregnancy or hint that a family will follow. For queer historical fiction, there are very few instances where that stereotypical happily ever after is possible. The assumption from romance writers and readers that queer love stories can’t be romances because they don’t follow that formula is inherently homophobic, but the greater question is, do we want that ending? The traditional familial model of date, marry, mate, follows a formula endorsed by the social purity movement. The forefathers of that movement, the Puritans, believed that anything outside of the family unit is forbidden and that to ensure society’s stability, partners must be monogamous and make matches in order to procreate. This “traditional” mode of living has gone relatively unquestioned for centuries, and what queer historical fiction offers is a precedent for more complex social and sexual relationships.

Inherently, the writing of romance stories is the private made public. The lives of those who came before us were often obscured for safety reasons or were written over by scholars who chose to ignore or not see what was truly before them. What romance allows us is to speculate how couples came to be and how they navigated the public and private spheres to find their own version of happily ever after. Queer historical romance deviates from the “norm” out of necessity, but it allows readers to explore how a relationship that doesn’t follow the formula of date, marry, mate was still able to thrive. Further, these stories uphold that women’s lives are not “made whole” by children or a husband to support them. Often, Sapphic historical romance involves women who are working to support themselves through a trade. For male-male couples in historical romance, we see how two individuals can live separate lives and without cohabitation still manage to be a long-term couple.

That isn’t to say that all queer historical works involve monogamy. In KJ Charles’ Band Sinister, we meet a group of friends who are for the most part queer, ranging from gay or bisexual to transgender. Three of the men in their hellfire club have had an ongoing relationship with each other for decades. When Sir Philip becomes involved with his new lover, Guy, he makes certain Guy understands how deeply he feels for his two friends. Philip states, “that may not be the kind of love about which the poets write, nor the kind I feel for you, but it’s still real and true as anything in the world” (Charles, Band Sinister 3010). Queer historical fictions allows for greater exploration of different types of love, especially those that have generally been seen as lesser in modern society. We see this blurring of queer/quasiplatonic relationships in many other queer historical works, including KJ Charles’ Society of Gentlemen series, Joanna Chambers’ Enlightenment series, and Cat Sebastian’s A Duke in Disguise.

Within queer romance, we’re given an intimate look at love that defies labels. Queer stories are “places for individual and collective explorations” that allow us to “[understand] the self through the larger fabric of culture and history and relationality” (Royster). Writing inherently requires us to pull from our own experiences and fears, and by writing within a historical setting and with characters who don’t fit our exact specifications, it allows writers to navigate the difficulties of their own world in a controlled environment and through a lens that allows enough distance and difference for exploration. In a way, we get to know “the self as other and the self as same” (Johnson 429). It is often through writing queer romance that people discover their sexuality or gender identity is more complex than originally thought, and for those who know, it allows a deeper exploration of queer identity than is often possible in real life.

Ultimately, writing is a performative act, and through the creation of images, action, and insertion of the self onto the page, the writer has self-actualized a moment in time (Rogerson 3). Much like photography, writing seeks to create and suspend moments. For queer writers, the images created are somewhat speculative since much of queer history has been erased, ignored, or purposefully left off the page for their own protection. By putting the actions and feelings of queer characters in queer relationships on paper, that missing history is being reasserted and physically actualized where there had once been a gap. Just because that moment or those people didn’t truly exist doesn’t really matter. The perception of history is itself as much fantasy as reality, but what is true is that no matter the rules, people have acted upon queer desire and others have been complicit in affording them a peaceful life. In an age of renewed fervor in the social purity movement, queer writers are digging in their heels and reasserting their sexual and bodily autonomy by reweaving the roots of history that were torn asunder decades and centuries past. By writing the past, they cement themselves in the present.

Queer historical romance aims to blow the dust off history by uncovering those who lived in the margins and reassert that history has been far less heteronormative than it has been portrayed to be. In recent years, queer historical romance has grown into a major subgenre of romance novels, and this assertion of sexual autonomy through the written word has come as a counterstrike against the white supremacist ideology dominating politics and romance novels. Despite what detractors might believe, queer relationships have always existed in America, and queer historical romance is not fiction in the way they think. Romance novels are the private made public, and queer historical romance is a reassertion of identity and sexual autonomy, a reminder that, no matter what social purists might say regarding queer relationships or non-heteronormative relationships, they have always existed and will continue to flourish.

 

 

Works Cited

Bronski, Michael. A Queer History of the United States. Beacon Press, 2011. ReVisioning American History.

Charles, KJ. Band Sinister. E-book, KJC Books, 2018.

—. “Historical Romance: Who Gets the Happy Ending.” KJ Charles, 10 Oct. 2018, kjcharleswriter.com/2018/10/10/historical-romance-who-gets-hea/?fbclid=IwAR2wHOz1DzIW2gP9IFfRcSRSXS9GQgEjjmcCFbh4cbbm8CYSTv7SDyXQ5s4.

Johnson, E. Patrick. “Queer Epistomeologies: Theorizing the Self from a Writerly Place Called Home.” Biography, vol. 34, no. 4, Summer 2011, pp. 429-46. Academic Search Premier. Accessed 20 Apr. 2019.

Kingston, Elizabeth. “Reclaiming Historical Romance.” Elizabeth Kingston, Dec. 2018. Accessed 16 Apr. 2019.

Rodriquez, Cecilia. “Masculine Pygmalion.” Review of A Ruin of a Rake. Amazon.com, 16 Mar. 2018, http://www.amazon.com/Ruin-Rake-Cat-Sebastian/product-reviews/0062642537/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_hist_2?ie=UTF8&filterByStar=two_star&reviewerType=all_reviews#reviews-filter-bar. Accessed 16 Apr. 2019.

Rogerson, Stephanie. “Without Words You Spoke: Early Snapshot Photography and Queer Representation.” Afterimage, vol. 36, no. 1, July 2008, pp. 10-13. EBSCOhost. Accessed 20 Apr. 2019.

Royster, Francesca T. “Introductory Notes: Performing Queer Lives.” Biography, vol. 34, no. 3, Summer 2011, pp. v-xii. Academic Search Premier. Accessed 20 Apr. 2019.

 

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Reading Rec: Proper English

In Proper English by KJ Charles, we get a competitive riflewoman, a fiancee who needs to use her spine, and a shooting party complete with a dead body.

proper english

All Pat wants is a shooting party where she can relax and not think about what will happen now that her brother is to be married and she will have to move. What she thought would be a few days with the boys turns out to be a far more mixed party, but luckily, the distractions are worth it. Fenella, her friend’s fiancee, immediately catches her eye. On the outside she appears bubbly and shallow, she’s far more than she appears and is totally wasted on Jimmy. But as they grow closer, the party grows more tense with threats of blackmail that end in a murder. Together Pat and Fen must figure out who killed the blackmailer before more secrets are exposed.

It’s refreshing to have a f/f historical romance for once since typically I read far more m/m historical romance (since it’s more widely available and not nearly as expensive). I received an ARC of Proper English in exchange for an honest review and devoured it in two days. I regret nothing. Proper English is a fantastic balance between romance and mystery without either being skimped on. Both characters have gumption, in their own ways, and yet are feminine, once again, in different but equal ways. Pat is a champion markswoman who runs her brother’s house like a well oiled machine. She knows she will need to step down now that he is married, but she doesn’t know what she will do or if she should open a shooting school for women. Fen is much softer on the outside and often seen as frivolous because that is what is expected of her. Both women reveal they are far more than they appear on the outside. One of the things I always worry about with f/f historical romance is that they’ll be mean to each other or awful people (you can think Sarah Waters for scarring me there), but that isn’t a problem with KJ Charles’ work. They’re charming, flawed, and more than willing to grow and love.

As much as I liked the romance, I think I preferred the mystery more. Charles’ mysteries are always well crafted and have me guessing until the end as to who is the culprit. It’s rare that a writer can blend both genres so masterfully and manage to balance the narrative, so it doesn’t feel shoe-horned in. The suspects all have motive, and in the spirit of Clue, we all hate the murder victim and want to love the suspects. I think it makes it a little more fun when everyone thinks the victim had it coming.

Overall, Proper English is a wonderful f/f whodunit romance that gives us all we ever wanted in a f/f historical romance: two clever women, a party, steamy moments, and a dead body.

Grab a copy when Proper English releases tomorrow, May 8th.

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Reading Rec: A Duke in Disguise

In A Duke in Disguise, we get a long-lost nobleman, a saucy book about historical figures, and a woman who loves cheese nearly as much as I do.

adukeindisguise

Verity wants nothing more than to keep her family’s paper open despite her brother heading recklessly toward the gallows with his seditious ramblings. The only thing that seems to temper him is their dear friend, Ash. Ash is adrift. His ex-guardian and dear friend is headed off to Italy to improve his health, and after moving in with Verity and her brother, he finds himself unable to maintain the distance he once was able with her. The attraction is mutual, but they fear what might happen should their friendship become more since neither has many friends or relations to spare. That is until a chance meeting sends Ash into a crash course with a family full of secrets, some that will illuminate his past.

I received an ARC of A Duke in Disguise in exchange for an honest review and have been a fan of Cat Sebastian for a while, so take that into consideration when reading this review. Verity and Ash have a special place in my heart. Both are so earnest and sweet in their own ways, oblivious to the depth of each other’s feelings in a way that makes you want to simultaneously bash their heads together and hug them.

Verity is what I love in a heroine: strong-willed, driven (to the point of distraction), and a bit messy. I particularly love a heroine who has an appetite. In this case, food and sex (and we get some bi rep!). Ash is equally endearing. He is an artist who also has to deal with epilepsy. This features into the story’s plot, but it is handled realistically and doesn’t dominate the narrative. Ash is a softer hero, which I appreciate greatly in romance and is one of the reasons I love Cat Sebastian’s stories. He’s capable, tactful, and warm without being domineering or rude. The side characters, like Aunt Caroline and Roger are some of my favorite characters in this story. I am still hoping for short stories featuring the older characters because I’m a softy and love them as much as Ash does.

Overall, A Duke in Disguise has a wonderfully strong cast filled with characters devoted to each other. If you’re looking for a romance with reluctant nobility, an examination of power dynamics, and lots of wine, cheese, and cranky cats, you’re in for a treat.

A Duke in Disguise comes out April 9th, so grab a copy on Amazon now and have it delivered to your Kindle next week.

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Reading Rec: A Gentleman Never Keeps Score

Cat Sebastian is one of my favorite romance writers, and her latest novel, A Gentleman Never Keeps Score, delivers a sweet yet poignant story.

gentlman never

As the second book in the Seducing the Sedgwick series, A Gentleman Never Keeps Score follows Hartley Sedgwick, the preening, prissy brother of Ben Sedgwick from It Takes Two to Tumble. Hartley has gone from social butterfly among the ton to pariah after it comes out through the rumor mill that he received his townhouse after an *cough* arrangement *cough* with his now dead godfather. Retreating into his home, Hartley becomes a glorified recluse looking for a way to get back at his godfather and whoever spread the rumor. His plans get thrown for a loop when he meets Sam. Barkeep and ex-boxer, Sam has created a haven in the Free Black community and does all he can to help his patrons. His brother’s girlfriend comes to him with a unique problem. Someone painted a salacious portrait of her when she was a teen and she wants it back before she marries Sam’s brother. The commissioner of the portrait was none other than Hartley’s godfather.

For anyone who says romance is shallow, I would like to point them to Cat Sebastian’s work (among several others I can name off the top of my head). This story not only grapples with the long-lasting scars of sexual abuse but racism/racial profiling, PTSD, the complexities of consent, and the fluidity/rigidity of class in Regency England. There’s a lot that can be unpacked from this novel, but above all else, it’s a satisfying romance between two lovable characters. All of the issues and topics mentioned above are done with an immense amount of sensitivity and obvious research.

Hartley is a popinjay. A preening dandy who uses his clothing and impeccable manners as a shield against the world. He’s been hurt in the past and has a lot of issues to work through, but it makes him feel human and complex. For as onion-like as Hartley is, Sam comes off as a much more even presence. He began life as boxer, like his father before him, and now makes a living running his pub, The Bell, along with his brother. Life is never easy as a black man in London, but he tries to make life a little easier for his patrons and friends. Sam is a wonderful foil for Hartley as he is a calming force while still maintaining a lively air and a realistic range of emotions. I mention this because it is often the calm characters who come off as cut-outs.

Cat Sebastian has once again created a warm-hearted romance that deals with deeply personal issues while leading readers into the next romance featuring Ben and Hartley’s brother Will and a down on his luck nobleman who seems to be having more issues than he’s letting on. If you like historical romances with prickly yet lovable characters, you need to grab a copy of A Gentleman Never Keeps Score.

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Reading Rec: Unfit to Print

June is LGBT+ Pride Month, so I decided to review LGBT+ books for the month. I’m hoping to write 10 reviews this month, so here is number 5: Unfit to Print by K. J. Charles. I received this novella as an ARC, and Unfit to Print will be out July 10th.

unfit to print

Vikram Pandey’s job as a lawyer crusading to better the lives of Indian immigrants living in London brings a case of a missing youth. The only clues are a photograph of the young man in question and that he has been spending time with gentleman, in a manner of speaking. Going door to door on Holywell Street, Vik runs into his best friend from school, Gil Lawless, who now happens to be the proprietor of an illicit bookshop. Together they search for the lost boy and find they share more than memories.

I am a sucker for grumpy, uptight characters. Perhaps it’s because I feel a kinship with them, being an over-wound person myself. Either way, Vikram is one of my favorite characters thus far in K. J. Charles’ world. He is confident, well-versed in the law, a hard-ass of the highest order, and a soft heart. In the other corner, we have salt of the earth, Gil Lawless, seller and writer of unlawful smut who lives in the moment and lives with (note: I didn’t say owned) a cat named Satan. They go together like grape jelly and chili sauce (don’t look at me like that, it makes good sweet and sour sauce). Their dynamic is fabulous, but in the story, I wish there was a little more of them as a couple outside of the missing person search. Unfit to Print is a novella, so there is only a certain amount of space.

The mystery itself is well-written with enough intrigue and violence to keep you turning the page without being convoluted. One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the Victorian pornography angle. Nothing in the story is described in a way to make it overt erotica, which it isn’t, but it’s an interesting topic in that the Victorians had A LOT of porn floating around for such a seemingly morally uptight society. The story touches upon the various avenues through which the Victorians met their sexual needs and the hypocrisy surrounding the industry as well as how vulnerable people fall victim to it.

In terms of representation, this is a win, especially if you have been following the ridiculous comments romance publishers have made about PoC being main characters. Both characters in Unfit to Print are PoC, and the theme of identity and what it means to be a first-generation immigrant are discussed in the story.

If this review tickles your fancy, you can pre-order Unfit to Print now.

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Reading Rec: It Takes Two to Tumble

June is LGBT+ Pride Month! That means LGBT+ book reviews, which means books I probably would have read on my own, but now, I’m making myself review them consistently. *drops voice* You don’t know how little follow-through I have while my house is a construction zone.

Anywho, I am a LGBT+ romance fan, so today’s recommendation is a historical-romance by Cat Sebastian entitled It Takes Two to Tumble.

it takes two

I’m pretty sure my first reaction upon finishing on of Cat Sebastian’s books is “That was so cute! I need more!” Her series are often the kind that follows families, such as in this series where we will follow the Sedgwick family (brothers mostly, it seems), and we begin this series with Benedict Sedgwick, unlikely vicar and free spirit, alongside the solemn, stern Captain Dacre as he comes home from two years at sea.

The Dacre children are hell-spawn. Left to their own devices after the death of their mother, they turn to terrorizing the town while their father is at sea. As a good natured vicar who devotes his energy to bettering his parishioners’ lives, Ben is called upon to wrangle the children into behaving until their father returns. Capt. Dacre reluctantly arrives home, not looking forward to facing the family he feels he abandoned and the house where his father made life miserable. He expects to see his children waiting by the front door as they did when his wife was alive only to find chaos and the vicar at the center of it.

I love the dynamic between Dacre and Ben in It Takes Two to Tumble. They are able to balance each other out without being polarizing. What I mean by that is that both characters have quirks and shortcomings that prevent them from being one-note. They come off as real people with idiosyncrasies, histories, and complications that muddy the waters of their relationships and their abilities to function apart.

On top of this, we have characters who are seemingly dyslexic. I say seemingly because it’s the early 1800s, so it doesn’t have a name, but it’s refreshing to have neuro-divergent characters who are able to work around their struggles without it becoming the core of who the character is. So far, this has been one of my favorite romances this year. Eventually, I will write a post about the importance of romance, and this book will be a core piece of that.

If you like romances where seemingly opposites attract, wayward children run amuck, and not-so-holy vicars come to terms with who they are, then you should check out It Takes Two to Tumble before book two comes out.

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Book Review: Spectred Isle

spectred isle

Title: Spectred Isle (Green Men #1) by K. J. Charles

Genre: Historical-fantasy, historical-romance, LGBT fiction, LGBT romance

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Tl;DR: Spectred Isle fantastically blends the pain and trauma of war with the hope and healing that only nature and human connection can bring while still imbuing the story with a piping mystery.


First off, I have to say that I was given an ARC of Spectred Isle in exchange for an honest review, but I still pre-ordered a copy because I love K. J. Charles’ work and want to support my favorite authors.

Spectred Isle follows the story of Saul Lazenby and Randolph Glyde as their lives intersect in a post-WWI world where magic and monsters lurk beneath the surface. Saul has been deeply scarred by his experiences in the war where he was less than honorably discharged. Facing bleak prospects, the ex-archaeologist becomes employed by a rather odd older gentleman who has him running all over creation chasing some rather wild theories about a very (maybe very) dead lord. His life is rather humdrum until he visits a sacred tree, which spontaneously bursts into flames, and spots the handsome, old money (and magic) Randolph Glyde. Randolph has secrets and scars of his own, but those roots run far deeper in England’s history, and as the mystery of the burning tree deepens, Randolph must decide if Saul, too, is a secret worth keeping.

As a heads-up, if you haven’t read The Secret Case Book of Simon Fleximal, you probably should. The book is less a sequel and more of a spiritual successor (much like the characters), so if you want to be in the know about certain characters, it would behoove you to read it. Plus, it’s just damn good.

What I loved about Spectred Isle was the balance between human connection and healing from past traumas and the British mentality of keeping a stiff upper lip. Neither Saul nor Randolph are the type to fall to pieces, but they need help moving forward from the carnage both suffered. Charles does a good job of having those traumas be very different, and both play nicely into their characterization. In the story, we also meet several other characters who have been psychologically and physically changed by the war and the occult war that was waged beneath the war waged by normal soldiers. I loved how this juxtaposed with post-war bureaucracy and the ancient magic the Glydes wield.

I think because I really love Charles’ characters, I felt like the book went too fast, especially at the end. What I really wanted was more about the green men, how they tie to Glyde’s family, and what function they really serve in England. I know it’s the first book, but I also know that K. J. Charles usually focused on a different couple each book, so I worry I will never get my answers.

If you like old Hollywood movies (think 1920s-1940s), this book has that sort of Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes on the modern moors feel to it. Spectred Isle is a great start to a new historical-fantasy series, and I, for one, am dying to get my mitts on the next one. Pick Spectred Isle up here or whatever platform you buy your books. It is officially out August 3rd.

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