Blind Eye Books, $12.95, ISBN 978-0-9789861-1-7
Wicked Gentlemen is a most remarkable book to read. Author Ginn Hale writes in such an elegant and lyrical manner that this steampunk gay fantasy story has a dark fairy tale atmosphere as a result. I can’t write like Ms Hale, so I’m afraid you’ll just have to settle for such trite words like “poetic” and “beautiful” from me to describe the effect Ms Hale’s prose has on me.
Perhaps I should explain the setting first. In this world, we have humans living with demons called the Prodigals. A long time ago, some demons emerged from the world below hoping to find some kind of salvation by submitting to the human priests. Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out as planned because at the time the story takes place, the Prodigals are a persecuted minority, confined to living in a belowground ghetto more popularly known as Hell’s Below. The men and women of the cloth run a brutal Inquisition that sees many Prodigals and their human allies tortured in the interrogation chambers of the church. Prodigal children are forced to attend corrective centers. In other words, if you have seen or read any tale of zealots gone wild, you’ll be familiar with what this setting offers.
Wicked Gentlemen is actually two closely related shorter stories compiled into one collection. The first story, Mr. Sykes and the Firely, is written in first person, from the point of view of a Prodigal junkie/man-for-hire named Belimai Sykes. He encounters an Inquisitor, Captain William Harper, when this Inquisitor and his brother hire Belimai to locate William’s missing half-sister. Joan is a Prodigal sympathizer, working for the suffrage movement that represents both women and Prodigals called Good Commons Society from behind the scenes. Her disappearance is in the wake of the brutal murders of several Good Commons members. In the following story (written in third person) Captain Harper and the Sixty Second Circle, Captain Harper returns the favor by helping Belimai when Belimai and his old friend find themselves the prime suspects in a murder of a young woman from the upper class. Throughout the two stories, Harper and Belimai have an intimate relationship.
Let’s start with the obvious weaknesses first, just to get these out of the way. The mysteries in these stories, while compelling to read as they develop, offer inadequate payoff after all the build-up because the villains are revealed to be one-dimensional evil, evil, evil people with sketchy motivations. I also feel that the author writes in first person better than in third person. There is an intimacy in the first story that is lacking in the more distant second story. Belimai, a tortured fellow who elevates martyrdom into an art form, is a sympathetic character when I am allowed access into his head in the first story, but in the second story he can be an annoying whiny emo seizing any opportunity to martyr himself. The second story is also a pretty obvious tale of Harper’s “corruption” as he becomes more and more disillusioned with his church. Given that it seems so obvious how out of control the church is in this story and how Harper doesn’t come off like a religious zealot in the first place, I can only wonder why it takes him so long to come to such an epiphany.
The greatest strength of Wicked Gentlemen isn’t in its plot or characters. I mean, Belimai and Harper are recognizable stereotypical emo characters in gay fiction and there are many obvious anvils about how zealots are insane whackjobs and how the persecuted minority are represented by angry folks who are actually misunderstood good people with hearts of gold. What makes this story works beautifully is Ms Hale’s ability to bring otherwise commonly used tropes to life. The world that this story is set in is so vividly depicted that I can fancy myself feeling the cold of the night on my skin as I read this book. As predictable as the characters can be at times, they become larger than life poster boys for tortured emos due to Ms Hale’s apparently effortless ease in drawing me into her characters’ heads and making their emotions come so alive to me. I hurt, I feel.
I wish this book is longer, because that would have allowed Ms Hale to develop her stories more substantially. In their current forms, both stories are better character studies than fantasy mystery. While I don’t love this book as much as many people out there do, I nonetheless find that reading this book is such an enjoyable experience. I love the way the town of Crowncross comes so alive in the hands of the author. While I don’t find characters particularly noteworthy in the sense that I have come across many similar variations of the standard tortured protagonists that they represent in the gay fiction that I’ve read, I definitely love that the way Ms Hale brings these characters to life on her pages. She seems to be so attuned to her characters and her setting that she draws me into her story and makes me “see” what she is describing with such ease.
Therefore, while a part of me feels that this book doesn’t live up to the hype as much as I’d liked, I am impressed by this book well enough to stand in line with those other folks who will be waiting to see what the author will come up with next.