Avon, $5.99, ISBN 978-0-06-282158-4
Historical Romance, 2018
Hartley Sedgwick has been living as a recluse for the last few years, ever since it came out that his relationship with his late godfather came with some benefits that normally do not factor into such relationships. Meanwhile, black former boxer-turned-pub owner and advocate for the downtrodden Sam Fox decides to help his BFF and future sister-in-law Kate in locating a naughty painting she once sat for. Sam’s quest sends him bumping into Hartley, with him doing the manly protecting-the-
lady-sensitive-gay-dude thing that has Hartley sighing and doing that “Oh, I wish I can get him to diddle me, but I’m wishing in a genteel manner so that readers can see how angst-ridden and emo I really am!” thing.
Now, no matter what I think of the quality of their works, the “previous generation” authors of gay historical romances such as Erastes, Lee Rowan, Alex Beecroft, and the rest do make an effort to include some degree of historical authenticity to their works. Cat Sebastian, however, pays lip service by mentioning some degree of oppression faced by gay people, but her stories end up making light of the oppression by portraying gay men in the 19th century as living life with a bewildering amount of freedom and even acceptance, and worse, these characters are clearly with modern day sensibilities and points of view.
This fairy tale sensibility is very apparent in A Gentleman Never Keeps Score. It conforms faithfully to the tropes present in way too many gay stuff written by women: the designated “woman” Hartley spends a lot of time swooning and sighing at the sight of Sam’s muscularity and protective aura, and when it comes to sex, naturally he’s the one doing that yum-yum-yum bananas thing while Sam does all the things normally designated to the “man” in a romance novel. Everything here is quite cringe-inducing, more so when I realize that there are historical gay romances written more than ten years ago that end up being far more authentic than this thing, which is written in a time when we are supposed to be more progressive. No, really, just switch the genitalia dangling between Hartley’s legs and the story will still be the same as it is, barring some cosmetic changes and maybe the removal of the scenes of Henrietta Sedgwick going down on Sam – as progressive as we are in the 21st century, we still can’t have a heroine doing that to the hero in a non-erotic romance as that will be too slutty for everyone. I still don’t know what Hartley is supposed to do in this story other than to swoon and sigh over how Fox is making him feel so safe and ooh.
Oh, and despite Hartley apparently being shown the rear ends of everyone in polite company, it’s just an excuse for him to go “Ooh, I spent five years all blue and forlorn, and ooh, I’m so lonely and vulnerable until this handsome, strong, muscular, noble black man comes into my life so ooh.” There is never any issue of Sam’s skin color or their collective love for buggery restricting their ability to lead open, normal, happy lives because the lower and middle class people of London in the 19th century are apparently ancestors of the woke communities today in Portland, San Francisco, California, and present day London – all flavors of gender and sexuality are A-OK, people, and there is no shame in being a single woman carrying a child out of wedlock, and bet you guys didn’t know that 19th-century London is also a sanctuary city where all migrants and oppressed folks can come live together without passports and other oppressive alt-right Nazi-Russian cancer. Come to 19th-century London, where housing and jobs are never an issue and everyone will live together in perfect socialist harmony. Unless they are straight and white like those disgusting people that oppressed Hartley, of course – those Nazis can all go to the gulag and die.
Still, A Gentleman Never Keeps Score isn’t a complete flop. Often these days, when straight and usually white authors decide to show people how woke they are, their non-white, non-straight characters end up being more of a sound-off box for these authors to castigate readers for not sharing their exaggerated, often radical left-leaning views as well as for the failure of America to appoint a certain woman as White House Jesus a few years ago. These characters often end up bland and unintentionally stereotypical in the hands of better authors (see: the saintly magical negro trope), and just annoying and even insultingly stereotypical when less talented authors decide to get woke. Sam here, however, is none of that. He is still on the saintly side, yes – maybe because that’s what all black people are supposed to be these days to woke people – but he also has enough personality to make him come off as a character rather than an extension of the author’s hubris to show the world how progressive she is. Then again, Sam is a typical romance hero while Hartley is a romance heroine, only with penis slapped on his crotch, so it’s kind of like Sam is a solid character by default.
On the bright side, the narrative is clean and polished, and the story can be easily digested in one sitting. Of course, it is also just as easily excreted and purged from memory, given how artificial and inauthentic the whole thing is. Let’s just say that a considerable degree of suspension of disbelief is needed to enjoy this one. If you are looking for historical romances that aren’t beige wallpaper from start to finish, and don’t treat 19th-century gay couples as interchangeable with straight couples in that same era, best strike this one off your score sheet.