Sunday Shorts: Three From IF THIS GOES ON

Sunday Shorts is a series where I blog about short fiction – from flash to novellas. For the time being, I’m sticking to prose, although it’s been suggested I could expand this feature to include single episodes of anthology television series like The Twilight Zone or individual stories/issues of anthology comics (like the 1970s DC horror or war anthology titles). So anything is possible. But for now, the focus is on short stories.

 

Today I’d like to talk about three very different stories from the Parvus Press anthology If This Goes On: The Science Fiction Future of Today’s Politics, edited by Cat Rambo. I intend to read this whole anthology eventually, but figured I’d take a random sampling just to get me started.

“Green Glass: A Love Story” by E. Lily Yu. This one starts out as a classic SF love story: a man literally sends a probe to the moon to get a birthday/engagement present for his fiancée. But Yu does remarkable things with the story progression from there, revealing both the past and present (and a glimpse at the future) of the theoretically-happy couple. Yu gives us a future where the world has been largely despoiled and the working class are increasingly sicker because of it while the rich just get richer and healthier; everything this couple does to prepare for their wedding is expensive and wasteful just to make an impression. But there’s also the undercurrent that some things may never change: in an age of pre-nups that even designate how many children a couple will have, the woman still gets taken advantage of, gaslit and blindsided. I started out thinking the main characters were a bit unlikeable, grew to despise them for their excesses, and then actually felt a little sorry for the main female character by the story’s end. I think Yu manages to show us that while short fiction usually focuses on one aspect of a dystopian (or utopian, or whatever) society, the reality is that no facet of a society exists on its own and ignoring the bigger picture for the details that benefit you the most will almost always backfire.

“The Last Adventure of Jack Laff: The Dayveil Gambit” transcribed by Steven Barnes. It’s no secret that I love noir in all its forms – hard crime to SF. So it was probably a guarantee I’d love this story by one of the pioneers of Afrofuturism. The voice of the narrator/title character is gruff, macho, take-no-prisoners, and yet Barnes also imbues him with more honor and a bit less misogyny than the classic 40s-50s originals of this type. Still, a trope of noir is that the hero gets suckered, at least for a little while, by a beautiful client while ignoring his faithful and loving secretary … and Barnes leans into the trope with skill and subtlety, subverting it by staying true to it almost all the way through the story. All the classic types are here: the femme fatale, the hard-pressed secretary, the questionable businessman, and the links to an earlier case that turn out to be more important than the narrator at first realizes. Culturally, Barnes shows us a future where movements like #MeToo result in every business and personal interaction being filmed by bodycams and the footage securely stored in case of future litigation. The story takes several twists that I don’t want to spoil here.

 

“The Harvest King (Will Surely Come) by Nisi Shawl. One of the many things that impresses me about Nisi Shawl is her world-building when it comes to alternate (her novel Everfair) or future histories, and the voices she uses to reveal that world-building to the reader. Here, we get the religio-fascist future of a portion of the former United States called “Heartland” shown to us through two very different, equally sycophantic voices. The first voice is that of an American “king,” who has inherited his place from his the previous ruler (who ruled for twenty-one years), and who is now making plans to pass that throne on to the husband of his daughter (whose name happens to be Tiffany) … because in this future even the hereditary throne can’t possibly go to a woman. I’m not sure just how far in the future this part of the story is set. At first, I thought it was very near-future (a daughter/granddaughter named Tiffany), but the other voice Shawl uses – the pages of a Bible section called “Letters to the Oligarchs” makes me think that our present is a dim memory to the “king” who is about to leave his throne. The characters, all unlikeable, refer to slaves and “mud people,” and to ritual sacrifice of living “effigies” to appease the earth and guarantee a good harvest. Shawl wonderfully co-mingles pagan rituals (writ large via monster trucks and harvesters) with the racial purity ethics of a subset of our current population to posit a future where America has turned from democracy to theocracy.

Reading Round-Up: June, 2019

Continuing the monthly summaries of what I’ve been reading and writing.

 

BOOKS

To keep my numbers consistent with what I have listed on Goodreads, I count completed magazine issues and stand-alone short stories in e-book format as “books.” I read or listened to 11 books in May: 4 in print, 2 in e-book format, and 5 in audio. They were:

1.       Lightspeed Magazine #109 (June 2019 issue), edited by John Joseph Adams. The usual fine assortment of sf and fantasy short stories and novellas. This month’s favorites for me were Ellen Kushner’s “When Two Swordsmen Meet,” Caspain Gray’s “Unpublished Gay Cancer Survivor Memoir,” Isabel Canas’ “The Weight of A Thousand Needles,” and Karen Joy Fowler’s “The Last Worders.”

2.       Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather. You would think that as an English major in college, I’d have read something, anything, by Willa Cather. But if I did, I don’t recall it at all (please forgive me, Professor Malcolm Marsden!). So I’m counting this as my first Cather work. I’d like to read more by her eventually. I found this one an interesting character study. Full Review HERE.

3.       The History of Soul 2065 by Barbara Krasnoff. I’d previously read only three of the twenty short stories that comprise this mosaic novel that covers fifteen decades in the lives of two families. Subtle magic, strong women, strong LGB representation, strong ties to the Jewish Diaspora.

4.       Spinning Around A Sun: Stories, by Everett Maroon. Flash fiction with sometimes horrific twists, these early stories by Maroon show hints of the style he works so well in his novel.

5.       Fresh Kill (Jimmy McSwain Files, Book 6) by Adam Carpenter. Jimmy McSwain is back for another round of mysteries, and Carpenter returns to the character and his New York City setting with style. Full Review HERE.

6.       Lumberjanes Volume 11: Time After Crime by Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, and others. The latest Lumberjanes collection gets a bit timey-whimey, but in a very different way from Doctor Who. I was happy to see the focus this time is largely on Molly, with lots of character growth stemming out of her stressful family interactions.

7.       Shout Out edited by Andrew Wheeler. This is a wonderful YA graphic novel anthology of short stories featuring pretty much the entire range of LGBTQIA+ characters across genres from science fiction and fantasy to romance (and often intermingling several genres at once). I can’t praise this one enough.

8.       Synchronicity by Keira Andrews.  I am notoriously under-read when it comes to gay romance (as opposed to gay sf/fantasy/horror with romance or erotica elements). For some reason, much of the gay romance I have read falls into the sports romance realm, and this short about a synchronized diving team at the Olympics is no exception. Nicely written with likeable characters.

9.       From A Whisper to A Riot: The Gay Writers Who Crafted An American Literary Tradition by Adam W. Burgess. I’ve really not been doing well on the whole “read more non-fiction” thing, largely because I read non-fiction much slower than I read fiction. This work by Adam Burgess is a nicely-detailed look at a critically under-represented period in gay fiction, and it is worth your time seeking out. My full review is HERE.

10.   The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan, narrated by Suzy Jackson. A first-person narration ghost story high on eeriness but not gore, featuring a narrator who is lesbian and “crazy” (by her own words). I love narrators who tell you right at the start that they are not necessarily reliable, and IMP is one of those narrators. This is a really great listen. Suzy Jackson captures the main character’s innocence and slow fraying as she goes off her meds while relating her tale.

 

 

STORIES

I have a goal of reading 365 short stories (1 per day, essentially, although it doesn’t always work out that way) each year. Here’s what I did read and where you can find them if you’re interested in reading them too (with some short notes for stories that really stood out to me). If no source is noted, the story is from the same magazine or book as the story(ies) that precede(s) it:

1.       “Between The Dark and the Dark” by Deji Bryce Olukotun, from Lightspeed Magazine #109 (June 2019 issue), edited by John Joseph Adams.

2.       “An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition” by Ken Liu

3.       “The Harvest of a Half-Known Life” by G.V. Anderson

4.       “Warhosts” by Yoon Ha Lee

5.       “The Last Worders” by Karen Joy Fowler

6.       “The Weight of A Thousand Needles” by Isabel Canas

7.       “When Two Swordsmen Meet” by Ellen Kushner

8.       “Unpublished Gay Cancer Survivor Memoir” by Caspian Gray

9.       “Dust to Dust” by Tochi Onyebuchi

10.   “Sun Sets Weeping” by Seanan McGuire, on the author’s Patreon page.

11.   “The Clearing In the Autumn,” by Barbara Krasnoff, from her collection The History of Soul 2065.

12.   “Sabbath Wine” by Barbara Krasnoff

13.   “Lost Connections” by Barbara Krasnoff

14.   “Hearts and Minds” by Barbara Krasnoff

15.   “Cancer God” by Barbara Krasnoff

16.   “In The Loop” by Barbara Krasnoff

17.   “The Ladder-Back Chair” by Barbara Krasnoff

18.   “The Sad Old Lady” by Barbara Krasnoff

19.   “The Red Dybbuk” by Barbara Krasnoff

20.   “Waiting For Jakie” by Barbara Krasnoff

21.   “The Gingerbread House” by Barbara Krasnoff

22.   “Time and the Parakeet” By Barbara Krasnoff

23.   “Under the Bay Court Tree” by Barbara Krasnoff

24.   “An Awfully Big Adventure” by Barbara Krasnoff

25.   “Rosemary, That’s For Remembrance” by Barbara Krasnoff

26.   “Stoop Ladies” by Barbara Krasnoff

27.   “Escape Route” by Barbara Krasnoff

28.   “Sophia’s Legacy” by Barbara Krasnoff

29.   “The Clearing in the Spring” by Barbara Krasnoff

30.   “The History of Soul 2065” by Barbara Krasnoff

31.   “Chamber Speed” by Everett Maroon, from his collection Spinning Around A Sun.

32.   “Crazy Making” by Everett Maroon

33.   “Connaissieur” by Everett Maroon

34.   “Dead Martha” by Everett Maroon

35.   “Lost Boy” by Everett Maroon

36.   “Conception” by Everett Maroon

37.   “Mummy” by Everett Maroon

38.   “Desperados” by Everett Maroon

39.   “The Seamstress” by Everett Maroon

40.   “Cold Statues” by Jay Lake, from The Many Tortures of Anthony Cardno, a charity anthology.

So that’s 40 short stories in June, keeping me way ahead for the year so far. (June 30th was the 181st day of 2019.)

 

Summary of Reading Challenges:

“To Be Read” Challenge: This month: 0 read; YTD: 3 of 14 read.

365 Short Stories Challenge: This month:  40 read; YTD: 240 of 365 read.

Graphic Novels Challenge:  This month: 2 read; YTD: 17 of 52 read.

Goodreads Challenge: This month: 10 read; YTD: 71 of 125 read.

Non-Fiction Challenge: This month: 1; YTD: 5 of 24 read.

Read the Book / Watch the Movie Challenge: This month: 0; YTD: 0 of 10 read/watched.

Complete the Series Challenge: This month: 0 books read; YTD: 0 of 16 read.

                                                                Series fully completed: 0 of 3 planned

Monthly Special Challenge: I may not do something like this every month, but I set a June goal to try to read primarily work by Queer authors or centering Queer characters, since June was Pride Month.

I think I was pretty successful with this one. I’m unsure how many of the writers in the June issue of Lightspeed Magazine identify somewhere on the Queer spectrum. But Will Cather was a lesbian, Everett Maroon and Caitlin R. Kiernan are transgender, and Adam Carpenter and Adam W. Burgess are gay. Many of the creators of the Lumberjanes series and most, if not all, of the creators of the stories in the Shout Out graphic novel anthology are Queer-identifying as well. And while Barbara Krasnoff is straight, The History of Soul 2065 heavily centers two queer couples with a third couple mentioned.

Having checked several different websites, it seems like July is not a month that lends itself to any specific reading goal (it’s the National Month of several foods, though: National Baked Bean Month, Culinary Arts Month, Grilling Month, Horseradish Month, Hot Dog Month, Ice Cream Month, Blueberries Month, and Picnic Month!) So my mini-challenge to myself is going to be making July Series Month, to help me catch up on one of my year-long challenges (The “Complete The Series” Challenge).

Sunday Shorts: Snyder, Gardiner and Hearn

Sunday Shorts is a series where I blog about short fiction – from flash to novellas. For the time being, I’m sticking to prose, although it’s been suggested I could expand this feature to include single episodes of anthology television series like The Twilight Zone or individual stories/issues of anthology comics (like the 1970s DC horror or war anthology titles). So anything is possible. But for now, the focus is on short stories.

 

Every now and then, these posts end up being a mish-mash of recent reads that have no obvious connection. This is one of those posts.

“The Good Girl” by Lucy V. Snyder (from her collection Soft Apocalypses but also June’s selection on the author’s Patreon). This is not the first time I’ve read “The Good Girl,” and it probably won’t be the last. But I have to say that between readings, I’d sort of forgotten just how wonderfully sly Snyder is at easing the supernatural aspect into a story whose premise is already horrific: a young woman having to return home to the father who abused her and the mother who let it happen, for one last chance at a goodbye to a sister she’d abandoned to her fate. There are so many directions the story could go on that description alone, and Snyder keeps you guessing as to exactly which direction she’s leading you in. The narrator struggles with her own guilt and her own justifications on the drive to the family homestead; the characterization is deep and nuanced, the narrator unsure of whether she qualifies as the “good girl” of the title either now or in the past. There’s also a delightful secondary character who provides a little light humor in an otherwise dark story, because we all need a good chuckle before the final scare.

“Freak Corner” by John Rolfe Gardiner (from One Story #254, June 20 2019). Abuse, or at least neglect, of a different kind confronts the narrator of this story. It is 1953, and while the narrator’s small town neighborhood is in an uproar about how Alfie Kipps is now Margaret Kipps, the narrator has a more immediate concern: his deaf sister’s education. The story shines a light on just how recently American Sign Language was considered a fake language, a cheat for deaf people to avoid learning to speak properly, at the same time that transgender issues were just starting to come to the public conscious thanks to Christine Jorgensen. It also shines a light on how far we have, and haven’t come: ASL is a recognized language after a long-fought battle; transgender people are still ridiculed, shamed, and threatened just for existing. Gardiner’s story is less about trans-acceptance than it is about ASL-acceptance, but the narrator’s sister, Gayle, is bolstered by the support of this other social outcast even while her brother falters between supporting her and toeing the parentally-set line of “speak, don’t sign.” There’s also an undercurrent of “false nostalgia,” the narrator saying, without saying, that “the good old days” weren’t so good for a lot of people.

 

The Story of O-Tei by Lafcadio Hearn (from Oriental Ghost Stories, Wordsworth Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural edition). I’ve been trying (with varying success) to read at least one short story by an author on their birthday, mixing authors I’ve long loved with those I’ve never read. This is the first Lafcadio Hearn story I think I’ve ever read, despite owning both the Wordsworth Edition paperback collection sampling stories from Hearn’s several books as well as the hardcover compendium the Library of America recently issued. I maybe should have chosen a longer story to sample, but even this short simple tale I think captures Hearn’s tone. In “The Story of O-Tei,” the titular woman is betrothed to a man she really wants to marry but she falls ill before the wedding can be performed. She promises him that if he waits, she’ll return to him. He asks for a sign, and she says it’s not in her power to give, but he’ll know her. In the hands of a more modern author, the misfortunes that befall the man when he marries another woman under family pressure would probably be the focal point of the story; Hearn glosses over them except to show that they are not really road-blocks to the fated reunion. Is that reunion happy or horrific? I won’t spoil that for the potential reader. But I loved the way Hearn tells the story: not full of the heavy detail of his Victorian peers, but full of heart and acceptance that the supernatural is part of life.

Series Saturday: VICIOUS

Series Saturday is a series about … well, series. I do so love stories that continue across volumes, in whatever form: linked short stories, novels, novellas, television, movies. I’ve already got a list of series I’ve recently read, re-read, watched, or re-watched that I plan to blog about. I might even, down the line, open myself up to letting other people suggest titles I should read/watch and then comment on.

Vicious DVD covers.png

Warning: Mild Spoilers Ahead (Yes, for a sitcom.)

Vicious didn’t last long, but I think it’s possibly in my Top 5 favorite sit-coms. Had it had more episodes per season or lasted longer, my opinion might have changed. But the short, sweet run it had (14 episodes over a three-year span, including the extra-long Finale) was I think just enough to fall in love with these bitter, snarking characters and not grow tired of them.

Created by Gary Janetti and Mark Ravenhill, Vicious originally aired in the UK before making its way to the United States on PBS, which is where I saw the first season and bits of the second. I bought the DVDs to watch the episodes my DVR had somehow failed to record (including the Finale). Because of course I did. The series focuses on Freddie (Sir Ian McKellan) and Stuart (Sir Derek Jacobi), a couple who have been together for forty-eight years at the start of the first season. In short order, they (and we) meet their new, cute-as-a-button, young upstairs neighbor Ash (Iwan Rheon) and the speculation starts as to whether the young man is “family” or not (Spoiler: he’s not.). Freddie and Stuart’s lifelong friend Violet (Frances de la Tour) also takes a shine to Ash, although the couple’s other close friends, absent-minded Penelope (Marcia Warren) and acerbic Mason (Philip Voss) don’t seem quite so enamored of Ash at first.

The first season feels the freshest and most tightly written, perhaps because the writers are so invested in getting us to understand the characters and their relationships that they wrote seven mostly stand-alone episodes. Other than Ash being drawn more completely into the older characters’ circle, there’s no real “season arc” to speak of. Each episode sets up a situation, hits certain expected moments, and resolves by episode’s end. The running joke of Stuart constantly reintroducing Ash to Violet (“You remember our friend Violet,” often delivered as though the two have never met before) is the closest the writers come to a situation that lasts several episodes and then is resolved in the season finale. Season Two’s more structured lead-up to Freddie and Stuart’s wedding after fifty years together, coupled with a change in episode structure (every episode of season one started with Stuart on the phone with his mother and some Freddie-Stuart ribbing; season two’s episodes start with the two conversing as they walk down the street and something about the on-location filming feels out of place to me) makes the season feel less improvised and thus less fresh. There are still wonderful moments of comedy and character development, but there’s a lot of run-of-the-mill dialogue and situational slapstick as well (I’m looking at you, Mason, Penelope and the wedding cake!).

Both leads deliver their quips with just enough of a wink that the viewers understand these are two men who have developed a verbal shorthand where almost everything they say means “I love you and I wouldn’t change you for the world.” Relationship-wise, it’s clear that Freddie is a bit more dominant, Stuart a bit more submissive – and when the writers reverse the relationship (for instance, in the season two opener, when Freddie has to play subservient butler to a “straight, macho” Stuart to help Violet during a visit from her condescending sister), the writing is at its best. It helps that Sir Ian and Sir Derek obviously enjoy feeding off of each other’s energy, and one has to wonder how much of their banter was ad-libbed. (I also think it’s interesting that Sir Ian says they each had crushes on the other during early acting school days, but neither ever confessed to the other. I wonder what having them as the First Gay Couple of British Theater in real life would have been like.)

The characters’ styles are very different as well. In both dress and personality, Freddie is a bit haughty, Stuart more demure. Stuart wants to be liked/loved, while Freddie just assumes he is. They are both capable of delivering a cutting bon-mot towards their friends, however, and sometimes seem gleeful in inflicting pain. I do wish we’d seen more of what brought these five people together and just a hint more of the love they feel for each other; it’s the one true negative about the lead characters. Sure, in the season two wedding episode, they show some affection – but there’s a lot of dismissiveness and derision before that point. One starts to wonder why Violet, Penelope and Mason have hung around for so long. (Frances de la Tour has a great moment of honesty with Ash in the Finale on this very topic, but it reads as a bit too little too late despite how very good she is in the scene.) Every so often, one of the three scores some equally cutting points on the two leads (Penelope in particular).

And while Violet is pretty well developed over the course the two seasons (de la Tour’s boozier and more lascivious line reads and sub-plots made me wish this show had done a crossover with Absolutely Fabulous), Penelope and Mason fare less well. In the second season we get a bit more of a sense of Penelope’s life and the brave face she’s putting on (Marcia Warren is brilliant in those scenes, most particularly in the ballroom dancing episode and the Finale), but the reveal that Mason is actually Freddie’s younger brother is the definition of a throw-away line for shock’s sake, as is the line about Mason also being gay. Philip Voss does the best with what he’s given, but he’s given the least of the series regulars to work with until the Finale when he has a poignant exchange with Penelope about being there for her to the end, and an almost-poignant moment with Freddie over a good memory from their apparently otherwise horrific childhood.

Then there’s Ash, the young innocent thrust into this biting, sarcastic, awkward family unit. I think it’s a credit to Iwan Rheon and the writers that the character never loses than innocence, never really takes on Freddie and Stuart’s way of interacting with others (except in one episode, with disastrous results). Even though Ash is straight, this consistency in his character points up a generational difference: the biting humor of the old queens doesn’t quite work in younger relationships. Unfortunately, there are a few episodes where the writers decide that innocent = goofy/stupid, especially in season two and the early parts of the Finale. It’s a tendency lots of sitcoms fall into, making the innocence or good-nature of a character too broad. In another example the show subverting expected tropes, it’s not the old gay men who slobber over Ash (or, more common, old straight men making lewd suggestive comments to a beautiful young woman), but their friend Violet. The Violet-Ash dynamic is the second most interesting relationship in the show, but the writers show a remarkable restraint in just how far they let it go before resolving the tension.

In the end, for me it really comes down to my enjoyment of watching three great older actors (McKellan, Jacobi, and de la Tour) work their craft, and watch an at the time relative newcomer hold his own with them.

Check out Vicious on DVD or streaming if you like: sitcoms that center gay characters; snarky humor with an undercurrent of love; watching a group of old professionals knock it out of the park; Iwan Rheon not playing a Bastard (yes, that’s a Game of Thrones reference).

Sunday Shorts: ALEXANDER'S BRIDGE

Sunday Shorts is a series where I blog about short fiction – from flash to novellas. For the time being, I’m sticking to prose, although it’s been suggested I could expand this feature to include single episodes of anthology television series like The Twilight Zone or individual stories/issues of anthology comics (like the 1970s DC horror or war anthology titles). So anything is possible. But for now, the focus is on short stories.

 

This month I read what I think is my first Willa Cather work. If we read anything by her in high school or college, I don’t remember it. I know, I know. As an English Lit major, how have I never read O Pioneers! Or My Antonia? I need to rectify that one of these days.

In the meantime, one of this month’s arrivals from the Melville House Art of the Novella series is Cather’s novella Alexander’s Bridge. The book is a strong character study. Bridge architect Alexander, his wife Winifred, his ex-girlfriend and eventual mistress Hilda Burgoyne are all well-drawn and multi-dimensional, their friend Professor Wilson perhaps a bit less so. They are all recognizable as people we might know, although I can’t say any of them are particularly likeable; I never felt like I could be friends with any of them in real life, or anything more than an acquaintance. This is not necessarily a bad thing; characters who are not completely likeable can be more interesting to read about. It’s not that any of them are despicable or evil. They’re ordinary people going about their lives, making the good, bad, and questionable decisions we all make.

The plot is a pretty straight-forward depiction of the development of an affair. Although we’re never explicitly shown it, Alexander seems to have been a bit of a wild child in his youth, but eventually he met Winifred, and as he settled into happy married life, his professional career also took off. A trip to London re-introduces him to an ex-girlfriend turned noted young actress. As they become reacquainted, their passion re-ignites. Over multiple trips between the US and London, Alexander vacillates between commitment to one woman and the other, each representing some part of his personality … parts he cannot easily assimilate. Keeping secrets from his wife, trying to distance himself from Hilda -- Alexander’s slowly deteriorating security in his own self-image ends up reflected in the slow crumbling of his professional career as more and more of his projects, including a major one in Canada, hit snag after snag. It’s all neatly balanced, and the end is, if not predictable at least not completely unexpected. The question for the reader ultimately becomes: which will destroy Alexander first? Will it be the revelation of / the guilt of his affair? Or will it be the collapse of his grand bridge project?

One part of the story that I’m not sure completely worked for me was the Professor. He comes to visit Alexander and Winifred at several key moments, including the very start of the book. Cather makes much of how taken with Winifred the Professor is, how much he enjoys spending time with her – but this narrative thread never plays out into anything that affects the story as a whole. Winifred seems flattered by the Professor’s attentions, the attraction mutual, but nothing is ever explicitly stated or acted upon. It felt as if it went nowhere for all the emphasis placed on it in the early pages. I’d have liked to have seen the attraction addressed, even if it was a simple “Winifred was flattered, but loved her husband too much” type of statement.

I have to say that I enjoyed the character work enough to be glad I read the novella, even though I don’t feel like it was anything cutting edge in terms of story.

Series Saturday: the SPIRITS trilogy

Series Saturday is a series about … well, series. I do so love stories that continue across volumes, in whatever form: linked short stories, novels, novellas, television, movies. I’ve already got a list of series I’ve recently read, re-read, watched, or re-watched that I plan to blog about. I might even, down the line, open myself up to letting other people suggest titles I should read/watch and then comment on.

Spirits Series Banner.png

 

Jordan L. Hawk is a non-binary, queer and very prolific writer of M/M supernatural romance series, including the Whyborne & Griffin books (Lovecraftian in tone, and coming to a conclusion later this year), Hexworld (alternate history NYC where magic, and shape-shifters, abound), SPECTR (modern-day vampires and ghosts), and the Spirits trilogy, which is what I’d like to talk about today.

The Spirits books (Restless Spirits, Dangerous Spirits and Guardian Spirits) take place in a slightly-alternate history America at the turn of the previous century, wherein everyone knows spirits, and thus hauntings, are real. Some spirits are friendly, or at least essentially harmless, but some can and will cause great harm. As can, and do, people who pretend to be talented mediums but who are really just fakers.

Enter Henry Strauss, a scientist who was misled and taken advantage of by a fraudulent medium when he was younger. Henry’s goal is to reduce the odds of people being taken advantage of by using scientific means to locate, attract, and ultimately remove the threat of, ghosts. His Electro-Séance does the trick, if he can get it to work correctly and convince people like the Psychical Society of Baltimore that it’s more reliable and effective than human mediums. Henry, and his assistant/cousin Jo, get their chance when they are invited by a wealthy industrialist to a de-haunt a house in upstate New York – in competition with a renowned medium, Vincent Night, and his partner Lizzie. The industrialist is pitting science against spiritualism, but Henry and Vincent feel an immediate attraction to each other. Complications (and a little bit of hilarity and sexual shenanigans) ensue.

The “science versus spiritualism” competition is really only a part of the plot of the first book, and the rest of the trilogy finds Henry and Vincent working together on cases that appear to be distinct but in fact lead to revelations about Vincent and Lizzie’s pasts and a threat to the whole world.

There are certain things one expects from a Jordan L. Hawk historical series:

·         Two engaging, but quite insecure in different ways, male leads (and chapters that alternate point of view between the two)

·         A slow-burn romance in the first book, but insecurity-driven misunderstandings even once they do get together

·         Steamy sex featuring those male leads, multiple times per book, although the number of scenes per book usually decreases the longer the series goes on

·         A diverse supporting cast

·         A well-developed world with internal logic to how the supernatural element works and consistency in whether the general public knows about/believes in the supernatural or not

·         High stakes (often life-or-death) for the characters, but also for the world or society they live in.

 

 But here’s the thing: Hawk’s books don’t feel formulaic even with all of these consistent elements. And each series, thanks to that intricate world-building and thanks to the variety of lead characters, feels different from the others.

The Spirits trilogy maintains its focus on ghosts/spirits, and eschews any other form of the supernatural. No werewolves, vampires, zombies, witches, or cosmic horrors. Just spirits and the people with the ability/talent to communicate with and affect them. Vincent Night is a medium (he can speak to spirits and spirits can speak/act through him). Lizzie Devereaux is a spirit-writer. Other supporting characters are sensitive in one way or another. And then there’s Henry, who wants to do what Vincent does through science, specifically electromagnetism, instead of spiritualism. But there’s nary a hint of other magic in the books at all, and that’s refreshing. (Even though I’ve joked with the author on social media about a story where Henry and Vincent meet my favorite Hawk characters, Whyborne and Griffin, it’s clear that these series are set in the same time-period but very different versions of “our world.”) This trilogy is an ongoing debate on science versus spirituality (or, if you’d like, science versus religion/belief), but the author at no point allows one to best the other. There’s a trend out there right now in fantasy novels for magic to work the way science does – rigid rules of use and conduct and cause-and-effect – and Hawk refreshingly doesn’t use science to explain the spiritual nor use the spiritual to justify the science.

As with many of Hawk’s romantic pairs, Henry and Vincent are a study in contrasts. Henry is literal in his approach, not prone to expressions of humor, insecure because people just don’t want to believe in his achievements (the reader sees right away that Henry’s device works, although imperfectly) and also because of the way he was taken advantage of as a young man (by a medium claiming to be speaking for his father without really doing so). Vincent is a bit more poetic, swaggering (but not overbearing) to hide his own insecurities which are based in his failure during a séance which led to his mentor’s death and in the fact people don’t want to believe he’s as intelligent as he is because he’s Native American. The attraction between the two is immediate (and acted on fairly quickly, if awkwardly). Their position as rivals for a big cash prize (which each needs to save their own business and keep themselves and their partners with food and shelter) is just the first road-block of many thrown in front of them by the author. But they do persevere and grow towards a happy relationship. (No unhappy endings or “murder your gays” tropes to be had in a Jordan Hawk book!) Although it’s never expressed in quite this way, what the men have in common is a loss of fathers via “possession.” Vincent was possessed by a malevolent spirit which killed his mentor/father-figure while in Vincent’s body, and Henry was “possessed” by the fraudulent medium who took advantage of Henry’s attraction and guilelessness to steal Henry’s inheritance away from him. Both of these possessions haunt the men, and affect not only their relationship with each other but with their friends. Vincent’s fear of being possessed again holds him back from holding the séances needed to keep his and Lizzie’s business open; Henry’s anger at being taken advantage of makes it difficult for him to compromise with the people he needs to make his business a success.

This may be the most diverse main cast of all of Hawk’s historicals, both in terms of ethnicity and gender, and that’s saying something. While Henry is a gay white man, Vincent is Native American, Jo is mixed-race (the child of Henry’s white uncle and a black servant), and Lizzie is transgender. Since the Spirits trilogy is primarily M/M romance, it would be easy to relegate Jo and Lizzie to the status of “secondary characters” but they really aren’t. They have their own character arcs and contribute to the successful resolution of the potentially world-shattering events they are taking part in, and they do get their own romantic sub-plots – they just don’t get any sex scenes.

And if that’s not a perfect segue, nothing is. As mentioned, it wouldn’t be a Hawk book without increasingly hot (even when they’re awkward) sex scenes between the leads. These scenes also tend to be lovingly romantic. But they are certainly not for the prudish. (I think the books read just as well without the explicit sex, but as the sex is part of what Hawk (as well as KJ Charles, Adam Carpenter, and other authors I enjoy) is known for, I can’t complain about their inclusion – and certainly can’t claim that they’re not well-written.

The trilogy tells a complete story, over the course of three interesting hauntings and along with a variety of sub-plots. I’m sure there’s much more that could be explored in this world and with these characters, but for now the author says the story is finished. (Maybe they’ll decide to revisit this world now that the long-running Whyborne & Griffin series is drawing to a close?)

Check out Jordan L. Hawk’s Spirits trilogy if you like: ghost stories, séances, M/M romance, diverse and well-written casts, and subtle, supernatural-based alternate history.