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.
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.